GUEST EDITORIAL: Conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism distracts from necessary campus discourse and student support

A former ‘Dores for Israel President writes about their experience with Zionist organizing on Vanderbilt’s campus.
Cars pass under bridge, as photographed on Oct. 25, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Abby Hoelscher)
Cars pass under bridge, as photographed on Oct. 25, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Abby Hoelscher)

As an alum, I’ve paid close attention to the ongoing discourse on our campus regarding the Israel-led genocide in Palestine. I began this essay after The Hustler’s April 11 coverage —  “Alumni, faculty open letters criticize student BDS efforts, call for campus civility.” I find much of what I’m reading and seeing alarming, as I can clearly discern that pro-Israel organizations on campus are still relying on the same coercive and misleading strategies that they used during my time at Vanderbilt. To me, it is a blatant continuation of false claims of antisemitism intentionally used to distract from the violence being perpetrated against Palestinians.

As a former president of ‘Dores for Israel, board member of Vanderbilt Hillel and David Project fellow, I am intimately familiar with the pro-Israel advocacy networks and systems of 2014-18. Writing this essay is hard because, in doing so, I must truly confront the ways I caused harm as part of these systems. In fact, the actions requested of me in these roles led me to question Zionism and eventually support Palestinian liberation.

In fact, the actions requested of me in these roles led me to question Zionism and eventually support Palestinian liberation.

Vanderbilt Hillel claims to be a center for Jewish life on campus, but in my experience, it does not include anti-Zionist Jewish students in that community. As a student, I was often told by staff and upperclassmen alike that Jews who supported Palestine were “self-hating Jews.” When I ultimately disagreed with this sentiment as an alum, at the time, I was met with reminders by Vanderbilt Hillel Director Ari Dubin and Vanderbilt Chabad Director Rabbi Shlomo Rothstein that their organizations exist to support Zionist Jewish students. I now realize that these were intentional efforts to conflate Judaism with Zionism, so that any criticism of Israel could be dismissed as antisemitic. This rhetoric made students aware that their acceptance in our campus’s Jewish community was contingent on their support for Israel.

This strategy is clearly still being used today, as incoming VSG Vice President Ellie Kearns, a Jewish student, and incoming VSG President Hananeel Morinville were forced to respond to false claims of antisemitism after showing support to student activists advocating for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Ironically, by conflating Jewish culture with support for Israel, Vanderbilt Hillel and Vanderbilt Chabad are responsible for excluding and targeting Jewish students simply because of their political opinions. As part of this pattern, some students are conflating their discomfort with their Zionist beliefs being challenged with their Jewishness being challenged. Let’s be clear, genocide is not a Jewish value. Protests taking place on our campus should make us all uncomfortable because they point to Vanderbilt’s investment in atrocious violence. As community members, we are complicit if we stay silent.

Protests taking place on our campus should make us all uncomfortable because they point to Vanderbilt’s investment in atrocious violence. As community members, we are complicit if we stay silent.

Perhaps most insidiously, students involved in pro-Israel student organizations were often encouraged to strategically use our friends and campus connections to steer student organizations away from participating in, or even discussing, the BDS movement. In February 2015, in anticipation of Angela Davis’s planned visit to campus, I received instructions from another student and David Project fellow, which read: “Because of Davis’ Ferguson to Palestine message that links the struggles of African Americans to the Palestinians, we are most concerned with the Black Student’s Association’s potential reaction and support of BDS. Please set up an engagement meeting with a member of BSA. It is IMPERATIVE that we make friends with BSA now so they see us as friends, allies, and people they can trust about what BDS really does.” Ultimately, Davis only spoke about domestic issues, rather than the occupation of Palestine. This example is just one instance of the manipulative, and I would argue racist, tactics I observed within Zionist organizing at Vanderbilt.

When students formed ‘Dores in Solidarity with Palestine — now Vanderbilt’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine — in 2016, Vanderbilt Hillel staff immediately expressed concern to students, including myself, about the initiation of pro-Palestine advocacy on campus. Taking notes “undercover” at DSP meetings to craft campus Israel strategy was common in Zionist organizing spaces, including Vanderbilt Hillel. Per Hillel International’s standards of partnership, Hillel does not support any programming with organizations that supported the BDS movement. This is alienating to anti-Zionist Jews, and sets the expectations that dialogue and learning cannot take place with people we disagree with. Incidentally, attending these meetings was the beginning of my unlearning Zionism. DSP likely knew what we were there to do yet, they were always welcoming and educational, and I started questioning my involvement with DFI.

The last time I engaged with Vanderbilt Hillel and DFI as an undergraduate was in January 2018 when student organizations brought Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour to campus. Vanderbilt Hillel leaders organized late-night Zoom meetings to coordinate a response. The meeting notes included directions to students to “say that anyone that cosponsors this event is no longer a Jewish ally” and to “convince at-risk campus orgs that partnering with this program would marginalize the Jewish community.” This insistence that anyone who supports Palestinian liberation is against the Jewish people is a distraction technique, — one that is designed to silence criticism of Zionism and Israel.

Ultimately, my personal experiences and observations led me to realize Vanderbilt Hillel and Vanderbilt Chabad solely serve Zionist Jews at Vanderbilt, operating with a clear political ideology. Their actions demonstrate that the provision of religious services and community are subservient to their goal of maintaining a Zionist-friendly campus and administration. 

By the time I graduated, I had stopped believing in Zionism, and I had left Vanderbilt Hillel after experiencing its exclusion of anti-Zionist Jews firsthand. It saddens me now to see that, even years after I left campus, these organizations and staff members are still cultivating the same exclusionary environment under the same guise of supporting the Jewish community. 

While my Palestinian, Muslim and Black peers have been speaking out about these Zionist organizations and strategies for years, my experience from within the system enables me to confirm and further expose its blatant manipulation. I hope doing so can highlight the existing profound imbalances and help create a campus that truly allows for free speech and student activism. I do not want to continue seeing the same inequality reproduced for another six years. Occupation and genocide anywhere should be protested, no matter who is conducting it. 

 

Editor’s note: Vanderbilt Hillel Executive Director Ari Dubin did not respond to The Hustler’s request for comment. Rabbi Shlomo Rothstein shared a comment with The Hustler on behalf of Vanderbilt Chabad, which is included in full below. 

Chabad at Vanderbilt is a kind, caring, joyous Jewish ‘home away from home’ to which all students are welcome. The majority of Jewish Vanderbilt undergraduates and many non Jewish students participate in Chabad annually. These students represent a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and needs. Our guiding philosophy is that there is more that unites us than divides us and the work of a peaceful society is to highlight that which brings us together. Focusing on our commonalities rather than our differences can foster understanding, empathy, and ultimately, peace. If any student wants to learn more about Chabad or has questions; we wholeheartedly invite them to meet with us to discover what Chabad can offer them. Please reach out. Warmest regards, Rabbi Shlomo and Nechama Rothstein.”

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About the Contributor
Sar Starr, Guest Writer
Sar Starr (B.A. ‘18) (he/they) is a social worker and educator who worked as a synagogue religious school teacher for over nine years, including at The Temple in Nashville, Tennessee. While at Vanderbilt, they served as ‘Dores for Israel president, a David Project fellow and a Vanderbilt Hillel executive board member.
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Comments (11)

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Vandy Jews for Palestine
1 month ago

Thank you for writing this. As another antizionist Jew, I do think it’s important to call attention to the ways that Zionism is conflated with Judaism and the ways that institutions on our campus are very active in promoting that narrative.

I’ve had similar experiences. Although Rabbi Shlomo is one of the nicest, friendliest people I’ve ever met, it was jarring to see that large swaths of the Jewish community on campus became openly hostile to me and many of my friends after I began to be more outspoken about how Jewish safety and Palestinian liberation are not mutually exclusive, but actually inextricably linked. The violence inherent in Zionism runs contrary to Jewish values.

I hope that the global Jewish community will soon begin to recognize this truth and realize that promoting further violence against Palestinians will not save us; the sooner we work towards a free Palestine and equality for everyone, the sooner we ourselves will be free. Thanks for sharing your perspective as someone who has been on both sides of the issue.

J
Jason Basri
1 month ago

As someone that served on the Board with the author, I vehemently disagree with most of the sentiment shared. The organizations named are inclusive, welcoming, and educational. These organizations provide many outlets for conversation and diversity for all students.

The Land of Israel being the homeland for Jews and a current safe haven is a core principle of Judaism. Holding the only Jewish country to a perverted double standard is antisemitic. Students should have the right to freely learn about, support, and visit Israel without harsh discrimination and vilification. Zionism is the belief in a Jewish state and Israel’s right to defend herself. These views are not mutually exclusive of the hope for a sovereign Palestinian state.

I hope that civil discourse and conversation continues to happen at Vanderbilt and I applaud the Chancellor and administrators thus far.

A
Anonymous
1 month ago
Reply to  Jason Basri

Is Zionism compatible with the belief that Palestinians expelled or forced to flee from the land in 1948 and their descendants should be able to return and live in the areas of their origin as equal citizens with Jewish people there? Genuinely curious on most zionists opinion on this. If they oppose it this seems like the real racist double standard in the situation.

A
Alan L. Saunders
19 days ago
Reply to  Anonymous

Check your history. It was the Jews that were expelled(destruction of the temple) from Judea/Samaria by the Romans around 2500 or 3000 thousand years ago.

H
Hytham Al-Hindi
1 month ago
Reply to  Jason Basri

As a former student at Vanderbilt I witnessed firsthand what was mentioned. When students tried to establish Dores for Palestine / SJP they were constantly intimidated with the accusation of antisemitism to silence them. Students advocating for Palestinian rights demand that Palestinians be treated as equal citizens in Israel, that the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza end, and that Palestinians and their descendants who left or were expelled from the lands in 1948 can return to where they used to live. None of this means that they believe Jews should not be safe or welcomed in that land. Advocating for these rights non violently does not seem to be perverted racism to me and I applaud the students who are standing up for these rights on campus right now.

A
Alan L. Saunders
19 days ago
Reply to  Jason Basri

Excellent comment. As the father of a Vandy alum(class of 1997) I agree with the sentiments expressed and endorse the Chancellors action in expelling some students.

C
Community Note
1 month ago

As an antizionist student I’ve been welcome with open arms at both Chabad and Hillel. It’s not fair to attack any of the admin- they do a prince of a job to make sure everyone is welcome. That being said, most people at these orgs are Zionist because the majority of antizionists are not religious so generally wouldn’t attend Hillel or Chabad anyway… FYI

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Anonymous
1 month ago

Just because you choose not to participate is a guiding tenant of Judaism doesn’t mean you can fault Jewish Organizations on campus for believing it. Rabbi Shlomo is one of if not the kindest most well meaning people I have ever met and deserves none of your slander.

H
Hamzah Raza
1 month ago
Reply to  Anonymous

As a doctoral student in religious studies, I would disagree with the idea that supporting the actions of a nation-state that began in 1948 is a “guiding tenant of Judaism,” a religion that is thousands of years old. I also assume you meant to say tenet.

Religious nationalism is not from the tenets of any of the world’s Abrahamic religions, particularly because modern-nation states did not exist for the vast majority of times these respective religious traditions existed.

Just as I as a Muslim would say my religious beliefs implore be to oppose the ideologies of states such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, it is perfectly possible for a Jewish person to say that their Jewish beliefs implore them to impose Zionism.

Rabbi Shlomo is nice to people who agree with him. That’s wonderful. But what about those who disagree with him? As a Muslim student who advocated for Palestinian liberation, I did not experience good treatment from him. I felt him to be unwilling to engage with us, deeply racist and attempting to intimidate me and others involved in Palestine solidarity activism.

Let’s not forget that freedom of speech is a fundamental value. To support the arrest, suspension, expulsion, and other means of infringing on the speech of those one disagrees with is deeply wrong.

I would respect those like Shlomo more if they would be willing to defend the fundamental rights of those they disagree with, as well as give space to those dissenting voices in their own communities. When people do stuff like this, it makes it seem that they know they cannot win in the marketplace of ideas so just want to shut those who disagree with them out of that marketplace of ideas.

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Larry Fry, A&S 1981
1 month ago

Purposely ostracizing students from campus organizations based on their evolving political beliefs goes against the late Chancellor Heard’s long adhered to (i.e., since the late 1960s) Open Forum policy. Hopefully his policy will continue to remain in place and be adhered to by the entire VU community!

E
Ellie Kearns
1 month ago

Thank you for your courage and for your truly moving words. You are incredibly brave for using your voice and position of power to call out the injustice you’ve witnessed not only at Vanderbilt but also worldwide. I hope this article sparks necessary discussions within the Vanderbilt Jewish community, and that Jewish life organizations deeply reconsider their treatment of anti-zionist Jews.

If you would be open to meeting, I think your perspective would be very valuable as VSG considers how to move forward. Please feel free to contact me at [email protected] if this would interest you.