This past Friday we ran a Shabbat service through Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which is starting a chapter on Wesleyan’s campus. For those who may not know, JVP defines itself as “a diverse and democratic community of activists inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, and human rights” in support of actions such as those put forward by BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) and other activist movements.
In the week leading up to JVP Shabbat, conflict arose surrounding the possibility of the service being cancelled (though it had been on the schedule since the beginning of the semester). A few students approached the leaders of the Jewish community (Jewish Renaissance Fellows, or JRFs) about their discomfort with a JVP service. They expressed concern that it would politicize Shabbat, that it would fragment the Jewish community, and that some people would feel uncomfortable. The JRFs told us that they had met with campus Rabbi David Teva and collectively chosen to cancel JVP Shabbat. We met with two of the JRFs, who quickly realized that this service was necessary and had a right to happen.
Almost immediately after the event was confirmed and made public, we heard that a student who had previously raised concerns would be leading a separate, intentionally apolitical service. Though Talia exchanged emails at various points with several students who had expressed discomfort, few questions were asked about the nature of the service. It became clear to us that many of the objections had nothing to do with the service itself, but with the political message of JVP. Fear inhibited true communication and dialogue.
The Shabbat went ahead in the Bayit, with almost 50 students in attendance. Far from fragmenting the community, the service attracted many students, both Jewish and not, who had never come to Shabbat before but who felt comfortable connecting to spirituality through this lens. After the service, multiple participants approached us individually to thank us and to express the power that the service had held for them. For us, it was a beautiful and liberating experience. After the service, students who had run the alternative service (for which Rabbi David had provided his office) came to the Bayit to eat dinner.
What does this vignette show us about our Jewish community?
There are students in this community who call for dialogue but refuse to engage with concerns about normalizing the occupation. These are often the same individuals who don’t show up when an opportunity for dialogue arises. This Shabbat was a unique opportunity on Wesleyan’s campus to grapple with these issues in a safe space run by Jewish students confronting the same complex position of privilege regarding this issue. Rather than take that opportunity, some chose to blindly oppose its right to happen at all.
It is worth mentioning that the attempt to shut down this Shabbat pushed back against the values of the Wesleyan Jewish Community, which is both officially an Open Hillel and a student-led community in which any student can lead Shabbat services to share their unique Jewish perspective. Wesleyan Shabbat services are varied and diverse, ranging in the past from Meditation Shabbat and Yoga Shabbat to Queer Shabbat and Socialist Shabbat. Explicitly political Zionist Shabbat services have also occurred before without similar attempts at censorship. This plurality requires community members to listen, learn, and share.
The fear of politicization reflects a much larger issue at play in the unwillingness to confront uncomfortable ideas. The illegal occupation of Palestine is not addressed in our community as such, and many are unable to confront their complicity in it both as citizens of the United States and as Jews. Moreover, Judaism itself is inherently political. Jewish worship during the Spanish Inquisition, in the Warsaw ghetto, in Gondar, Ethiopia has always been a political act. We proudly carry on and acknowledge that legacy wherever we are, including here at Wesleyan. To attempt to separate Jewish politics and spirituality is to hide behind our privilege and to ignore how actions done in the name of Jews and Judaism are making other peoples unsafe in our world. The aversion to discomfort and the act of trying to make everyone comfortable is impossible, as well as a product of a privileged existence that should be questioned and challenged at all opportunities.
Going against the both implicit and explicit inclusivity of our community would fragment it more than this open conversation. The proposed censorship would further reinforce the community’s silence on Israel/Palestine and further alienate those who do not align with common Zionist ideologies. Some radical Jews on this campus, ourselves included, have felt alienated from the campus Jewish community because of the way it presents itself as apolitical on the issue of Israel/Palestine in particular. Some of these people were the same participants who thanked us after the service; but many who do not identify with JVP’s political stance were also in attendance and approached us afterward to express appreciation, curiosity, and interest in further debate. This is the power of grappling with issues as a community. Holding an alternative Shabbat service at the same time as JVP’s fragmented the community, since Shabbat services and dinner are the main unifying and centering force in this community every week.
Fear of dialogue is not productive; nor is the act of silencing legitimate views and ideologies that have a strong legacy in our faith tradition. Our experience, and the knowledge that others are more effectively censored, demonstrates why these conversations are essential. We were almost silenced in our open community at Wesleyan. In many other Jewish communities, silence remains the unchallenged norm.
This past week we read two Torah portions, one of which is Zachor. Zachor is the brief section of the Torah that commands the Jews to remember the nation of Amalek, in order to wipe them out. In planning, we almost chose not to mention Zachor in the service. We decided to include it because it is important to talk about the troubling parts of what has been handed down to us. It is necessary to read through, question, and take ownership over the parts of Judaism that we do not agree with. We must examine the atrocities committed in our name in order to reject hatred, bigotry, and genocide. We read Zachor in order to remember that we have the right and the responsibility to say, “Not in my name” and to act on it. This weekend at Wesleyan, our Jewish community took a small, significant step in that direction. May it be the first step of many.