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“Surprise Attack” on Israel at Tufts

Special to the Journal

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, executive director of the Tufts Hillel, spoke informally last Friday with newly accepted high school students and their parents who visited the Granoff Family Hillel Center. The recent student senate vote calling on the school to divest from Israel does not represent the climate for Jewish students on campus, he told them.

A resolution recently approved by the Tufts University student senate that calls on the college to divest from four companies that do business with Israel has left students active in Tufts Hillel unsettled but resolute that the vote does not define or reflect the strong and vibrant Jewish life on the liberal arts campus that includes several other student groups that support Israel.

The non-binding measure submitted by members of Students for Justice in Palestine, “A Resolution Calling for Tufts University to End Investments in The Israeli Occupation,” passed the Tufts Community Union Senate on a vote of 17 in favor and six opposed, with eight abstentions, on Sunday night, April 9, a day before the start of Passover, when many Jewish students had already left to celebrate the holiday with their families.

It calls for divestment from, or not to begin investing in Elbit Systems, G4S, Northrop Grumman and Hewlett Packard Enterprise and to screen its investments for human rights compliance.

The resolution, submitted just three days before the vote, took Hillel leaders by surprise, according to Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Neubauer executive director of Tufts Hillel.

“We had zero warning,” Summit told the Journal. “We thought it was shameful and intolerant that they did this on the night before Passover. There was a strong call by students to postpone the vote,” both before and during the meeting, he said. But there were enough votes to push it through, he acknowledged.

Others also faulted the process including the New England office of the American Jewish Congress and the New England Anti-Defamation League, both of which issued statements criticizing the vote.

“It would appear their strategy was a surprise attack on the pro-Israel community on campus,” Robert Trestan told the Journal in a phone conversation, emphasizing that it cut off an opportunity for students to discuss and debate the issue.

“It’s disrespectful to the campus community to sneak something in this way and then claim victory,” added Trestan, regional director of the New England Anti Defamation League.

In a campus-wide statement, Tufts University President Anthony Monaco said, “We have made clear in the past our opposition to calls to boycott Israeli academic institutions.” Monaco also expressed concern with the timing of the resolution, immediately before Passover.

For its part, members of the Tufts chapter of SJP expressed pride in the adoption of the resolution.

Tufts freshmen Ilysa Silverman and Jonah Greene, outside of the Granoff Family Hillel Center, opposed the non-binding resolution adopted by the Tufts student senate which called on Tufts to divest from companies supporting Israel. Passage of the resolution affected the way they voted in last week’s student government elections, they said.

“Tonight, the Tufts student body answered the call of the Palestinian people to divest from these four companies that are profiting off of the occupation of Palestine, among a host of other gross violations of human rights.” Parker Breza, a member of Tufts SJP and TCU Senate said in a statement.

More than 100 students were present at the student senate meeting, according to the Tufts Daily student newspaper. In light of concerns about the timing of the vote, students were offered a chance to submit online comments in advance, which were read aloud at the start of the meeting, according to Adam Rapfogel, the Council’s parliamentarian. Rapfogel, a sophomore, told the Journal he was speaking for himself, and not on behalf of the Council.

As parliamentarian, Rapfogel, who is Jewish, does not vote on resolutions before the student governance group. The issue of divestment from Israel is a divisive one, with many people holding strong views, Rapfogel acknowledged. He’s received some 60 emails opposed to the vote, some from alumni but most from people outside the Tufts community. One particularly disturbing anonymous message included a picture of a concentration camp, he said.

Students are hurt and angry at the way this unfolded, Summit told the Journal in a conversation in his office, but they took heart from the statement from Tufts President Monaco that this will not impact the university, he said.

“Jewish life on campus has never been more vibrant,” Summit said, noting that they are actively engaging more than 65 percent of Jewish students in Jewish life. There are  about 1200 Jewish students in a campus of some 5,000, he said.

Summit, widely recognized as one of the most dynamic and innovative Hillel leaders across the country, described Tufts as a safe and welcoming place for its Jewish students.

New England ADL’s Robert Trestan echoed that observation and cautioned that while it is important not to undermine the seriousness of the student council vote, it should be understood in context. There’s a dramatic drop in anti Israel activity at the campus, which a few few years ago hosted the national SJP conference. “Let’s not misinterpret this,” he said, noting that Jewish students should not be wary of the campus.

Moving forward, Hillel leaders are considering various strategies in response to the vote, Summit said, adding, “Student leaders have been extraordinary, full of resolve and very resourceful.”

His instinct is to bolster Hillel’s already robust programming especially around Israel. This year alone, more than 100 students will have traveled to Israel including on its “Visions for Peace,” initiative, an interfaith approach that explores peace building and coexistence initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians across technology, the environment and the arts.

“I want to use this unfortunate occurrence as an opportunity for engagement and education for our Jewish students and the student body as a whole,” Summit said.

Ilysa Silverman and Jonah Greene, two freshmen active in Hillel, shared their thoughts on the divestment resolution. Greene, from Fayetteville, Arkansas, attended the student council vote to show support for those who opposed the resolution. Silverman, from Chicago, had already left campus for the holiday. “Recent events have been difficult,” she acknowledged. “At the same time, I have not had any trouble here with regard to Jewish life. On the contrary, I’ve had an amazing experience.”

Both said the resolution had an impact on how they voted in student senate elections that were held last week, “That was one thing we did as a community,” said Greene. He and others active in Hillel spoke with candidates for the student council about the resolution.

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