The Surreal World of Campus Activism, Part II

Campus activists who work on Israel/Palestine issues will know about Hillel. Hillel is a group that ostensibly exists to promote Jewish cultural and religious life on campuses, but in fact promotes occupation and militarism in many cases. When the Hillel chapter President at University of Richmond objected to this, she was removed as President a day later. This is a story worth reading in full, so I’ve posted the entire story from the Chronicle of Higher Education below. The bare bones: Jillian Redford, the Hillel chapter president, had been receiving messages from the Israeli Embassy. She wrote to them:

“Could you please stop sending me email after email about radical zionist propaganda?… “I don’t know if you realize that Hillel’s mission statement is based on fostering religious life on college campuses and not organizing marches, protests, or listening to speakers who encourage us to hate our Palestinian neighbors.”

The next day, she was no longer President of Hillel U of R…

Wednesday, May 5, 2004
Student President of Hillel Chapter at U. of Richmond Is Ousted After Criticizing Israeli Embassy
By ERIC HOOVER

The organization that sponsors the University of Richmond’s Hillel chapter removed the group’s student president this semester after she sent a critical e-mail message to the Israeli Embassy, in Washington.

Jilian R. Redford, a junior, had served as the Hillel chapter’s president since the beginning of the fall semester. On February 12, after receiving an e-mail message from the Israeli Embassy’s office of academic affairs, Ms. Redford wrote in a response: “Could you please stop sending me email after email about radical zionist propaganda?”

In the message, a copy of which she gave to The Chronicle, Ms. Redford continued, “I don’t know if you realize that Hillel’s mission statement is based on fostering religious life on college campuses and not organizing marches, protests, or listening to speakers who encourage us to hate our Palestinian neighbors.”

She also asked to be removed from the embassy’s e-mail list.

In an interview on Tuesday, Ms. Redford said that the next day she was summoned to the Weinstein Jewish Community Center — a Richmond-based organization that oversees the university’s Hillel chapter — to discuss the e-mail message, which the embassy had forwarded to officials at the center

In a meeting, two staff members of the center asked Ms. Redford to apologize to the embassy, but she refused to do so, according to both Ms. Redford and Lisa Looney, the center’s director of university services.

Ms. Redford said that during the meeting Ms. Looney and another staff member told her that the embassy had demanded her ouster. She said that she was “grilled” about her opinions on Israeli policies, and also that one of the two staff members mentioned that Ms. Redford, who had been raised as a Southern Baptist, had converted to Judaism only after coming to the university.

But Ms. Looney disputed those assertions.

“The embassy had absolutely, unequivocally nothing to do with the decision,” Ms. Looney said in an interview.

“Her political views never came up” during the meeting, Ms. Looney said. “All I wanted to see happen was for her to apologize for the tone of her letter, not the content.” She said she had had a good working relationship with Ms. Redford before the incident.

Ms. Looney said that if Ms. Redford had not included her title in her e-mail message to the embassy, the center’s staff would not have objected to it.

In a February 18 letter to Ms. Redford, Orly Lewis, the center’s director of adult services, suggested that Ms. Redford’s goals were “in conflict” with those of Hillel. “While all of us are entitled to our own opinions, in this instance you are representing the Hillel organization and not yourself,” Ms. Lewis wrote.

The letter also referred to Ms. Redford’s refusal to invite to a Hillel event a speaker the center had mentioned earlier in the semester. Ms. Redford said she had told a staff member at the center that the speaker, a faculty member at Richmond, was a “racist.”

After Ms. Redford again declined to apologize, Ms. Looney informed her of her dismissal in a letter, dated March 3, that called Ms. Redford’s conduct “both unprofessional and disrespectful.”

Ms. Redford said Tuesday that she had mixed feelings about her ouster. “It feels good not to be a part of an organization like that,” she said. “After the way they treated me, it made me want to completely distance myself from them.”

Richmond’s Hillel chapter receives its financing from the center. Previously, the chapter did not have a clear policy governing the election and removal of student leaders, according to Leonard S. Goldberg, Richmond’s vice president for student affairs. But following the incident, the university helped students and the center draft bylaws.

“I questioned whether an outside organization should be able to fire or terminate a student leader,” said Mr. Goldberg, who met with staff members of the center this spring to discuss the new policy. “We had a cordial conversation, but I made it quite clear that we can’t have an outside organization removing students.”

Officials at the Israeli Embassy did not return calls requesting comment on Tuesday.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.