Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hopkins Hillel promotes productive dialogue

(An editorial I authored for the October 16th issue of the JHU Newsletter).

Last Friday, the Smokler Center for Jewish Life hosted a presentation by Avner Gvaryahu, a former Israeli soldier and the co-director of an organization called Breaking the Silence. Breaking the Silence is a group of former Israeli defense and military servicemen who became disillusioned with the tactics and perceived injustices of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. The group claims to love Israel and remains deeply patriotic; however, it advocates for a two-state solution as a means of making both Israel and the world a more peaceful and tolerant place.

Given the polarizing subject matter, the group’s activism is often extremely controversial, and Friday’s presentation was no exception. Several pointed questions created a tense atmosphere, and it was clear that many in attendance disagreed strongly with Gvaryahu’s conclusions. It is for precisely this reason that the Editorial Board commends Hopkins Hillel for welcoming the presentation.

Over the past three years, two proposed Breaking the Silence events at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) were met with intense resistance from the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia due to ideological disagreements. It took seven months and a student petition before the UPenn event was finally held last March. Months earlier, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance was forced to cancel an event titled “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation” after opposition from Hillel International.

In contrast to these unfortunate examples of ear-plugging, Hopkins Hillel enthusiastically embraced the opportunity for productive dialogue on important issues. Encountering ideas that challenge our world view can be unsettling, particularly on issues as emotionally and culturally sensitive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The cognitive dissonance that results from immersion in such views challenges us to either justify or change our own opinions, which removes the mental comforts of continuity and certainty. Actively seeking such challenges takes more than open-mindedness; it takes courage. Hillel’s decision to invite controversial speakers says much about their commitment to vibrant, informative and respectful discourse on the issues that matter most to their members.

For those Hillel members who agree with Breaking the Silence’s message, the presentation helped raise awareness for an atypical Jewish viewpoint. For those who disagree, the willingness to engage with alternate perspectives displays impressive maturity and confidence in their own beliefs. And for those who had not yet made up their minds about the conflict, the presentation offered a unique opportunity to hear many sides of the debate in a passionate but civil setting. Here’s hoping other Hopkins student groups follow their example.

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