‘Nakba’ event is an affront to Hillel and the local Jewish community


The “Nakba” event held at Brown RISD Hillel on May 11 is alarming and sets a dangerous precedent. The event titled “Jews Facing the Nakba” – held on Yom ha-Zikaron and the eve of Yom ha-Atzamut, the days when the Jewish people remember Israel’s fallen soldiers and celebrate Israel’s independence – screened three films by Zochrot, a radical Israeli NGO, whose purpose is to raise awareness of the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic) of the Palestinians and the plight of the 700,000 or so refugees and their descendants.

After pro-Israel groups on campus rightly withdrew their support for the event, Brown RISD Hillel was forced to withdraw its official support. Nevertheless, after the event was publicly canceled, the event, with some 70 Jewish students in attendance, went on with the tacit approval of Hillel which baldly lied to the general public about the cancellation. 

Brown RISD Hillel should never have even considered such an event, considering that it directly contradicts Hillel International’s “Standards of Partnership” which regulate what is deemed allowable to be presented at Hillel chapters nationwide and explicitly forbids groups that deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. 

Zochrot parrots the tired anti-Israel trope that Israel is a colonial entity and advocates for the right of return for Palestinian refugees and a bi-national state; explicitly calling for the end of the Jewish state and demanding “Israeli Jewish society’s…accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba…so that it renounces the colonial conception of its existence,” according to the Zochrot website. Its shallow narrative, bereft of historical facts, presents Palestinians as blameless victims and doesn’t demand accountability for Palestinian Arabs’ rejection of the 1947 UN Partition plan, thus ensuring the ensuing tragedy and their own complicity in it, and their full support for an Arab invasion meant to extinguish any Jewish presence in the land. Needless to say, Jewish indigenous rights to ancestral homelands or Jews’ natural right to liberation and sovereignty have no mention. Zochrot’s films certainly should have not been screened at Hillel and have no place in the local Jewish community.

Such blatant disregard on the part of Brown RISD Hillel for its parent organization sets a dangerous precedent whereby Hillels nationally will begin to invite incredibly anti-Israel and divisive groups into the one space where Jewish students expect and deserve to find full support for at least the idea of Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish state.

The event’s organizers released a statement rationalizing their decision to hold the event after Hillel officially withdrew its support. In it they claim they wanted to create a “pluralistic community” and “embrace Jews who are currently excluded from mainstream Jewish discourse and who seek to question dominant narratives on Israel,” according to reports in an article “Jewish Students Hold Nakba Commemoration Event Despite Hillel Organization” in the Forward.

This is really the crux of the matter; because it should be clear to all that, in fact, despite all of the legitimate political and religious differences, and especially views on Israel, there are views that are “beyond the pale.” Jewish communities must internalize that just because a Jew holds a particular position that doesn’t ipso facto turn said position into a Jewish one. The Jewish people’s natural right to sovereignty and right to live in their ancestral homeland are ironclad and just, and should be off limits to discussion. Hillel International clearly delineated this and Brown RISD Hillel overstepped its bounds in this case.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is complex, and there are a multiplicity of views and narratives. This doesn’t mean that all views must be accepted, even at the risk of not being considered pluralistic and inclusive. The “big tent” of Jewish inclusiveness if stretched too wide, becomes a rug for all to trample on. If the idea of Jewish nationalism (Zionism), or its current manifestation (the state of Israel), is too messy a pill to swallow for some Jewish students then God knows that any Jew who espouses non-Zionist or even anti-Zionist views can find multiple groups on campus where he/she will be welcomed with open arms. He or she just shouldn’t expect to find that embrace in Hillel.

It is offensive that on the day commemorating the over 23,000 Israeli soldiers who laid down their lives so that there could be a Jewish state, Brown RISD Hillel was hosting an event dismissing the wonderful state for which they made the ultimate sacrifice. The Brown RISD Hillel should issue a full apology and retraction of this event.

NATHAN  JAPHET grew up in Pawtucket and studied at the Providence Hebrew Day School and Maimonides High School in Brookline, Massachusetts. After graduating from college, he made aliyah and is currently serving in the Nachal infantry division of the IDF.

Israel, Hillel, Nakba