14 March 2008

14 March 2008 - Bernie Steinberg's Open Letter on "Breaking the Silence"

In response to the "Breaking the Silence" exhibition by dissident IDF soldiers at Harvard Hillel, Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein criticized the the Harvard Hillel and urged other Hillel chapters not to host the exhibition. Here is an open letter by Harvard Hillel director Dr. Bernie Steinberg in response.

An Open Letter to Mr. Morton Klein, National President, Zionist Organization of America (ZOA)

From: Dr. Bernie Steinberg, President and Director, Harvard Hillel

Dear Mr. Klein:

We have never met, yet I can infer from your public statements that we share much in common. Like you, we – Harvard Hillel and I, personally - are passionately committed to the security, well-being, and flourishing of Israel as a Jewish state. Indeed, the centrality of Israel is a pillar of our mission statement. And Harvard Hillel acts on that ideal consistently and with energy: In the past year alone, we have conducted more than 60 programs on Israel; this winter break, we sent 40 students to Israel, including our specially-designed Netivot Fellowship—known as a premier Israel program for its intellectual depth and breadth, and for its power to transform lives. Your own campus intern discovered his love for, and commitment to, Israel as a Netivot Fellow. Ask him. Personally, my wife and I lived in Israel for over thirteen years. Our children were born there. I served in the IDF. Family and close friends live there still. Like you, I have devoted my personal and professional life to building bridges between the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora.

We also share the view that Israel faces implacable enemies, and that it is the responsibility of the Jewish community to educate those who are not aware of the depth and pervasiveness of the danger. Over many years we have been unswerving and visible in expressing our support and love for the Jewish State. The most recent, sad example is a vigil on the steps of Memorial Church last Friday memorializing the Israeli teenagers murdered in the beit midrash of the Mercaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

I write the above details to provide a human and cultural context for our disagreement. Without careful description of the human, cultural, and political context of a complex situation, the bald presentation of facts is incoherent, misleading, and can be simply false.

You had made no attempt to have a conversation with me or any representative of Harvard Hillel to understand our reality, to ask the simple question: “What’s going on? I understand that you are planning to host “Breaking the Silence”? I think we should discuss this. I have strong negative views about this exhibit that I want you to understand.” I certainly would have had the benefit of learning from you, and you certainly would have had an opportunity to learn something about who we are, our reality, and our thinking. Our discussion may or may not have changed your opinion, but it might have informed and guided you to communicate responsibly and truthfully.

I do not intend to engage in public debate. Enough damage has been done by public statements. Nor do I write to convince you that we are right and you are wrong. You are entitled to your opinion of whether or not “Breaking the Silence” should have been housed at Harvard Hillel. The question is: When one disagrees, how does one communicate? How does one act? Like Hillel the Elder, or like Korach?

I write to clarify our situation because your press release and letters of condemnation do not in any way reflect the reality of Harvard Hillel or the Harvard campus. In fact, what you have said and not said is confusing and damaging. For instance, much of your condemnation confuses International Hillel and Harvard Hillel. International Hillel is not responsible for programming at Harvard Hillel. Why do you attack them page after page? And why do your attributions of blame to them apply to us in this situation?

Truth from a skyscraper in New York City looks different than on the ground of a campus in Cambridge. Every campus and every Hillel has its own unique culture.

Here is our situation in cultural context:

Support for Israel is visible and credible on the Harvard campus-at-large for several reasons: because of the reputation of our students who both think strategically and work with others to get results; because those students have developed networks with the press, with other student groups (including Muslims), with prominent professors, with the deans, with the President; with the Harvard Chaplains; and with Chabad at Harvard. For this reason, when flash points occur, as they have in recent years, we deal with them thoughtfully on a case-by-case basis. We have been remarkably effective. What is striking is the absence of deep-seated animus over Israel at Harvard. Our way is not to “schrei gevalt” – flailing our arms; wagging our fingers, and certainly not pointing at each other in blame. Rather, we think strategically and collaborate with each other because we are one family, working with others for the greater good of the Harvard Jewish community and the Harvard community as a whole. Our students have tremendous credibility on this campus.

With this context in mind, here is our thinking on “Breaking the Silence”:

Harvard Hillel neither sponsors nor supports “Breaking the Silence”. We have indeed provided a venue for the exhibit. We have provided space in response to the request of two important student groups. Both groups are explicitly Zionist, although each group has a different function and self-understanding. The Harvard Students for Israel, our Israel advocacy group, one of the largest in the country, requested after consulting with the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a sponsor of the exhibit, to move “Breaking the Silence” from a prominent location on campus into the Hillel building. Their concerns were serious. First, they felt that the exhibit needed to be housed where it could be thoroughly and responsibly contextualized – not open to an ongoing heavy flow of traffic with little written or oral explanation. Second, they wanted to ensure that the exhibit not function as a discrete free-standing program but be a component of a larger educational program that could provide alternative perspectives, including a critique of the exhibit. Third, they wanted to avoid ugly, divisive, public displays that, while a delight to the media and outsiders, would be destructive to the Harvard Jewish community and to the reputation of Israel.

At a private reception this week for Israel’s Foreign Minister and Vice Prime Minister, Tzipi Livni, I took the opportunity to confer with a senior Israeli diplomat about the exhibit. His response: “Public bickering between Jews in America, especially when it involves Israeli combat soldiers, does nothing to help Israel. We like the way you guys (Harvard Hillel) work.”

The proposal initiated by Harvard Students for Israel to move the exhibit was presented to Harvard Hillel’s Steering Committee, the undergraduate officers. After serious, even painful discussion, they decided, in spite of inconvenience and controversy, for the overarching good of the community to house the exhibit at Hillel.

Under complex circumstances, our students have achieved their goals. They have prevented a circus on campus. People have come to the exhibit only at fixed times. And when they come, they are accompanied by an IDF soldier who provides an explanation, including explicit statements about the need for Israel to defend itself against terrorists; including the fact that the IDF has an exemplary code of ethics; including the view that service in the IDF is a matter of pride; and including the intention of the exhibit not to present any particular policy for the State of Israel. The reason given by the soldiers is quite simple: “the situation is far too complex for us or our personal experience to present a solution.”

Other Harvard students, several of whom are IDF veterans, have written substantive critiques of the exhibit and posted them prominently at the entrance of the exhibit. Other students have conducted a series of discussions about the exhibit, and will conduct a panel debate with Harvard students who are IDF veterans and soldiers representing the exhibit. Judging from the passionate and civil discussions so far, I anticipate that this debate will also be educational and fruitful.

In short, our student leaders have struggled hard and responsibly to make a difficult decision. They have weighed alternatives. They have considered consequences. The situation is not black and white. Many students feel inconvenienced by the presence of the exhibit in the building. Many more criticize the presentation of the exhibit itself. Some feel that it humanizes the soldiers and they come away with a more positive feeling about Israel. I myself did not anticipate this response. It is more widespread than I would have thought. Most agree that the decision of the Steering Committee was prudent and wise.

I share that view. I am proud of the example our students have shown in the way they have communicated differences—very passionate, sharp, biting differences—to each other and within the community. I am impressed by the image they present to the Harvard campus, through the Harvard Crimson and through their wide network of relationships with other student groups: it is an image of Jewish students who have the confidence to support Israel both unapologetically and effectively. They are effective because they have credibility. They have credibility because they are intellectually honest, courageous enough to discuss deep differences with civility, confident enough not to be defensive, and because of their sophisticated capacity to work with others.

Mr. Klein, I would like to think that, in addition to our mutual commitment to Israel, we could share responsibility to inspire the next generation to identify with Israel. Judging from your actions and words, I have serious doubts. This is not necessarily a problem. No single Jewish organization can do the entire work of the community. I do not know the mission of the ZOA. If, however, your mission does include working with young Jews, you have done a grievous disservice to the ZOA. If it is not part of your mission, you should not intrude clumsily and aggressively into the Harvard campus, and undermine the good work of young Jews who labor arduously and skillfully on this campus out of passionate love for, and on behalf of, Israel and Judaism.

What have you accomplished by your intervention? Have you changed a single mind or heart on this campus to respect Israel? Have you shed light on the exhibit itself for our students? On the contrary, even those who do not support the goals or methods of “Breaking the Silence” have been alienated by your caricature of the exhibit and demonization of the young soldiers who present the exhibit. The reason is obvious: our students have met the soldiers. They disagree with them. They find them naïve. The exhibit, however, problematic to many, simply has not had negative traction on this campus. Our students do not understand why the leader of a major Zionist organization would abuse language and influence to make a point. From those students’ perspectives, you have greatly exaggerated the importance of the exhibit.

The results of your actions are, however, palpable in other ways: As a result of your actions, our students are receiving hate emails. In light of what you have said and have not said, this is a totally predictable response. If you intended to injure and hurt young Jews, your recent actions and words are a success. If your goal is to inflame and to defame Harvard Hillel, you should justly feel a sense of pride – mission accomplished.

Mr. Klein, don’t we Jews have enough enemies? Don’t you think it’s time that we stopped making enemies of each other?


Dr. Bernie Steinberg

President and Director, Harvard Hillel


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