Between Politics and Religion: Jewish Activism at Columbia

Since the famed student uprising of 1968, many generations of Columbia students have felt an obligation to perpetuate the legacy of the late 60s by creating a myriad of activist clubs and organizations here on campus. And not uncommonly, Jewish students have occupied prominent lay and leadership positions in the constitution of the campus activist spirit.

At Columbia, Jewish activism is not a monolith. Jewish students participate in a variety of activist groups, and sometimes even work against each other’s interests. Take, for example, Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel, the self-described “pro-Israel student group,” and Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace, a group committed to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign calling for University divestment from the State of Israel. While the students involved in these organizations may maintain cordial relationships with one another, attend the same services, and live in the same communal housing, they nonetheless devote countless hours of their time to activist groups whose missions are at odds with each other.

But the range of Jewish activism extends much farther than the Israel/Palestine issue-from matters pertaining to abortion and climate change to those relating to anarchism and the Syrian refugee crisis. If one were to ask, “What kind of activism best represents Jewish students on campus?” the answer would not be univocal. To wrest a definition of “Jewish activism” from the plurality of social, religious, and racial factors that guide the activism of Jews on campus would silence the vibrant multiplicity of Jewish activist voices.

To better understand the impulses that drive Jewish students to participate in activism at Columbia, I sat down with three Jewish students who have made activism a central aspect of their college experience. Growing up in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community, I had never encountered an obvious connection between Judaism and activism, nor any contemporary political cause aside from religious Zionism. The bulk of my Jewish experience consisted of ritual practice and textual study, neither of which demanded I pursue something outside of a Jewish communal context in their name. But to many Jewish students and activists on campus, as I came to discover, this rigid separation between Jewish tradition and contemporary activism was equally unfamiliar. Indeed, many Jewish activists see in their religious tradition a seamless concomitance between Judaism and their political identity.

Judaism and Political Identity

Those who promote activism from a Jewish point of view often draw from a stock of Jewish slogans-a hodgepodge of biblical and talmudic verses used to form a correspondence between Judaism and social justice. Phrases like “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” [“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”] and the principle of tiqqun olam [repairing the world] are among the most popular in the construction of the Jewish social activist ideology.

For Elle Wisnicki, a senior in Columbia College studying human rights and part of Be’chol Lashon’s New York campus cohort, her Jewish identity is motivated primarily by the biblical mandate of ahavat hager [love of the stranger]. Elle’s commitment to ahavat hager stems from her difficulty as a child to find a community that embraced her multi-faceted identity. A child of Black and Jewish descent, Elle began her schooling feeling like an “outsider” as the only black student in all-white private school. But Elle did not feel comfortable reducing her identity to her African-American legacy-her attempt to participate in a middle school group for young African-American girls was stifled by a feeling that she “could not relate” to the other girls in the room. So Elle turned to her Jewish roots, and after much searching, she finally found a community Temple that accommodated her diverse personality.

Elle’s hometown synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, encapsulates her complex identity. She describes it in a piece she wrote about how her identity motivates her to implement social change as “an incredible Reform temple home to female rabbis, celebrities-Leonard Nimoy, Spock from Star Trek, who donated the funds for our Early Childhood Center-LGBTQ congregants and families, African American Jews, people who converted, and more. Basically, the perfect place for me to grow into the Jewish leader I am still striving to be.”
Elle’s temple ingrained within her a Jewish obligation to stand up for marginalized peoples, and she has grounded her activism as a college student on this religious basis. “Embracing my Jewish heritage opened up the pathway for me to explore social justice work in honor of both sides of my family. Jewish communities provide the framework, manpower, and resources to make substantial change. For me, that means bringing light to issues of African American struggle, the subjugation of women, issues the Jewish world faces both in terms of anti-Semitism in America and Europe, and the variety of issues facing the Middle East.”

Since coming to Columbia, Elle’s allegiance to her goals have only grown stronger. She has dedicated herself to a variety of issues-working with student groups including Jewish Women On Campus (JWOC) and the Social Justice Fellowship (SJF), and volunteering at abortion clinics.

Unlike Elle’s activist story, one characterized by a concerted effort to create the inclusive communities she felt missing during her high school experience-other Jewish activists at Columbia see their activist spirit as tied to the fundamental tenets of Jewish ritual practice and text. For Shachar Cohen-Hodos, a sophomore in List College, Jewish identity has always been interwoven with a liberal social consciousness. The connection between Judaism and activism is innate and integral to her religious identity. “I find that Judaism has a deep focus on community in its ritual practices, and an even deeper tie to fair treatment and justice in biblical and religious texts. That’s what has always driven me, the need to build and sustain a strong, caring, and fair community based off the texts that I’ve grown up learning.”

Shachar draws both religious and political inspiration from her father, a Conservative rabbi and community leader committed to tiqqun olam. “I grew up with my father speaking for the Jewish call to justice at rallies wearing his tallis [prayer shawl] and sometime holding a shofar [a ram’s horn blown during the Jewish high holidays]. I was the kid in the stroller at those rallies; my parents always taught me that it was because my Jewish identity stems from a moral call to action that requires me to act.” At Columbia, Shachar continues to answer this moral call. She has been involved with J Street, but she currently serves as president of the Jewish Activist Collective (JAC), a group which “brings together conversation, learning, and action around domestic social issues from a Jewish perspective.”

But not all Jewish activists at Columbia wed Jewish identity with a liberal social consciousness. One such activist, Columbia College junior Max Fineman, sees Judaism as fundamentally nonpolitical. One of Max’s primary goals in their activism is to divorce Jewish identity from an internalized alliance between liberal American causes and what are often understood as the core values of Judaism.

“I read Jewish texts, and I just don’t see political content,” says Max. Or at least the texts have been “depoliticized,” they reconsider. Whereas Jewish tradition once served as the foundation for Jewish political communities, since Jewish emancipation, Jews in the West have adopted the political identities of the liberal Western democracies which absorbed them. Jewish texts are no longer used to run a Jewish economy, nor are they used with the same frequency to maintain Jewish courts. Jews have had to surrender their political identity to participate in liberal Western democracies.

As Max sees it, Jewish texts are not “inherently political.” By extension, it would be misguided to say that Jewish texts endorse contemporary political identities, because these identities are ultimately products of Western culture. In Max’s view, saying that Jewish texts call for causes like social change is nothing short of “anachronistic.”

Max prefers to articulate their political stances free of any Jewish-derived imperatives, though their activism often overlaps with Jewish communities. Max’s activist commitment is to fighting oppression, in whatever form it manifests itself. “I definitely feel a deep responsibility to commit to a lifetime of serious work towards dismantling oppressive systems in my own society and communities.” Max’s work with Jewish Voice for Peace is motivated by their commitment to “resisting Zionism,” which stems from Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and mizrahim [Jews from North Africa and the Middle East].

The Role of Hillel in Jewish Activism

Historically, Columbia/Barnard Hillel has supported and housed Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel, and more recently, it has recognized J Street U as a Hillel organization and integrated these activists into the Hillel community. Yet when it comes to activist groups not related to Israel, Elle, Shachar, and Max each attest to the surprising failure of Hillel to streamline the integration of Jewish activists and Jewish activist communities into the wider activist community on campus.

Last year, Hillel’s Rabbi Megan GoldMarche spearheaded a new initiative called the Social Justice Fellowship (SJF). As the Hillel website described it, the goal of SJF was to provide a platform for Jews passionate about activism to “come together regularly to better understand how to do meaningful justice and service work and then launch new projects and initiatives based on this learning.”

Both Elle and Shachar joined SJF, as it facilitated their interests in the intersection of activism and Judaism. Yet both found the experience to be more frustrating than fruitful when it came to to bringing their work to the wider campus community. Elle notes that SJF tried to work with a variety of activist groups on campus, such as Students Organize for Syria (SOS) and Black Students Organization (BSO), but no organization would work with SJF as long as they were backed by Hillel. Elle was even told by one organization that they did not want to work with Hillel’s “dirty money.”

Elle qualified the stance taken by these campus organizations, insisting that SOS and BSO’s refusal to collaborate with SJF stemmed more from a reluctance to associate with Hillel International for its more stringently pro-Israel policies than with Columbia/Barnard Hillel. “They don’t pay attention to the difference between Columbia Hillel and Hillel International,” she says. But SOS and BSO are not the only organizations on campus that refuse to collaborate with Hillel. An additional six major activist groups, including No Red Tape and Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, have adopted an anti-normalization policy in alliance with Columbia Apartheid Divest’s BDS Campaign that prevents them from engaging with Hillel International and its affiliates. The ramifications for Columbia Hillel activists are clear: working with Hillel means isolation from the rest of the activists on campus.

With the departure of Rabbi Megan GoldMarche from Columbia/Barnard Hillel, SJF dissolved at the end of last spring. However, Shachar started Jewish Activist Collective (JAC) this year with much a similar vision: to provide a platform for Jews to discuss and engage in social justice activism. Shachar has limited the scope of JAC to “more domestic issues,” ones which center on concrete policy decisions facing the United States, such as immigration. Shachar hopes the supporters of these causes in campus-wide activist groups will welcome the encouragement and enthusiasm of Hillel activists.

Yet Shachar is still concerned that the general unwillingness to work with Hillel will block JAC members from fully participating in campus activism. Shachar worries that JAC will become an “echo chamber” for social justice-minded Jewish activists with nowhere else to go on campus.

Even among Israel groups, the Hillel governing board does not recognize all Jewish activists equally. For example, while Hillel allowed J Street U to join as an organization, it denied Jewish Voice for Peace membership. The decision to recognize certain groups over others has obvious ramifications-Hillel-recognized groups receive funding and support from Hillel. But the boundary Hillel creates to demarcate “approved” from “unapproved” Jewish activism has further implications: it divides Jewish activists from each other and from non-Jewish campus organizations.

For this reason, it is likely some students believe that J Street U’s decision to join Hillel was “a mistake.” If J Street U had not become a Hillel group, it might have maintained a closer relationship with Jewish Voice for Peace, and may not have alienated itself from other activist groups on campus.

The border erected by Hillel between J Street U and Jewish Voice for Peace symbolizes the boundary of Hillel’s political discourse. Organizations that support BDS are forbidden from operating as a Hillel group, and therefore interact less with other Hillel activists. Because of Hillel’s refusal to include organizations which support BDS, Hillel’s activists find themselves isolated both from the rest of campus activist groups-most of which support BDS-and from pro-BDS Jewish groups. It seems that Shachar’s fear for Jewish Activist Collective applies to the entire Hillel. Though it may not intend to, Hillel creates an “echo chamber” of an ideologically homogenous Jewish activism.

Jewish Activism Beyond Hillel, After Columbia
Elle has turned her attention away from Jewish life and activist organizing in the Hillel for almost a semester now. “I haven’t done anything at Hillel this year,” she says, expressing doubt as to whether or not she even fits the description of a Jewish activist on campus. “But my activism is motivated by my Judaism.” With her graduation a little over a semester away, it seems that Elle’s career choice is equally motivated by her Judaism: she hopes to work as a health consultant for drug companies, so she can help provide underprivileged areas of the world with the requisite medical resources. While Elle’s tenure as a campus activist is coming to an end, her Jewish obligation to care for the marginalized and underprivileged in the “real world” is only just beginning to take shape.

Shachar, on the other hand, still has her focus set on cultivating a Jewish activist community on campus, particularly through Hillel. After spending time with the Social Justice Fellowship and J Street U during her first year, Shachar plans on consolidating her administrative energy as a sophomore towards getting the Jewish Activist Collective off the ground. “I’m taking things one step at a time right now in terms of Columbia activism,” she says. “I’m working on building up JAC right now, and I want to be as present as possible in this endeavor.”
Max has become a bit more jaded with the state of activism on campus. “Campus activism is really specific and different from most activism out in the rest of the world. I often feel like activism happening more directly in urban environments has really different and a potentially more powerful effect on people’s lives. Doing divestment campaigns and petitions to the administration can feel really detached, so I’m excited to explore the activist world outside campus.” Yet while Max plans to devote to activism “a lifetime of serious work,” they do not plan on pursuing activism professionally. “I definitely think that people with privilege need to commit to sacrificing their time, energy, and money long term, but I also don’t see myself making a career out of activism.”
While Max may not find “petitions to the administration” so meaningful, they do appear to be effective. On November 16th, in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s election as the President of the United States, Columbia students staged a walk-out in demand that Columbia declare itself a sanctuary campus for undocumented students, and five days later, the Provost sent a mass email in compliance with the students’ demands.

The success of the walk-out is a tangible victory for activists, one which might even raise Max’s hopes for activism on campus. Yet the fate of groups like Shachar’s Jewish Activist Collective to participate in similar long-term campus initiatives is less hopeful. How can Hillel-affiliated Jewish activists integrate themselves into the broader campus community when the major activist organizations have adopted a policy of anti-normalization with Hillel? How Hillel activists will respond to the challenge of anti-normalization remains unclear-especially as other Jewish groups like Max’s Jewish Voice for Peace enjoy a filial collaboration with many pro-BDS organizations.

As we look to the future for answers, only time will disclose which causes Jewish activists will devote themselves to, what novel ideological forces will drive them in their pursuit of change (in its various manifestations and directions), and if Jewish activism will become fully integrated into campus politics. This story is one the next chapter of Jewish activism on campus will have to tell.