Why Hosting “Breaking the Silence” at Columbia U Violates Hillel Int’l Guidelines

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In American settings, facing students often with limited understanding of the complex reality in Israel, BtS is able to successfully market invented stories and narratives, with the sole goal of demonizing and delegitimizing Israel and its soldiers.

J Street – through its students group, J Street U – has been engaged in a campaign to hold events at Hillel Houses across the country featuring the radical organization Breaking the Silence (BtS).

In 2013, J Street U hosted BtS at U Penn Hillel. In March 2014, J Street U hosted BtS at Washington University in St. Louis Hillel. In 2016, J Street U decided to devote substantial resources to promote and to bring BtS to several campuses. So far, they were able to secure Hillel’s approval to host two BTS events this month, at Brown University (on 3/17) and at the Kraft Center for Jewish Students Life at Columbia University (3/31).

J Street U was scheduled to host BtS at the Kraft Center for Jewish Students Life last month (February). However, in response to widespread outrage from donors and community members, Columbia Hillel’s Executive Director Brian Cohen postponed the event. Brian Cohen has now convinced his board to bring BtS back to Columbia for an event inside the Kraft Center for Jewish Students Life.

What is Breaking the Silence?

“Breaking the Silence” is a fringe Israeli group touring US campuses, which seeks to defame the IDF, alleging that it has committed war crimes, “crimes against humanity,” and “ethnic cleansing”. The group has no credibility in Israel, even on the Left. In American settings, facing students often with limited understanding of the complex reality in Israel, BtS is able to successfully market invented stories and narratives, with the sole goal of demonizing and delegitimizing Israel and its soldiers.

I fully support the right and freedom of Israeli soldiers to report abuse within the IDF – and to bring these incidents to the legal authorities in Israel for investigation and prosecution. While BtS may have started as a group of well-meaning IDF officers with the goal of making the IDF the most moral army in the world, it has lost direction. The ‘testimonials’ that BtS publishes don’t even expose the names of those who give them. Their recent reports have been dismissed as ‘baseless findings’ by highly respected IDF officers.

Here are a few facts that you should know about BtS:

 

  • The group is now being investigated in Israel for reportedly attempting to glean classified information from former IDF soldiers. Israel’s Channel 2 news program aired footage of officials from BtS interrogating Israeli soldiers about sensitive military tactics and operational details. Following this report, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe “Bugie” Ya’alon, MK Yair Lapid, and a range of MKs from many parties have called for a Criminal investigation. MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) commented, “Breaking the Silence’s activities cross a red line that should not be crossed. These are very serious findings about systematic gathering of information against the IDF, against the state, against us. There is no alternative but a criminal investigation.”
  • BtS is exceptionally well funded by European governments and foundations, as well as American anti-Israel organizations*. Unfortunately, the organizations that allow IDF soldiers with very different perspectives – which are embraced by the vast majority of Israelis – often do not have the travel budgets or access to present on campuses. A handful of radicals receive over $1 million annually from European governments and foundations to promote their private agendas around the world. This NGO Monitor report highlights the range of BtS funders.
  • BtS is funded by anti-Israel American groups such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, George Soros’ Open Society Institute and the controversial New Israel Fund.
  • Natan Sharansky has described the group as “a BDS organization.” He wrote recently, “This is not a human-rights organization in any meaningful sense of the term. It is one thing to focus international attention on the plight of those persecuted by corrupt regimes by publicly bringing their cases to authorities in a position to investigate and respond. It is quite another to use unproven allegations peddled as truths to credulous foreigners in order to override the decisions of a democratic government.”
  • Despite a stated mandate of addressing Israeli society, Breaking the Silence advocacy systematically targets foreign audiences, including governments, media, and students. Officials justify these appearances by claiming that “the Israeli occupation that we see as immensely damaging to Israel, is maintained and supported abroad.”

 

By allowing BtS presentations inside of Hillel houses, Hillel International has violated its own Standards of Partnership:

“Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

As leaders of the pro-Israel community, I believe that we have a responsibility to speak out against this very divisive, disingenuous, and ultimately, dangerous campaign. There are mountains of evidence that BtS harms the state of Israel – and the work of pro-Israel educators, pro-Israel students, and the pro-Israel community as a whole. There is no justification for bringing such a group into Hillel houses, a place that Jewish students rely on as a safe, welcoming, and trustworthy space.