Columbia Hillel’s actions “foster an atmosphere of incivility”

In allowing Breaking the Silence to appear, Hillel has gone against its own written code of standards and resorted to filtering the audience.

Ronn Torossian

OpEds Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian

If a human rights organization is truly open minded, why would it filter its audience to weed out potential opposition from an educational forum?  A response like that would only undermine the premise of open dialogue.

Yet, that is just the response that the unabashedly hostile-to-Israel J Street U tendered when the so-called human rights group Breaking the Silence (BTS) spoke at an event on March 31st at Columbia University’s Kraft Center Hillel.  Following some criticism of the local Hillel for violating its own Standards of Partnership, the Hillel group canceled the BTS engagement for a short time until its executive director Brian Cohen rescheduled it under the pretense of giving the students “the opportunity to listen and, if they desire, challenge the speakers’ ideas” - about Israel as an oppressive regime.

Later, a notice was circulated saying, “This event will be open for CUID holders only.”

This approach could be seen as partiality, because all too often the Israel detractors are not students, but agitators who come to events to disrupt pro-Israel activities at Hillels around the country with no deterrence. Telling was that the notice then directed any questions on the policy, not to Hillel, but to the email address “”. Here was the proof that J Street U was trying to control the flow of attendees for Hillel.

The Standards of Partnership, which Hillel openly shares on its website, includes a pledge to never “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 disrupting behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

Hillel nevertheless partners with J Street, whose founder Jeremy Ben-Ami consults and formerly worked for the New Israel Fund (NIF). Its campus initiative, J Street U, has been bringing NIF grantees like BTS to Hillel campuses across the United States through their Hillel partnership, and is somehow excused for anti-Israel advocacy under the guise of a so called pro-peace platform.

The event on March 31st featured Avner Gvaryahu, former Director of Public Outreach for BTS, which is nothing short of controversial, their activities ranging from producing unsubstantiated testimonies of alleged war crimes committed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to trying to “collect” classified information about the IDF’s military strategies.

Recently, two videos have emerged exposing BTS’ anti-Israel activities and drawing much-needed attention to the anti-Israel makeup of the organization.

In the first, members of BTS were filmed interviewing an undercover agent posing as a former combat soldier. Rather than questioning him about human rights, as their mission statement would have you believe is their core focus, the BTS members tried to obtain information about the operations of the IDF, including troop movement and missions. Avi Dichter, the former head of the ISS (Shin Bet), Israel’s security force, agreed that the actions in the video “look and sound like espionage,” as human rights issues were entirely absent from the interview.

The second video shows a BTS member admitting to having discussed helping BTS before being drafted into the IDF and agreeing to spy on her own country’s military in order to provide information to BTS.

In response to these videos, many Israeli politicians including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have condemned BTS for what some suggested may have been espionage, and the army has initiated a criminal investigation to determine whether BTS has illegally obtained and shared classified military plans.

BTS demonizes Israel by spying on its military to hand over information aimed at seeing the Jewish state marginalized, delegitimized, and even charged with war crimes. Yet, when pressed about bringing the group to campus, Cohen wrote, “Some of these speakers are extremely critical of the Israeli government’s policies, but oppose BDS and support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.”  

BTS aims to cause incivility by alleging war crimes and pushing for international demonization of Israel.  The very intention behind BTS and J Street visiting Hillel is to demonize and delegitimize Israel in the “critical intellectual engagement” Cohen wrote about, and make a convincingly academic argument in front of impressionable students who are in college to be educated in an open atmosphere.

There is a reason why academia veers away from unsubstantiated research and punishes students who produce false data. Why should the standards of a speaker differ from those expected of the students?

And to complete the hypocrisy, the event being closed to outsiders shows that Breaking the Silence was worried that a pro-Israel advocate might come and disprove their claims. So much for open discussion.