Two competing Shabbat dinners will take place on campus Friday night, less than 400 feet apart.
In response to Tigers for Israel (TFI) hosting Shabbat dinner at the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) this week, the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP) will be hosting an alternative event entitled “#NotOurShabbat” from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. in Campus Club.
TFI, which claimed to be a non-partisan organization in a statement to The Daily Princetonian and is described on the CJL website as “an Israel advocacy group,” will host Israel Shabbat at 7:45 p.m. on April 5 in the CJL. The event, TFI President Noa Zarur ’21 wrote in an email statement to the ‘Prince,’ seeks “to celebrate Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state through cuisine, discussion, and performing arts.”
CJL student board president Gabriel Swagel ’20 wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that dinner at Israel Shabbat will be accompanied by a “discussion session” and students sharing their experiences from two CJL-sponsored trips to Israel and the West Bank. Dinner will be followed by a performance by guest Israeli comedian Joel Chasnoff at 8:45 p.m.
The AJP says it has taken issue with Israel Shabbat because it believes the event “that’s supposed to be representing all facets of Israel” celebrates the state without acknowledging its faults.
“To us, it’s very political,” said AJP President Rafi Lehmann ’20. “The choice to not talk about government, the choice to not talk about occupation or mention Palestinians, to only focus on Israeli food, that’s a political choice. What you choose not to talk about is political.”
“The CJL is allowing Tigers for Israel, which is a political group on campus, to co-opt Shabbat for their political agenda,” Lehmann added.
Israel Shabbat is only one component of TFI’s “Israel Week” at the CJL, which began on Tuesday and will continue through April 9. Other events include “Hummus Making,” an ”Israeli Snacks Study Break,” and an “Israeli Elections Watch Party.”
Lehmann said that AJP members are not particularly excited about these events.
“They remind us a lot of the events that many of us grew up with that focused only on a surface Israeli culture as a way of avoiding conversations about the complexities of Israel-Palestine,” Lehmann noted.
The Alliance clarified that it supports TFI’s right to hold events of its choosing, so long as those events do not violate a communal space. However, Lehmann feels Israel Shabbat crosses that line.
He called the CJL’s decision to host the event “an exclusionary move,” given many members of the campus community, including AJP's members, “disagree with Tigers for Israel’s politics.”
In a letter to the editor, Swagel said “the claim that ... the CJL has rejected nuance in our Israel programming is a blatant misrepresentation of the truth.”
“We support and encourage a vigorous dialogue about issues facing the State of Israel,” he wrote. “Ultimately, the CJL remains committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Swagel wrote that, while planning Israel Shabbat, the CJL Student Board sought feedback from a group of students with varying political opinions, including AJP leaders. Lehmann, however, said he was not aware of Israel Shabbat’s existence until earlier this week, when the CJL began publicizing the event.
Swagel also wrote in the letter that CJL student leaders and staff members “met with AJP leaders on multiple occasions to explore ways to include them in the event,” and referred to the AJP’s recent messaging as “inaccurate and divisive.”
“Rejecting these offers, AJP leaders gave the CJL less than 24 hours to fundamentally change or cancel the event, or face a disparaging campaign against Israel Shabbat,” Swagel wrote.
Lehmann explained the compromise that the AJP proposed. Recognizing that it would be difficult to cancel Israel Shabbat at the last minute, the AJP requested that TFI’s event be moved to Wilf Hall, a large room on the CJL Main Level commonly used as an “overflow room” during weekly Shabbat, and that the main CJL dining hall be left unthemed and neutral.
“That was rejected by the CJL,” Lehmann said. “We told them, ‘If you reject this move, we are not going to feel comfortable participating in the event, and we are going to encourage other students to join us at our alternative.’”
Over the past several days, the AJP has circulated an open letter, explaining its position on the matter. The letter concludes, “We, the undersigned, pledge not to attend the CJL’s ‘Israel Shabbat’ this Friday, April 5, and object to the CJL administration’s continued endorsement of the event as is. We will gather to celebrate Shabbat together elsewhere.”
As of 11:00 p.m. on April 4, 161 students have signed onto the open letter.
“We don’t feel comfortable attending the event, and so we wanted to give a space, both for our membership and for the general campus community, to take back Shabbat,” Lehmann said. “Technically this is hosted by AJP, but we’re not going to be talking about Israel-Palestine. You’re welcome to, but we’re not going to be pushing any agenda down people’s throats.”
AJP’s event, beginning at 8 p.m. in Campus Club, is vegan-friendly Shabbat dinner catered by Bistro70, a kosher catering company in New Brunswick. As of now, the event has not received funding from the University. However, the organization applied for funding from the University Student Government Projects Board.
Depending on the amount of funding they receive, #NotOurShabbat may also include food from restaurants on Nassau Street.
“It will effectively just be a normal Shabbat dinner that we think the CJL should be holding,” Lehmann said. “We want it to be as inclusive as possible and meet the needs the CJL is neglecting.”