Shabbat controversy divides Jewish community over attitudes toward Israel| Apr 7, 2019
Due to controversy over attitudes surrounding Israel, the night of Friday, April 5 presented the campus Jewish community with a choice between two Shabbats: Israel Shabbat, put on by Israel advocacy group Tigers for Israel (TFI), and #NotOurShabbat, a retaliatory event run by the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP).
The Israel Shabbat was part of the Center for Jewish Life’s Israel Week, designed to “celebrate Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” through a week of events, including a “Hummus Making” event, an “Israeli Snacks Study Break,” and an “Israeli Elections Watch Party.”
Israel Shabbat attendees wined and dined on a wide array of Israeli items, including beef kabab, chicken shawarma, baba ghanouj, and an Israeli salad. The CJL Dining Hall was draped with blue and white balloons, Israeli flags, and photos of University students in Israel. The CJL was packed for the event — both the Dining Hall and Wilf Hall were almost entirely full.
However, the CJL’s event generated controversy as AJP’s leaders felt it failed to acknowledge Israel’s occupation of the West Bank or mention Palestinians.
The AJP recognized TFI’s right to hold events in the CJL in an open letter, but felt that Israel Shabbat in particular violated a common space by holding the event in the main dining hall.
Many of AJP’s members depend on the CJL for their Shabbat dinner each week, and, according to AJP President Rafi Lehmann ’20, TFI’s co-opting of Shabbat made some AJP members uncomfortable.
Prior to Friday, over one hundred students agreed with Lehmann and signed AJP’s open letter, pledging not to attend Israel Shabbat.
About 50 students boycotting Israel Shabbat attended #NotOurShabbat in Campus Club, less than 400 feet away from the CJL.
Students ate challah, donated by some members of the Pink House Co-op, as well as falafel, salad, and hummus from Mamoun’s Falafel and Bistro 70, a kosher restaurant in New Brunswick.
Leading up to Shabbat, CJL and AJP leaders explored possible solutions to the dilemma, like moving Israel Shabbat to “overflow” space in the CJL’s Wilf Hall, but were unable to come to a compromise.
Addressing Israel Shabbat attendees on Friday night, CJL Student Board President Gabriel Swagel ’20 said that it had been a challenging week for the CJL community and for him personally.
“But we all are one community, and, as it has been for me over the past three years, the CJL remains a home for all Jewish students on campus,” Swagel said. “Tonight, I encourage you all to engage with people who hold different political opinions than you do, and to remain friends with these individuals through disagreement.”
TFI President Noa Zarur ’21 also spoke at the event about Israel Week and the controversy involving TFI and the AJP.
“The goal of Israel Week has been to celebrate Israel in many different facets, including technology and culture, and also to engage in learning about the current political climate,” she said.
Zarur emphasized that TFI is local to Princeton and unaffiliated with any national advocacy organizations. She said that TFI’s membership holds a wide range of political perspectives.
“This week was upsetting because it shed light onto the fractures in our community,” Zarur added. “I am committed to giving it my all to help heal this, and I hope you’re all willing to do the same.”
Zarur did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Princetonian.
The event also included a speech from CJL Israel fellow Tair Goldbarsht, who discussed her time serving in the Israeli Defense Forces and her complex relationship with Israel.
Additionally, Daniel Kurtzer, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, held a discussion over dinner, and Shabbat-goers were invited to a performance by Israeli comic Joel Chasnoff, which took place in the CJL’s Feinberg Hall.
Meanwhile, at #NotOurShabbat, Lehmann explained why the AJP chose to host the event.
“The CJL was claiming, and is continuing to claim, that [Israel Shabbat] is apolitical,” Lehmann said, a claim that he disagrees with due to his personal experience learning about Israel growing up.
Lehmann spent the first eighteen years of his life in what he called “orthodox, religious Zionist institutions,” where he learned a lot about Israel and was told that his education was apolitical. He noted an eerie similarity between TFI’s Israel Week events and his childhood education.
“We would celebrate hummus and falafel, which was apolitical. We would dance to Israeli club music, which was apolitical,” he said. “After sixteen years in these institutions and in this community, after all of this ‘apolitical’ education, I did not know that the occupation [of the West Bank] existed.”
After Lehmann spoke, event attendees sang the traditional Kiddush and ate, among other things, hummus and falafel.
“I spoke with almost everyone who came, and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time,” Lehmann said. “The food was good, the turnout was good, the space was perfect.”
Still, Lehmann said that many of the AJP’s members were deeply hurt by Swagel’s letter to the editor, which Lehmann felt demonized the AJP.
“It’s one thing to defend the CJL’s actions but, as a representative of the CJL, to demonize a significant fraction of the Jewish community was inappropriate and unnecessary,” Lehmann said.
Swagel did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
The AJP’s letter to the editor criticized the CJL, but Lehmann noted that AJP leaders made it clear whose opinions were represented, through the use of “‘I’ and ‘We’ statements,” so as to avoid casting moral judgements. Additionally, Lehmann claims that the CJL has a greater responsibility than the AJP to show restraint when it comes to demonizing language.
“AJP does not claim to represent the entire Jewish community, whereas the CJL does,” Lehmann said. “For the CJL to take an aggressive stance against a section of the Jewish community had a different meaning than AJP critiquing the CJL or a member group of the CJL.”
The AJP has not yet decided on their plans moving forward in respect to its relationship with the CJL.
Though disappointed with the CJL, Lehmann noted that he is proud of the event that the AJP put together and grateful for all of the support that both the event and open letter received.
“The dinner was a really healing experience for many of us to be reminded that we are doing important work and that many people on this campus agree with us,” he said. “That was really powerful, and that’s something that we’re going to be carrying with us for a long time.”