UW-Hillel leader: BDS not worth fighting?


Rabbi Oren Hayon on fighting BDS “not sure it was worth the sacrifice”


UW Hillel director Rabbi Oren Hayon and the students of UW Hillel have garnered much well deserved praise over the past two weeks after helping lead a resounding defeat of a BDS inspired divestment resolution at the University of Washington. They and their partners at StandWithUs are deserving of our unqualified gratitude and appreciation.

BDS or The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, is an international effort to delegitimize and ultimately destroy Israel. While BDS is most well-known for its advocacy of an economic assault on Israel, the core tenet of BDS demands the inundation of Israel with millions of Arabs from surrounding nations, signaling the end of Israel as a Jewish majority state.

BDS protesters at the UW

Anti-Israel protesters at the UW

Thus many in Seattle’s Jewish community were stunned by statements made by Rabbi Hayon in the May 28th edition of Seattle’s JTNews questioning whether the BDS movement is a threat worth fighting. The article ironically appeared the same day as a well attended community wide anti-BDS rally featuring noted left-wing author Ari Shavit was held at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.

At the rally, called by the Jewish Federation to consolidate community opposition to the anti-Israel movement, Shavit declared to the packed sanctuary that  proponents of BDS are “morally outrageous, intellectually inconsistent and very, very dangerous”.


A packed TDHS heard Ari Shavit say “if we lose Israel, there won’t be another chance”.

Thus many were taken aback by Hayon’s statement that  “The risk that this [divestment] bill carried — I’m not sure it was worth the sacrifice we made to fight it.”  Hayon’s flirt with capitulation came in stark contrast to Shavit’s assertion that “American campuses are the new battleground of the Jewish people, there is no other battleground that is more important”.

Clearly troubled by the community’s response to the BDS resolution, Hayon offered a harsh critique of Seattle’s Jewish leadership. Hayon accused his adopted community of small mindedness, mockery and an unwillingness to listen to or debate ideas outside of the mainstream when it comes to Israel.  In a bold departure from traditionally polite Seattle diplomatic speak, Hayon lashed out at  “pro-Israel community activists” for  engaging in what he called “witch hunts” and “name-calling”. 

Said Hayon;

“In 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson made his clever observation about “the hobgoblin of little minds,” but his words remain relevant today in our own troubled community, where “a foolish consistency” seems to have become a requirement for entry into the debate about Israel and the Zionist future. Exploration, doubt, curiosity about the other, willingness to sit in open and inquisitive silence and listen to someone who holds a different opinion from one’s own — all of these have changed from educational prerequisites into intractable liabilities for which learners are ridiculed. Again and again, I have been saddened and disappointed by the “gotcha” tactics that mock and deride those who dare to acknowledge the ambiguities of what is arguably the most complex issue in Jewish life today.”

Seattle’s Hillel is well-known for its big tent approach. Activities or lectures that expressly call for the elimination of the Jewish state generally will not be hosted but  all Jewish students  no matter their views have always been embraced and welcomed.

While Rabbi Hayon has denied an agenda to emulate the controversial Open Hillel model,  he nevertheless encourages further expansion of Hillel UW’s already inclusive environment.

“It is clear that changes need to be made” Says Hayon.  “It is no longer tenable for Jewish communities or Jewish leaders to pretend that young American Jews’ relationships with Israel are unambiguous or uncomplicated. We have to convene conversations with people who make us uncomfortable, and talk about ideas that make us uneasy. I believe Hillel is uniquely positioned to lead the Jewish community forward in this difficult process, and I am hopeful that some brave conclusions will emerge from the reevaluation of Hillel International’s rules of engagement about Israel.”

It is unclear, outside of an Open Hillel structure, what exactly Hayon is advocating, as the only voices Hillel currently does not allow are those that demonize or delegitimize the Jewish people or the Jewish state.


Hayon rightly  expresses deep concern for the heavy psychological toll inflicted on the UW students who devoted many days and sleepless nights to defeat the resolution. He  goes even further though, laying part of the blame at the doorstep of his community partners, accusing the Jewish community of having treated the young men and women who defeated the BDS resolution as pawns, soldiers drafted in a war of another’s choosing.

Said Hayon;

“Students were referred to as “troops” to be mustered, “vessels” to be filled, “fields” to be planted, and “assets” to be positioned. Rarely, if ever, were they celebrated as thinkers, partners, or colleagues.”

 Suggesting that the cost of challenging the anti-Semitic BDS movement may be too high, Hayon asks

“When will the Jewish community acknowledge that there is no such thing as a sustainable ideal whose preservation requires that we sacrifice our young?”

 Steven Hemmat, a local attorney and prominent community leader challenges this notion.

“Part of the educational process includes teaching young men and women the values of accepting communal responsibility and making sacrifices for one’s values”  said Hemmat.  “Had this been 1934 instead of 2014, would anyone have lamented the cost of fighting a battle against an anti-Semitic Fascist resolution brought before the University of Washington student senate?  Ignoring or minimizing the BDS threat to Israel would betray the very values that Hillel should and must uphold. ” 

On a personal note, I have had the honor of meeting civil rights leaders who as students sacrificed and risked much to fight for justice in the segregated south. I and tens of thousands of other college students in the 1970’s and 1980’s proudly took part in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. I would have taken offense would it have been suggested that I was somehow a pawn or being exploited in   a less than worthwhile cause.

Not worth the sacrifice?

Not worth the sacrifice?

 Hayon,  wonders why some of his Hillel students have fled to the BDS movement. He asks…

 “Do we really wish to distance ourselves from committed, learned Jews who are deeply concerned about Palestinian suffering? Shall we not protest the lie that one cannot fight for another people’s self-determination and still call oneself a Zionist? And isn’t it finally time for us to do away with name-calling and smear tactics and find new ways of reaching out to those Jews who, after searching for a legitimate, nonviolent way of raising their voices in protest, have found themselves welcomed more warmly in the BDS community than in our own?”

Perhaps those students were lost  in some part due to the angst and confusion; the lack of certainty in the justice and  worth of the very cause Rabbi Hayon so successfully championed.

As Ari Shavit said to a unified  community at Temple De Hirsch last week…

“BDS is “so dangerous because so many youngsters are confused. We’ve not provided our young people with the concepts, information and spirit they need to deal with this great issue.” 

It is the spirit that Shavit speaks of that is most vital,  but how can one pass on this “spirit” if one is unsure if the cause is “worth the sacrifice”?

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