Secret Israel Trainings at UW Hillel Leave More Questions Than Answers

In late December a promotional notice for a new undergraduate event to take place on January 7th appeared on the Hillel UW calendar. Ensconced between Citrus Shabbat and Bagel Club was a program titled “Speaking Across Conflict”. The promotion text read…

Together with our partners from Resetting the Table, Hillel UW is offering a training called Speaking Across Conflict, facilitated by Elliot Leffler. This workshop will offer participants the opportunity to learn important communication skills when speaking about Israel (or any other issue they are passionate about) especially when talking with people who may disagree with them. It will also give participants the opportunity to share their relationship with Israel in a safe space.”

The need for a training like Resetting the Table’s Speaking Across Conflicts is based on the premise that Jewish life is plagued by incivility and students need a “safe space” to converse with one another about Israel. The website of event co-sponsor, Resetting the Table describes their mission “to create inclusive, empowering forums for young adult Jews to talk, study, deliberate, and form their own relationship to Israel. The website explains that a “lack of civility makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to open minds, much less find common ground.” 

Lea Hanan, the parent of a student at a Seattle area college told The Mike Report that “oftentimes when these groups talk about a “lack of civility”, they are actually referring to the visceral reaction many students have when confronted by peers who demonize the Jewish state. Hanan added “I can’t help but wonder if programs like these aren’t designed to desensitize students to those pushing an anti-Israel agenda”

Civility

Speaking Across Conflicts utilizes “facilitation fellows” trained by Resetting The Table. According to their bios, alumni of this program are associated with a who’s who of Israel-critical organizations, including  New Israel Fund, J Street, Encounter and Rabbis for Human Rights

Resetting the Table and Speaking Across Conflicts appears in many ways to be a repackaging of New Israel Fund’s controversial “Love, Hate and the Jewish State” which should not be surprising as both programs were developed by New Israel Fund’s Eyal Rabinovitch. 

The Mike Report reached out to several Jewish students at the University of Washington for their perspective. Most expressed puzzlement when learning of the Speaking Across Conflicts training, feeling it was confronting a non-existent problem.

I have not personally witnessed any tension among Jews on campus regarding Israel discussions. I have never seen people feel like they cannot share their opinions.

Josh Freidland

Josh Freidland

Josh Friedland a Freshman at the UW told TMR, “college students should already know how to effectively express their views and opinions in a calm, clear, and concise manner and shouldn’t need a seminar on how to do so”. UW Freshman Michaela Covner agrees, noting “I have not personally witnessed any tension among Jews on campus regarding Israel discussions. I have never seen people feel like they cannot share their opinions.”

Echoing this sentiment Michael Weingrad, Associate Professor of Judaic Studies at Portland State University told The Mike Report that “It could be there’s no political agenda other than facilitating civil dialogue among Jews no matter what their views on Israel are. I don’t know if that’s pernicious or merely pointless.”

All students were required to submit to a self-imposed gag order

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Speaking Across Conflicts was a specific condition of participation; silence. Before being permitted to participate in the program, all students were required to submit to a self-imposed gag order, promising not to share any of the details of what transpires during the training. 

While unable to share any specific details due to the non-disclosure agreement, one student who attended Speaking Across Conflicts lauded the training, sharing with TMR on condition of anonymity that “It was really helpful for improving my communication skills and I know I’ll use them in every aspect of my life. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to participate because I gained a lot from it, and I’m really glad Hillel put on this event.”

While some Israel critics like Zachary Foster at the anti-Israel website MondoWeiss see Resetting the Table in a positive light and representing a “small amount of  progress“, others are concerned about the modality if not the motives.  

Why would Hillel sponsor any program that requires an oath of secrecy?

Jacoby

David Jacoby

David Jacoby, a lifetime member of the Seattle Jewish community and UW Graduate was troubled by the secrecy associated with an event at a communally funded institution.  “There is something disconcerting about swearing someone to secrecy, it almost smacks of a cult. It begs the question why would Hillel sponsor any program that requires an oath of secrecy, it doesn’t make any sense. It flies in the face of the value of openness and transparency, and invites people to ask, what are they hiding? The notion that there is some kind of safety issue is preposterous on its face.”

Speaking Across Conflicts is not the first time that Hillel UW hosted an event kept hidden from the public. Last year a select cadre of students were selected to participate in a session of Love, Hate and the Jewish State led by Ben Murane of the New Israel Fund. The program was not publicized and all participating students were sworn to silence as a condition of participation. 

We reached out to New Israel Fund’s Ben Murane who was unable to provide us with a quotable comment. Hillel director Rabbi Oren Hayon did not respond to our overtures.

I think a program would be helpful to help people learn how to stand up for Israel.

Speaking Across Conflicts is only the second major Israel related program conducted at UW Hillel since September, the first being a New Israel Fund, J Street sponsored lecture by “Zionist BDS”  proponent Peter Beinart

On a campus where anti-Israel activists have a strong, public presence, some Jewish students expressed a desire for Hillel UW to focus their efforts towards real challenges. Freshman Covner told TMR “I think a program would be helpful to help people learn how to stand up for Israel in a non-Jewish environment. Because I know personally it can be difficult but needs to be done.”

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