Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Politics of Being Fabulous in the Holy Land

Event on Monday!

The Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee & Progressive Jewish Alliance present:

"Tel Aviv Night Clubs & West Bank Checkpoints: The Politics of Being Fabulous in the Holy Land"

Please join us Monday, March 5 at 7:30PM in Sever 103
for a discussion with Sa'ed Atshan, Harvard doctoral student and member of Al Qaws, a grassroots organization of LGBTQ Palestinians throughout Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories who work collaboratively to break down gendered and hetero-normative barries.

He will discuss the various ways in which discourses of LGBTQ rights are deployed strategically by Israel and Palestinians as part of the conflict.

RSVP on Facebook here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

No more sustainable development for Palestinians?

In September 2010, PJA, along with Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, Engineers without Borders, and J Street U Harvard, hosted an Israeli/Palestinian group called COMET-ME on campus. Founder of the organization Elad Orion spoke about his work building sustainable windmills and energy generators for Palestinian villages that lack electricity.

This work, done by a coalition of Israelis and Palestinians and funded predominantly by donations, improved the quality of life of Palestinian villagers in a sustainable and peace-building way.

We are frustrated to learn that the Israeli government will be shutting this program down. Read this powerful quote from a Der Speigel article:

The women here no longer have to make their butter by hand; they can refrigerate the sheep's cheese, which is their livelihood; and their children can do their homework at night. Now they can sit together and watch TV -- and connect to a world that seems far removed from their lives on the edge of the Judaean Desert. It is but a small revolution, achieved at little cost. But it is a good example of successful development aid.

The success, though, could soon be a thing of the past. Israel has threatened to tear them down with five municipalities in recent weeks having received "stop work" orders -- the first step on the road to demolition. The problem is that the facilities are in the so-called Area C, which covers 60 percent of the West Bank and is administered by Israel. Permission from the Israelis is a requirement before construction projects can move ahead -- and permits are almost never given to Palestinians.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

D'var Torah: Money in Politics

A d'var Torah I wrote for Open Scroll, Hillel's weekly parsha sheet, on parshat Yitro:

At the beginning of last week’s Torah portion, Moses is acting as the judge for all the Israelites. All day, the people bring their disputes before him, and he rules on them according to the laws God has given him. This is exhausting both for him and for the people who must wait for his ruling, and Moses’ father-in-law tells him that this can’t go on. Instead, he should delegate the tasks out to other judges, and limit himself to ruling on only the most difficult cases. These lower judges, Moses’ father-in-law explains, should be “men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain”.

Ignoring for a moment the sexism inherent in the idea that only men should be judges, most of these prescriptions seem like obvious qualifications for a judge. A judge must be fair and honest, an upstanding person who values God’s law. However, there is a seeming contradiction here: Rashi explains that “men of substance” means “wealthy men”, yet the Torah also specifies that the judges must be men who “hate monetary gain”. What does it mean to say that a judge must be both wealthy and uninterested in making money?

This is not merely an intellectual question. In the modern day, money is an enormous factor in who becomes a leader in our country. Although we’ve moved past the times when only those rich enough to own land could vote, the wealthy still have a disproportionate political influence. The average member of Congress is far wealthier than the average American citizen, and many politicians and bureaucrats move seamlessly between the public service of governing and the lucrative business of lobbying the government on behalf of the wealthy industries they were so recently responsible for regulating. Moreover, with lax campaign finance laws, donors can give unlimited, anonymous funds to super PACs, which flood television stations with ads for one candidate or against another, while claiming not to be “coordinating” with any particular candidate’s campaign. All the current candidates for president have super PACs that are not-so-secretly working to support them.

As political candidates increasingly find their support coming from the wealthy, they have an ever-stronger incentive to pass laws that favor them. Increasingly, we hear rhetoric from politicians about how it is wrong to “punish” the wealthy for their success by raising their taxes. The assumption behind this statement is that those who are wealthy worked hard to get there and thus deserve the money they’ve made — an assumption that stems from the cultural idiom of the “American dream”. Yet if we continue to craft policy that disproportionally favors the wealthy, this promise of class mobility will grow even dimmer than it already has.

What does this Torah portion tell us about the current political climate? At first, it might suggest that it is proper for the wealthy to be in power. Yet Rashi explains that the reason for requiring a judge to be wealthy was to reduce the incentive for him to accept bribes or flattery — in other words, to reduce conflicts of interest. Having wealthy donors as the main source of funding for candidates achieves exactly the opposite effect, encouraging our political leaders to be biased in their choices. In addition, the current enormous influence of lobbyists and the revolving door between politics and lobbying demonstrates that our politicians hardly “hate monetary gain”.

The message of this parsha is clear — if governance is to be fair, it must be uninfluenced by outside money. In biblical times, the best way to achieve this may have been to have leaders that were independently wealthy. In modern times, however, there are ways of achieving the same goals without limiting public office to the already-rich: public campaign financing, a ban on gifts from lobbyists, and a law preventing congresspeople and other federal employees from lobbying for the industries they once regulated after they leave office. By enacting these policies, we will come much closer to ensuring that our leaders are as the Torah demands: honest, just, and unbiased.

Announcing the 2012 PJA Board!

We are pleased to announce the 2012 Board of the Harvard College Progressive
Jewish Alliance!

Chair: Emily Unger '13
Vice-Chair of Programming: Sandra Korn '14
Vice-Chair of Finances: Rachel Sandalow-Ash '15
(Chair Emeritus: Eva Roben '13)

We are super excited to be continuing the wonderful Progressive Jewish tradition in the new year!

Friday, February 17, 2012

PJA Endorses Sweatshop-Free Clothing at Harvard

The Progressive Jewish Alliance has endorsed a campaign for the Harvard Coop to carry more living-wage apparel and less sweatshop apparel.

You can read more about the campaign here at

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Op-ed from the Crimson: What Anti-Semitism?

Op-ed written by Sandra, published in the Harvard Crimson on February 1:

What Anti-Semitism?

Last semester, McGill history professor Gil Troy visited Harvard’s campus to give a talk entitled “Why I Am a Zionist.” In an article composed the day after the event, Troy wrote favorably about how he was received at Harvard. He contrasted it with about the “common discourse on campus today” about Israel, speaking of “Jewish students harassed and Israel defamed.”

I am not surprised that Troy found a respectful audience for his talk at Harvard. However, I am embarrassed and disturbed that he anticipated otherwise. Of course, there are many students at Harvard who are pro-Palestinian. Of these, many oppose Israel’s continued occupation of the Gaza Strip, desire a two-state solution that allows Palestinian refugees the right of return, and advocate for a boycott of goods produced in the occupied territories or of all Israeli goods. However, Troy’s expectation relies on the assumption (which he has put forth in other articles) that “pro-Palestinian” means “anti-Semitic.” During my time in both Jewish and pro-Palestinian communities at Harvard, I have found this to be both untrue and counterproductive to meaningful discussion.

On a Friday evening in December, before heading to dinner at Harvard Hillel, I strove to protect a flickering candle from the wind rushing through Harvard Square. Along with dozens of other students, I was standing in vigil for Mustafa Tamimi, a peaceful Palestinian protestor who died after being shot in the head by a tear-gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier. As I covered my candle, I looked around at the faces of 50 people—Muslims, Jews, and others. Some were mourning, others were frightened, others were angry. Not a single one was hateful.

Indeed, in both Jewish spaces and pro-Palestinian spaces at Harvard, I have never witnessed anti-Semitism or defamation of Israel. Unfortunately, I am afraid that many tend to use the term “anti-Semitic” to describe anyone who criticizes the policies of the state of Israel.

Like many, I draw my own opinions about Israel and Palestine from my views on oppression and militarism and my desire for universal economic and social equality. As someone involved in peaceful protest on my own campus, I believe there is great power in nonviolent resistance. Of course, not all on campus, or even all at my Shabbat dinner table, agree with me. However, Harvard students, whether sympathetic with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government or with the global movement calling for a boycott of Israeli goods, all want to end unnecessary bloodshed and suffering. And we all know that hatred is antithetical to constructive discussions and peace.

In 2006, Yale University began the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. The initiative sponsored and directed research on historic and contemporary anti-Semitism until it was ended last June. Many noted that it had become too political and disproportionately focused on Muslim anti-Semitism. An op-ed in the Yale Daily News noted that a conference held by the group, featuring a keynote speech entitled “The Central Role of Palestinian Antisemitism in Creating the Palestinian Identity,” had countered hatred of one kind (anti-Semitism) with hatred of another kind (Islamophobia).

The Initiative has since been replaced by the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, which strives to produce more scholarly research. But the damage was done—Yale’s Muslim community expressed alienation and hurt after the controversial conference. Indeed, when all Palestinians, or all who criticize Israel, are labeled “anti-Semitic,” productive discussions about peace can devolve into hateful accusations.

Of course, anti-Semitism is real and present. In fact, two swastikas appeared on the side of a building near Eliot House last semester. But twelve hours later, they were painted over and all but forgotten by Harvard’s Jewish community: The graffiti seemed to me and other students a bizarre and surprising anomaly, not an indication of widespread, hidden hatred. Additionally, some advocates for Palestinian rights are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, just as some advocates for Jewish rights in Israel are anti-Arab or Islamophobic. But these people are far from a norm among pro-Palestinian advocates.

Accusing those who disagree with you of bigotry precludes constructive academic discussions. In fact, charging Palestinian students or pro-Palestinian advocates with anti-Semitism changes the tone of discussion from political to religious. This often provokes the type of resentment that prolongs conflict instead of resolving it. Unfortunately, comments such as Troy’s and initiatives like Yale’s are more likely to spark anger than remorse among students accused of anti-Semitism.

I would like to assure Professor Troy, and anyone else who might be concerned, that arguments for economic sanctions on Israel do not stem from deep-seated anti-Semitism. I know from personal experience that this is true on Harvard’s campus, and I am assured by others that this is generally true across the globe.

Many current Harvard students will grow up to be the politicians, activists, and donors who shape American policy on Israel. If American academics hope to contribute to productive discussion about Israel and Palestine on campuses, they must first cooperate and not issue unfounded accusations of prejudice.