Questioning AJP’s Opposition to Tzipi Hotovely’s Talk

Last Monday, November 6, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely was scheduled to speak in Lewis Library in a talk sponsored by the Center for Jewish Life (CJL). The night before the talk, students from the Alliance for Jewish Progressives (AJP) sent a series of emails to residential colleges, eating clubs, and other student groups protesting the event and urging students who disagreed with MK Hotovely’s right-wing views to sign a letter of protest. After the letter was published in the Daily Princetonian - with signatories from AJP members, other students and groups not affiliated with the Jewish community, and alumni - CJL Director Rabbi Julie Roth announced the CJL’s decision to “indefinitely suspend the talk.”

Following this, Rabbi Eitan Webb, Director of the Scharf Family Chabad House, announced on Monday that Chabad would sponsor MK Hotovely’s talk instead. Members of the AJP and the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) protested outside the event before it began and many attended the talk, sharply but respectfully questioning MK Hotovely when she took questions. The Board praises the leadership of Chabad in ensuring that, as Rabbi Webb wrote, “every person is entitled to speak, and that dissent and debate are meant to be done in person with even more speech and not by preventing speech.” We also affirm the right of the students who disagreed with MK Hotovely’s views to protest, and acknowledge that they did so in a respectful manner that engaged substantively with the speaker without infringing upon other students’ ability to hear the talk.

However, after the talk, AJP reiterated its stance that the CJL should not have sponsored the event and praised the CJL for rescinding its sponsorship. In a second letter published in the Daily Princetonian, AJP stated that their objection related to a procedural concern: that the CJL had not “properly reviewed [the event] in accordance with the CJL’s sponsorship policy.” This followed AJP’s claim in their first letter that this “Israel Policy has previously served as a thinly veiled method to exclude left-wing voices.” After reviewing the CJL’s Israel Policy, the Board reaffirms that hosting Tzipi Hotovely would have been in accordance with the Policy and with campus free speech norms more broadly. Moreover, AJP misrepresented the circumstances surrounding the Shimon Dotan and Penny Rosenwasser events. Contrary to AJP’s claim, we believe the CJL has demonstrated its commitment to inclusivity of diverse political opinions.

The CJL’s Israel Policy states that it “is committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and a homeland of the Jewish people. We support Israel’s existence, legitimacy and security. With this as our basic premise, the CJL is open to a full spectrum of student opinions and positions on issues related to Israel.” The Board believes this is an appropriate policy for the CJL to have. Israel is central to Judaism: the Torah affirms the idea that the Jewish people have a homeland in the land of Israel, the religion's holiest sites are in Israel, and much of Jewish law and religious practices are connected to the land. The Board draws a distinction between the CJL, as an institution built around a religion that includes a basic premise supportive of Israel’s existence, and other campus bodies, such as academic departments, which must maintain neutrality on all issues. For example, the Near Eastern Studies Department should not take any official stance on Israel’s right to exist because its only purpose is to foster scholarship across a range of topics and opinions. By contrast, religions often include central tenets that implicate political issues. We thus believe it is appropriate for campus religious bodies to take religiously substantiated stances on political issues. In the context of the CJL’s policy supporting the existence and legitimacy of Israel, hosting Tzipi Hotovely, a democratically elected leader of the state, would clearly have been appropriate.

We also support the CJL’s stance that beyond its official support for “Israel’s existence, legitimacy, and security,” the CJL will be “open to a full spectrum of student opinions and positions on issues related to Israel.” AJP stated that the CJL has not acted in accord with this policy, claiming that “the CJL has refused to co-sponsor or has qualified their sponsorship of events proposed by the Alliance of Jewish Progressives that skewed left-of-center on Israeli politics, with speakers such as feminist activist Penny Rosenwasser and Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan.” Yet AJP misrepresented the circumstances of both events.

As the Facebook event for a December 2016 screening of Shimon Dotan’s documentary The Settlers indicates, the CJL co-sponsored the event with AJP. The Settlers has been called “an effective work of leftist propaganda;” therefore the CJL’s co-sponsorship of the screening reflects the CJL’s openness to a variety of political views. Although the screening was held in Betts Auditorium instead of in the CJL building - perhaps what AJP meant by writing that the CJL “qualified their sponsorship” - MK Hotovely’s talk was not scheduled to take place in the CJL building either.

While AJP is truthful that the CJL did not co-sponsor its April 2016 event with Penny Rosenwasser, the Facebook event for the talk indicates it was held in the CJL building, effectively still giving Rosenwasser a CJL platform. This is remarkable given that Rosenwasser co-founded a group called Jewish Voices for Peace, which supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and argues the United States should stop giving military aid to Israel. The BDS movement seeks to delegitimize Israel, while ending United States military aid to Israel would greatly harm Israel’s security. Accordingly it was appropriate for the CJL to decline to sponsor this speaker because of the CJL’s policy supporting Israel’s legitimacy and security. Given the extent of Rosenwasser’s anti-Israel views, we would argue the CJL in fact demonstrated a strong commitment to political inclusivity by even allowing her the platform of speaking in the CJL building.

Finally, the fact that AJP has misconstrued and lied about the CJL’s engagement with AJP’s events makes us doubt the sincerity of AJP’s claim that their only objection to the event was a perceived violation of the CJL’s Israel Policy. If AJP truly objected to the CJL hosting the event, and not to Hotovely speaking on campus regardless of who sponsored her talk, why did AJP not propose that another campus body host Hotovely instead of the CJL? In fact, when Chabad announced it would sponsor Hotovely’s talk, AJP changed the name of a Facebook event for its protest of the talk from “Stand Against CJL-Sponsored Hatred” to “Stand Against Chabad-Sponsored Hatred,” providing further evidence AJP objected to Hotovely speaking on campus with little concern for who hosted the event. That AJP also turned to the knee-jerk reactions of many students to call viewpoints with which they disagree “racist,” without doing any intellectual work to explain why they believe Hotovely is racist, suggests to us they hoped to pressure the CJL into cancelling the event and to prevent Hotovely from speaking on campus. Indeed, after the talk’s indefinite postponement, an AJP member posted in the Facebook event for AJP’s protest: “Success! Protest is no longer necessary.” We recognize that “indefinitely postponing” an event, particularly when the speaker is from another country and cannot readily reschedule for a later date, effectively means cancelling the event. It thus rings rather hollow for AJP to write in its second letter, only after it had started to receive criticism for its role in the postponement, that it “never intended to obstruct open discourse on campus.”

In conclusion, we reaffirm MK Hotovely’s right to speak at Princeton and specifically at an event sponsored by the Center for Jewish Life. We commend Chabad for stepping in to host MK Hotovely given that her talk was an important opportunity for students to engage with a prominent foreign dignitary and debate Israeli policy. It was particularly valuable for those who disagree with Israeli policy to be able express their dissent in person to someone who has direct influence over the making of that policy. We regret the CJL’s decision to postpone the talk, for which it has since apologized, but believe the CJL has demonstrated admirable commitment to supporting Israel’s fundamental right to exist and to including many different voices in dialogue at the CJL. Given AJP’s obfuscations about the CJL’s strong track record on this front, we question AJP’s claim that it simply had a procedural objection to MK Hotovely’s talk. In light of this episode, we urge a renewed commitment to free expression and open debate among all members of the University community.

Jacob Berman ‘20 and Gabriel Swagel ‘20 recused themselves from the writing of this editorial.

Carolyn Liziewski ‘18 and MaryAnn Placheril ‘21 abstained from the writing of this editorial.