When John Ging, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, addressed Columbia on Sunday, Nov. 14, everyone seemed to be watching. J Street, the national progressive Zionist organization who sponsored John Ging’s visit to Columbia, drew local crowds of all ages to campus for the event. Members of co-sponsors Columbia University College Democrats, Institute for the Study of Human Rights, School of International and Public Affairs Arab Student Association, and Columbia International Relations Council and Association were there. Media representatives from the Spectator and the Eye—along with local Jewish publications—were present. A preeminent voice on both human rights in Gaza and their on-the-ground implications for Israeli security, John Ging drew attention from all sides.
One important voice, however, was not present. At an event whose content could not have been more applicable, perhaps the most relevant party failed to comment. When a United Nations official spoke about an issue fundamentally integral to Israel’s security, where was the Jewish community? To everyone’s detriment, it chose to fall silent rather than engage in the debate.
The John Ging event was originally planned under the auspices of Israel advocacy. Just Peace, a Hillel-sponsored group, coordinated Sunday’s event but was strongly encouraged by Hillel to distance itself from Ging. Though the event happened nonetheless and served as a provocative and inspirational platform for the type of dialogue that is needed to move forward, it occurred without the involvement of the most prominent Jewish organization on campus. Why?
Hillel is an organization that will not endorse those who seek to defame the state of Israel. John Ging, however, did not suggest last Sunday that he would speak out against the Israeli state—in fact, never has he has indicated such defamation as his intent. Instead, he provided facts based on his experiences in the Gaza Strip, citing his efforts to counter terrorism on a grassroots level through education and calling the blockade “counterproductive.” Which part of John Ging’s vision does the Columbia/Barnard Hillel find so threatening? Does it view humanitarian needs for Palestinians as antithetical to Jewish values? If so, this is embarrassing for anyone who considers himself or herself Jewish, as humanitarianism and social justice are central tenants of a Jewish life. If not, then why was this conversation pushed outside of the Jewish community? Is the Columbia Jewish community an inappropriate venue for a discussion of human rights in tandem with a discussion of Israel’s national security?
John Ging’s visit to Columbia challenged all who sat in his audience. Pro-Palestinian listeners were challenged by Ging’s condemnation of Hamas and by his request that they visit Israel and interact with Israelis whose lives are embittered by the conflict. Pro-Israel listeners were challenged by Ging’s depiction of the Gazan plight and by his criticism of specific Israeli policy, a critique he made without delegitimizing Israel’s right to protect its borders. Apathetic listeners were challenged with the information that 80 percent of Gazans depend on aid to survive. Cynics were challenged to hear that, according to a recent poll, 73 percent of Palestinians want peace—as do the overwhelming majority of Israelis. This kind of conversation, which disregards political rhetoric and refocuses us on the human condition, should be happening everywhere—particularly in the Jewish community to which it is so linked.
Hillel’s decision to disassociate itself from John Ging and his vision created a missed opportunity. As Columbia students and as people, we cannot afford to miss any more opportunities to engage with issues as important as this one. Going forward, it is our responsibility to enter the conversation—even if we may not like all of the words.
The author is a first-year student in the joint General Studies and Jewish Theological Seminary program. She is a member of the board of Just Peace.