My first reaction to the Tufts Hillel initiative to bring Trayvon Martin’s parents to campus for a discussion on gun violence was that it is unremarkable. Not in the sense of being unimportant, but rather that it is exactly what I expect from an organization that “walks the talk” in its commitment to social justice. Conversely, the Pan-African Alliance’s (PAA) petition against the event injects vitriol into a debate that needs more public discussion — not more silence, censure and sanction.
As a visitor to Tufts Hillel last Friday, I heard Rabbi Jeff Summit use his weekly sermon to encourage listeners to reach out to their Muslim peers in the wake of the tragedy in North Carolina. Shortly after were announcements about student initiatives to promote social justice in Rwanda, to train Tufts women in rape aggression defense and an intellectual discussion of the “refusenik” movement. That was just this week. Set these events against the backdrop of larger campaigns like “Tufts Students for Two States,” which promotes reconciliation in Israel and Palestine, and one starts to understand the true nature of this organization. Far more than a student synagogue, Tufts Hillel is a conduit for social justice issues on our campus.
This is why its initiative to bring Trayvon Martin’s parents to campus should come as no surprise. It is unremarkable in the context of Tufts Hillel’s record on social justice and, frankly, unremarkable in a long history of Jewish-American solidarity with Black America. Birthed by a shared history of slavery and repression, the kinship was reflected in the congruent intellectual underpinnings of the Zionist movement and Black Nationalist Back-to-Africa movement. It inspired Jewish and Black Americans to cooperate in such lauded events as the founding of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Both groups were motivated by the same harsh truth that Dr. King pointed out in his statement, “The segregationists and racists make no fine distinction between the Negro and the Jew.” The event at Tufts Hillel honors this proud tradition of solidarity. The petition circling campus to cancel the event imperils this tradition at the expense of both communities.
On the subject of linkage, I am compelled to address another problematic aspect of the PAA petition. Its proponents submit that Tufts Hillel’s stance on Israel/Palestine renders it morally unfit to weigh in on gun violence. Let’s put the fallacious link between Middle Eastern politics and racial gun violence in North America aside for a moment and reflect on the danger of linking all Jews with Israeli government policy. It is perfectly legitimate to criticize Israeli policy. Israelis themselves do so loudly and frequently. However, to combine a diaspora Jewish organization like Tufts Hillel with Israeli policy is to start down a dangerous line of logic. It is the same line of logic that used this summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza to justify the firebombing of a Jewish deli in Paris.
This petition has the effect of blurring the lines between criticism of Israel and Anti-Semitism. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls captured the phenomenon well in his reaction to last month’s attack on a Paris kosher supermarket: “Anti-Semitism, this old European disease, has taken a new form. It spreads on the internet, in our popular neighborhoods, with a youth that has lost its points of reference, has no conscience of history and who hides itself behind a fake anti-Zionism.”
The PAA petition foments animosity and arrogates the language of freedom fighting in favor of division and hatred. This simultaneous attack on Tufts Hillel and Trayvon Martin’s parents is diametrically opposed to the social justice ideals it claims to represent. Let’s be full-throated about our opposition to this vitriol. It’s up to us to see that it doesn’t crawl from the extremist fringe into our legitimate intellectual discourse.