(Editor’s note: This is a revised version of the story; it also includes links to references at the end.)
David Harris-Gershon, a Jewish Pittsburgh writer and teacher, says he is not a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Yet, a column he wrote in July 2012, for Tikkun Daily titled “Today, I’m coming out in favor of BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Against Israel)” prompted the Hillel chapter at the University of California, Santa Barbara to revoke an invitation for Harris-Gershon to be the keynote speaker at the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara’s annual Israel education event in April.
Harris-Gershon had been invited to speak about his book, “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife,” a memoir which recounts his reconciliation with the family of a Palestinian terrorist. But when Santa Barbara Hillel leaders learned of his 2012 piece in Tikkun, they revoked his invitation.
Hillel International guidelines forbid individual Hillel chapters from hosting speakers that, among other things, deny Israel’s right to exist, or support boycott or divestment from the Jewish state.
It’s not the only time’s he’s been disinvited to speak. The Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center recently canceled his engagement there for the same reason.
Although he publicly came out “in favor of BDS” in his column, Harris-Gershon is adamant that he is only a supporter of BDS as “a standard and not as a movement.”
“People are having difficulty with the nuance,” he told the Chronicle.
Harris-Gershon clarified that nuance in a Jan. 5, column he wrote for Tikkun:
“I believe that economic sanctions, such as boycotts, are legitimate forms of nonviolent protest, in contrast to, say, violence or vandalism. I do not, however, subscribe to the BDS movement or its implicit vision of a single, bi-national state as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. …
In short, when I endorsed the concept of boycotts and sanctions in 2012, my intention was not to join the BDS movement or endorse its outcome (as Haaretz noted). Rather, it was to express the idea that economic sanctions are a legitimate, nonviolent method for countering undesirable policies and change behavior, regardless of the country being targeted.”
Harris-Gershon said that Santa Barbara Hillel officials required him to clarify his views publicly as a prerequisite to being re-invited to speak in their building, but his subsequent column in Tikkun “ended up not being good enough for them,” he said.
Santa Barbara Hillel denied that allegation in a public statement issued on Jan. 12, stating: “Santa Barbara Hillel does not require speakers to adhere to specific political positions or make specific statements in order to earn the right to speak at Hillel.”
Santa Barbara Hillel’s statement went on to note it would not host Harris-Gershon because “… this individual’s blog postings confirm that indeed his presence would be a lightning rod and distract the student leadership, staff and the Board from their primary responsibilities of strengthening Jewish student life in Santa Barbara. … Additionally, the tone and pattern of his postings do not promote an environment of cooperation, relationship-building and mutual respect that would support meaningful, nuanced conversations between Santa Barbara Hillel and other campus groups or individuals.”
Harris-Gershon currently teaches Jewish studies to fourth-, fifth-, and eighth-grade students at Community Day School in Squirrel Hill. He has spoken about his book at various venues both locally and around the country.
Harris-Gershon may yet get another chance to speak in Santa Barbara in the coming months, though probably not at Hillel.
“I’m currently working with people in Santa Barbara who will probably be bringing me out to speak in another context,” he said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
July, 2012 column:
Jan. 5, 2014 column:
Jan. 12, 2014 Santa Barbara Hillel statement: