Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Hillel Is Accused of Removing Student Leader Because of Her Criticism of Israeli Policies

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July - August 2004

A critical e-mail to the Israeli Embassy in Washington from Jillian Redford, president of the Hillel chapter at the University of Richmond, led to her ouster in February. This, in turn, has led to charges that Hillel stifles free speech and takes retribution against those who question the policies of the Sharon government.  

In an interview with The Forward (May 7, 2004), Redford reported that after receiving two copies of the same e-mail message from the Israeli embassy, she responded: “Could you please stop sending me e-mail after e-mail about radical Zionist propaganda. I don’t know if you realize that Hillel’s mission statement is based on fostering religious life on college campuses and not organizing marches, protests, or listening to speakers who encourage us to hate our Palestinian neighbors in Israel.”  

According to The Forward, “The next morning. . . . Redford was called in to speak with Lisa Looney, the staff adviser for Hillel at the Richmond Jewish Community Center, who had been alerted to Redford’s e-mail by the Israeli Embassy. Two weeks later, after Redford refused to resign, Looney relieved Redford of her duties. . . . In dismissing Redford, Looney also cited a previous incident just weeks earlier, when Redford had called a professor at the university ‘racist.’ That professor, Redford says, had told her privately that Palestinians were ‘inherently evil.’ Redford’s dismissal highlights difficult questions about the proper boundaries of political dissent over Israel — particularly on campuses where students are still working through their political ideas and how to present them properly.”  

An open letter to Hillel signed by University of Richmond history professor Robert Blecher and 170 faculty members nationwide, declared: “As Jewish faculty, we are writing to express our outrage that Hillel has removed a student president because of her critical opinions about Israel. At issue was her stand against the ongoing Israeli occupation and her refusal to countenance racism against Palestinians. . . . For the past year, Jillian Redford served as president of the University of Richmond’s Hillel chapter. By all accounts — including those of her overseers at the Richmond Jewish Community Center — she was a superlative president, the driving force behind virtually all Hillel programming. It was only when she began to express her views on Israel that the organization called for her ouster.”  

What is really at stake in this incident, the letter declares, is the question of free speech and Hillel’s attempt to stifle dissent: “The charges against Ms. Redford are patently absurd. In terms of Israel programming, her political opinions in no way compromised her commitment to ‘balanced’ programming. Shortly before she was dismissed she had brought a speaker from CAMERA, the right-wing media watchdog group, to the Richmond campus. What is really at stake in these spurious allegations is Hillel’s attempt to silence dissent within the organization. Hillel’s website states that it is ‘committed to a pluralistic vision of Judaism,’ but Ms. Redford’s dismissal suggests that pluralism extends only so far as the Israeli embassy says it does. As Jewish faculty, we are appalled that the Hillel Foundation is alienating Jews instead of welcoming them, enforcing an institutional orthodoxy that tramples student autonomy, and serving a foreign government instead of its student members.”  

Professor Blecher and his colleagues conclude: “It is a sad day for Judaism when standing up for one’s beliefs is deemed ‘inappropriate’; when the state of Israel exerts an overwhelming influence over the agenda and institutions of American Jewry; and when racism is normalized to the point that even the accusation of racism — irrespective of its truth — is considered. suspect . . . Hillel, as the main address for Jewish life on campus, has a special obligation to foster critical discussions of Israeli policy. The Jewish tradition of debate and questioning demands no less.”  

University of Richmond vice president Leonard Goldberg expressed his concern over Ms. Redford’s dismissal. Goldberg called upon the Richmond Jewish Community Center to ensure that any future decisions about Hillel policy are made by students, not by those not affiliated with the university.

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.