A planned talk by Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely at the Hillel Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University was abruptly cancelled Monday, following a petition by progressive activists on campus.
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Hotovely, who is currently in the middle of a U.S. campus tour meant to combat the growing influence of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement (BDS) in American universities, said Hillel’s decision to cancel her lecture “with no warning and without just cause” attests to a “deep and severe crisis of values.”
Despite Hillel’s withdrawal, however, Hotovely spoke at Princeton as planned, after the Princeton Chabad stepped in and agreed to host the deputy minister.
“A liberal dictatorship is preventing American students from hearing an official representative of Israel’s government,” said Hotovely, who in a statement to Haaretz added that she is “saddened at the lack of openness toward different views of Israel.”
A small demonstration by the progressive student activists who opposed her visit took place without interruption.
According to a Hotovely spokesperson, the Princeton Hillel invited the deputy foreign minister to speak over two months ago. The visit, however, was cancelled only hours before the event was due to take place after close to 200 left-wing activists, headed by a student organization called The Alliance of Jewish Progressives, signed a petition opposing Hotovely’s planned visit.
Hotovely’s opposition to a Palestinian state and her advocacy for West Bank settlement expansion, said the petition, “causes irreparable damage to the prospects of a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The Center for Jewish Life, claimed the petition, has previously excluded left-wing speakers and that the decision to host the “racist speaker” Hotovely “[misrepresents] our Jewish community’s politics and values.”
In a statement, Rabbi Julie Roth, the director of Princeton Hillel, said the center “decided to postpone the program with Hotovely until we can properly vet the program through our Israel Advisory Committee. We are fortunate that our colleagues at Chabad agreed to host the program today as originally scheduled and we are encouraging our students who are interested to attend. We regret the last-minute change and apologize to Ms. Hotovely for the inconvenience. We look forward to a continued robust and healthy debate around Israel in our community.”
In a letter sent to Roth, Hotovely said that “by canceling this lecture, you are infringing on the fundamental academic freedom of the students. You are denying the basic freedom of students to hear different points of views, to question, challenge and think for themselves.” By agreeing to the “the demands of radical voices,” she added, Roth is “silencing the voice of Israeli democracy.”
The organizers of the Princeton protest, Mikaela Gerwin, Talya Nevins, Rafi Lehmann, and Zora Alum, told Haaretz they never meant to get the event canceled, or to prevent Hotovely from speaking at Princeton. Their intention, they said, was to highlight what they described as the “hypocrisy” of the CJL, which maintained a standard not to sponsor “groups or speakers that, as a matter of policy or practice, foster an atmosphere of incivility, intend to harm Israel, or promote racism or hatred of any kind,” but then only applied this standard to left-wing speakers.
“We are grateful to Hillel for hearing our concerns,” they said, describing the decision to postpone the event as a “victory for Hillel” and a model for other branches of the organization as to how to address student complaints. Despite attempts to paint their protest as anti-Israeli or pro-BDS, the organizers said “we have no affiliation with BDS and we’re not interested in BDS.” They were actually happy with the event itself, and “appreciated the opportunity to engage with [Hotovely].”
“This is about Jewish-American students and Jewish American institutions,” they said. “Whether Israeli actors are involved is not the core of this. This is a Jewish-American conversation.”
Two other stops on Hotovely’s U.S. campus tour, her talk at Columbia last week and another talk at NYU scheduled for next Tuesday, were also organized by the local branches of Hillel.