Hillel at Binghamton responds to antisemitic speaker

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

 L-r: Speaker Duncan Kirkwood, chief of staff to Councilman Tracy Larkin of Montgomery, AL, was presented with a Binghamton Hillel T-shirt by Avi Gordon, Bearcats for Israel AIPAC liaison, and Rebecca Kohn, student president of Hillel at Binghamton.
When Hillel at Binghamton learned that Cynthia McKinney, a former congresswoman whom the Anti-Defamation League has called “antisemitic,” was going to speak at Binghamton University, the organization decided that it needed to respond.
“As the Jewish organization on the Binghamton University campus that deals specifically with Israel advocacy, it is our obligation and part of our mission to educate students to effectively respond to any speaker who comes to campus with an explicit anti-Israel message,” said Rabbi Shalom Kantor, KOACH Hillel rabbi, in an e-mail interview.
While noting that “the university is an academic environment where freedom of speech is prized,” he felt that Hillel was obligated to educate students about the speaker so that a real dialogue could occur. Kantor also worried that students wouldn’t have the knowledge to challenge statements that might be biased or factually incorrect.
To emphasize the educational aspect of Hillel’s objections, the organization decided not to protest McKinney’s speech, but rather bring students together for a dinner in order to create dialogue between different student groups. “We saw [her] visit to Binghamton as an opportunity to build coalitions with other cultural groups on campus,” said Kantor. “These coalitions have long been something that Hillel’s student leaders have wanted to create, but with McKinney’s visit, there was an immediacy that never existed before.”
The idea was to focus on student communication that would be ongoing. “We wanted to create coalitions so there would be safe spaces for dialogue and education before, during and after the event,” Kantor added. “This way, while McKinney is on campus for one day and may influence some students, we have long-term relationships with cultural groups and can quickly resolve issues of antisemitism and create dialogue about anti-Israel sentiments.”
The dinner was a “closed event” and the leaders of many cultural groups on campus were invited, including the Black Student Union, which was a co-sponsor of McKinney’s visit. Duncan Kirkwood, a young African American who works for the state government of Alabama and who plans to run for office someday, discussed the relationship between the two minority communities. “Duncan spoke about the importance of the historic relationship between Jews and African Americans, and their partnership in the Civil Rights Movement,” Kantor explained. “He also spoke about why African Americans have a responsibility to support Israel and fight antisemitism. The rest of the dinner focused on brainstorming ways for the cultural groups to work together. We hope that the relationships created will help continue dialogue about why Cynthia McKinney’s visit is disturbing to the Jewish community on campus and why the Black Student Union sponsored the event.”
Noting that protests can bring more attention to a speaker than is warranted, Kantor added, “On a university campus, it is more effective to try to create sustained relationships to dialogue and argue our opinions. While we do not expect students to necessarily resolve their disagreements, the university campus offers a unique opportunity where such cultural groups exist side-by-side and have opportunities to engage in such dialogue. Through building coalitions, we hope that the dialogues that occur will be carried with our students into their lives once they leave the grounds of the university.”
Kantor feels the reactions to the dinner were positive, providing a good base for future interaction. This feeling was echoed by Avi Gordon, Hillel at Binghamton’s Bearcats for Israel AIPAC liaison. “We got a lot out of the event and the material presented,” Gordon said in an e-mail interview. “After the event, the students were very interested in pursuing a discussion with Duncan about his ideas and his journey to where he is today. They were fascinated by his dedication and awareness about Israel, and were shocked to learn about all of the amazing achievements of the Jewish people in their country.”
Perhaps most important is that the event provided an understanding of the historical connection between the two groups. “As one of the coordinators of this unique event, I hope that my fellow students understood the importance of a black and Jewish bond,” Gordon said. “I also hope that they understood that we have a similar history and [that] through that history we can progress forward to the future together. It appeared that all of the students present gained a deep respect for Israel and its importance to our lives, no matter what faith community you are from. We, as the Israel advocacy organization on campus, hope that this event provided a strong alternative view to the one that they heard from Cynthia McKinney.”
Kantor plans to use the same strategy if the need again arises. “We believe that coalitions are often the best way to prevent antisemitism and help people learn about Israel’s story,” he added. “In the best scenario, we will prevent large forums for people who preach hate by talking through our coalitions. We teach our students to treat each event individually, but in all cases, we try to create dialogue, give an alternative perspective and try not to give the anti-Israel message more of a forum than it deserves.”