A campus LGBTQ+ group at Rice broke ties with its Hillel over Israel.
OpinionGuest columnist

A campus LGBTQ+ group at Rice broke ties with its Hillel over Israel.

Where are queer Jewish students supposed to go?

Rice University. (Photo by channing.wu, courtesy of flickr.com)
Rice University. (Photo by channing.wu, courtesy of flickr.com)

Rice Pride, a student LGBTQ+ group at Rice University, has severed ties with its school’s Hillel branch because of Hillel’s support for Israel’s right to exist.

As they shun Jewish students, Rice Pride specifically claims it’s because “Hillel’s Standards of Partnership are incompatible with Rice Pride’s mission to create an accessible and equitable space for queer students of all backgrounds.”

Rice Pride announced this decision Sept. 19, right between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Rice Pride made the decision without soliciting input from its members, and at least one member of its executive board stepped down in protest.

The timing of Rice Pride’s decision is ironic, given that the Biden administration announced on Sept. 28 that as part of the White House’s strategy to combat antisemitism, “eight federal agencies clarified — for the first time in writing — that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits certain forms of antisemitic … discrimination in federally funded programs and activities.”

The actions of Rice Pride are explicitly discriminatory and should be a wake-up call to Rice University for its blatant violation of this federal law. Yet these events are especially worrisome for me as a proud Jew who is also queer. How are LGBTQ+ Jews like myself at Rice supposed to have all of our needs as individuals with layered identities met?

Rice Pride’s decision to end its previously warm relationship with Houston Hillel caps a troubling recent trend of Jews being excluded from presumably progressive spaces, especially on college campuses.

One queer Rice student noted the consequences of the unfortunate timing: “This is certainly a decision that could have waited a single week … To make an announcement of this kind during the High Holy Days places a lot of extra stress on Jewish people and shows there isn’t the level of cultural fluency I would like to see from Pride leadership.”

The sad thing is that Houston Hillel has been a welcoming partner to Rice Pride for years. Kenny Weiss, the executive director of Houston Hillel, noted that the two organizations have co-hosted 12 events since 2016, including “The Invisible Identities of Being Queer and Jewish,” “Queering the High Holy Days” and “Reconciling Queerness with Religious Spaces.” In fact, Weiss elaborated, “from the time Hillel started these programs in 2016, until two years ago, we were the only campus ministry that was actively engaging queer Rice students, beyond individual conversations.”

Rice Pride claims that the decision “was made in an effort to include Palestinian and Arab students who did not feel comfortable or safe engaging” in Rice Pride as a result of its partnership with Hillel. Houston Hillel is an affiliate of Hillel International but is a legally independent nonprofit organization. Its own Israel guidelines are simple: They will not sponsor or partner with a student or organization that “advocates violence as a solution to the current Middle Eastern conflict, whether against Israel or its opponents.”

There had been no complaints against Houston Hillel from Palestinian or Arab students. Yet by cutting off a relationship with the primary Jewish organization on campus, Rice Pride is acting as an unwitting dupe for the strategy called “anti-normalization” of the extremist boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which calls not for dialogue but for pushing Jews and Israelis out of spaces completely.

One Rice junior, Zac Ambrose, observed the human problem of this bigoted approach: “Tying Houston Hillel’s existence to the actions of the state of Israel is what most people would claim is antisemitic because you are holding the Jewish people at Rice accountable for the state of Israel’s actions … I’m afraid that by cutting ties with Hillel, it’s a signal to queer Jewish people at Rice that they’re not necessarily welcome in that Pride space.”

Hillel is the central hub for Jewish students on most American campuses, providing a diverse array of programming and experiences including prayer services, Shabbat dinners, social justice work, Birthright trips and public conversations like “Reconciling Queerness with Religious Spaces” — an event co-hosted with Rice Pride. How can a queer Jew like myself
be forced to choose between his LGBTQ+ and Jewish identity when both are integral to who I am? What else can’t I be, and where else can’t I be because of my Jewish identity?

Exclusion is a slippery slope. We all need to call on Rice Pride to reverse its destructive, reprehensible and illegal attempt to marginalize and stigmatize our community members. PJC

Hen Mazzig has been named among the top 50 LGBTQ+ influencers and as one of Algemeiner’s top 100 people positively influencing Jewish life. He serves as a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute. This story originally appeared in the Forward. To get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox, go to forward.com/newsletter-signup.

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