Friday, November 30, 2012

The Crimson on Imprisoned

Check out the article in today's Crimson about last night's event, including quote from first-year Danny Solomon!

And this, from Bryonn Bain:
“If we can use our privilege to raise awareness about these issues, we have not only an opportunity but an obligation to do that in some way.”

Spoken Word Artist and Visiting Lecturer Focuses on Racism, Awareness

The fiery rhymes of Bryonn R. Bain, spoken word artist and visiting lecturer, filled the Student Organization Center at Hilles on Thursday night at a performance co-sponsored by the Harvard Progressive Jewish Alliance and Harvard College Speak Out Loud.

Bain, a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law School, focused on “the prison industrial complex,” a term used to describe the burgeoning inmate population in the United States and the impact of the prison on the African American community.

“Every black man with sagging pants ain’t a criminal,” said Bain, “despite subliminal media messages to the contrary.”

In the first of two spoken word performances last night, Bain criticized those who claim that racism is no longer a problem, telling those people to “check the Thirteenth Amendment; slavery wasn’t abolished, it was just polished.”

As a second-year student at Harvard Law School in 1999, Bain was wrongfully arrested for vandalism outside a New York club. The police threw him against the wall and questioned his law school background, he said.

“The whole process is just dehumanizing,” said Bain, whose essay on his experience, entitled “Walking While Black,” was published in the Village Voice.

“I have all the degrees that the President has, plus one,” Bain said. “He ended up in the White House and I ended up in the jailhouse. How did this happen?”

The experience inspired Bain to educate young students about prison reform and to create a Columbia class called “Youth Voices on Lockdown” in 2003. The class, whose title was eventually changed to “Lyrics on Lockdown,” has been taught at New York University and The New School. Students in the classes spend part of the semester visiting a corrective facility.

Bain is currently teaching a course at Harvard called “Hip Hop and the Spoken Word.”

In addition to discussing mass incarceration and racism, Bain covered topics as varied as America’s fading spirituality and the death of creativity at the hour-long event.

The audience expressed their admiration of Bain through laughter, applause, and snaps at particularly smooth lines.

“I thought it was quite powerful,” said Daniel J. Solomon ’16. “Anytime you connect politics to art, it makes it that much more potent.”

Bain’s new book, “The Ugly Side of Beautiful: Rethinking Race and Prisons in America,” will be published next week.

Bain ended his performance with a call for change.

“If we can use our privilege to raise awareness about these issues,” Bain said, “we have not only an opportunity but an obligation to do that in some way.”

Thursday, November 29, 2012

TONIGHT: Imprisoned


a Slam Poetry Performance
and Discussion
Bryonn Bain
prison activist, spoken word poet, hip hop artist, actor, author, and Harvard lecturer

on his time wrongfully imprisoned
and the injustices of the American prison system

Rabb Hall, Harvard Hillel
52 Mt. Auburn St.
Thursday, November 29th at 8:30 pm

Co-sponsored by the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Speak Out Loud

For more information and to RSVP, go to our facebook event!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Students Vote Yes on Referenda!

Congratulations to students in the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition, the Divest for Our Future Campaign, and Our Harvard Can Do Better -- students voted decisively in favor of changed sexual assault policy and ethical investment in last week's election.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Post on New Voices: Open Dialogue

Read our post on New Voices blog, news and views of campus Jews!

Open Dialogue at Hillel?

Could it be that posters like this are dangerous at Harvard Hillel?
Credit: Progressive Jewish Alliance
Last week, it became painfully clear to the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) that Hillel is moving farther and farther from being “the foundation of Jewish campus life” that it claims to be.
As an affiliated group of Harvard Hillel, PJA tries to promote dialogue and discussion between Jews and Palestinians on campus and to bring progressive voices on the Israel-Palestine conflict to the Hillel community. As such, we planned an event for this Thursday, “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation,” to feature two Jewish pro-peace activists speaking about their work in non-violent anti-occupation organizing.
After originally approving the event, the executive director of Harvard Hillel, Jonah Steinberg, told us that he had been pressured by groups including the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Hillel International to forbid us from hosting our event within Harvard Hillel. The rationale? We are co-sponsoring the event with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), a student group that supports the 2005 call for an international boycott of, divestment from, and sanction (BDS) of Israel. They believe this is a means of pressuring it to end its occupation and halt discrimination against Palestinians. According to Hillel International’s Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities, Hillels may not host, affiliate with, or invite speakers from any groups that “as a matter of policy or practice” support BDS. In fact, the guidelines also forbid Hillels from partnering with those who do any of the following: “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders,” “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” or “exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”  We believe these are vague guidelines that could be applied to many Jewish and Palestinian pro-peace groups.
The “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation” event, since relocated to another building, will go ahead–and will still be sponsored by both PJA and PSC. Yet removing this event from Hillel sends the message that the organized Jewish community on campus rejects cooperation with Palestinian groups. Too often, Palestinian voices are silenced from discussions about their own right to self-determination. Hillel International’s policy perpetuates this, ensuring that most on-campus Palestine groups, like Students for Justice in Palestine, can never co-sponsor with or even walk into Hillel.
We are disturbed that a conversation about non-violent organizing for peace could not happen in Hillel, nominally a campus center for Jewish life and discussion about Israel. If it truly wishes to allow students to engage critically with American and Israeli politics, Hillel International should have no policy on the political affiliation of groups, organizations, and speakers that it partners with, houses, and hosts.
As the pro-peace movement evolves, Hillel International’s narrow political restrictions are increasingly unrepresentative of the opinions of the wider American Jewish community. For example, avowed Zionist Peter Beinart advocates for a boycott of products produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a means of protest against Israel’s expansionism, for he argues that such expansionism both infringes on the rights and future statehood of Palestinians and endangers Israel’s own long-term security. Hillel’s policies led Brandeis’s Hillel to reject the appeal for membership of the Brandeis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, because JVP advocates for divestment from companies that profit from the occupation.
On Monday, PJA sent an open letter to the Harvard Hillel community in which we noted that “we feel less welcome and included in a community that sets a political litmus test to determine which Jewish students and groups will be allowed in.” Casting all calls for boycott as essentially “anti-Semitic” and unilaterally removing them from conversation actually excludes Jewish as well as Palestinian voices from the Hillel community, and can only hamper efforts to achieve peace in Israel and Palestine.
In the coming weeks, we will be joining with pro-peace students at Hillels across the country to ask Hillel International to change its policy so that Hillel can truly be a campus center of dialogue about Israel and Palestine. No matter what our personal political views are, we know that true peace can only be achieved through open discussion, cooperation, and inclusion. Excluding Palestinian voices and pro-peace Jewish voices from Jewish campus centers is not a move towards peace. Learning from others may be.
Harvard students Emily Unger and Rachel Sandalow-Ash also served as co-authors for this op-ed.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Op-Ed from the Crimson: An Open Hillel

Check out PJA's recent op-ed in the Harvard Crimson!

An Open Hillel

Monday, November 12, 2012

An Open Letter to the Hillel Community

The following letter, written by the members of PJA, has been sent out over various Hillel community listservs in response to the recent events at Hillel (outlined in the Crimson article posted below).


Dear Hillel Community,

We, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), are writing to inform you of something deeply troubling that happened recently. Several weeks ago, PJAa Hillel affiliated groupbegan working with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) to plan a speaker event, “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation.” As two campus organizations that both work for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, PJA and PSC often co-sponsor events. We planned to bring an Israeli Jew and an American Jew to talk about their work doing non-violent activism against the Israeli occupation, such as peaceful protests against the demolition of Palestinian homes. The speakers would also discuss how Jewish students going on Birthright could extend their stays in order to visit the West Bank in addition to Israel on their trip. Since this event is explicitly Jewish in nature and directed mainly at Jewish students, we believed that Hillel would be the ideal location for the event.

Initially, Jonah Steinberg (Hillel’s executive director) approved this event and told us that we could hold it in the Hillel building. We believed, after this first conversation, that Jonah had understood that PJA and PSC would be co-sponsoring the event, although we later learned that he had not. Once we put out advertisements for the event, Jonah began receiving complaints about this co-sponsorship, and he expressed uncertainty to us about whether this event could in fact be held in Hillel. Hillel International’s standards of partnership declare that “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that... support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions [BDS] against the State of Israel,” which PSC does. After major donors threatened to withdraw their money from Harvard Hillel, Jonah informed us that the event could no longer take place in the Hillel building.

We are disturbed and saddened by this decision to remove our event from Hillel. As progressive Jews working for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, we believe that collaboration with Palestinian groups is essential.  We see such cooperation as a step on the path to peace, and we are disappointed that even when Palestinian groups reach out to partner with us, their overtures are rejected by our Jewish community.

The BDS movement is the largest non-violent campaign protesting the injustices of the Israeli occupation. Although we may have disagreements with this movement, we believe it is essential to find common ground and collaborate where we can. Completely shutting out any groups that advocate for BDS cuts off a huge portion of the population that cares about Israel/Palestine, including almost every Palestinian student group across the country. Excluding these ideas from the Hillel building does not make them disappear, but serves only to prevent productive dialogue and alienate people from Hillel. Jewish people who care about peace must frame our disagreements respectfully, allowing for discussion and thoughtful exchange of ideas, instead of putting up barriers to cooperation with others who seek peace.

Hillel International’s policy also excludes some Jews and Jewish groups from Hillel. For example, the Brandeis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates for divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation, was recently prevented from affiliating with Brandeis Hillel. We are disturbed to see progressive Jews excluded from Hillels for their political views. Although PJA is not currently in this situation, we feel less welcome and included in a community that sets a political litmus test to determine which Jewish students and groups will be allowed in. Such a community is not one that reflects our Jewish values of social justice and vigorous debate.

Within the Jewish community, boycott calls are becoming more mainstream. Peter Beinart, a well-known liberal Zionist who spoke at Harvard Hillel last spring, recently called for Jews who care about Israel to boycott the settlements as a protest against Israel’s continued expansion into Palestinian territory and the unequal treatment of Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank. Many progressive Jews agree with his position, yet Hillel International’s policies would exclude these voices from its Jewish community. If Hillel truly wants to be “the foundation for Jewish campus life,” it must represent and support all of the diverse views held by Jewish people.

Universities should promote open discussion, critical thinking, and debate, and Hillel should similarly uphold these valuesvalues essential to a democratic society. This, of course, does not mean that Hillel needs to provide space for the expression of racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise hateful views. However, Hillel must not fall prey to the common fallacy that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. BDS is not an irrational, hate-based ideologyrather, it is a political position that can, and should, be discussed and debated.

Finally, we strongly object to the idea that outside organizations and donors can step in to prevent student-initiated programming in Hillel whenever they disagree with it. Hillel is, and should be, a student-driven community, and students ought to play the primary role in determining its policies and programming. Jonah wrote that Hillel’s Israel policy should be determined by “students, Board of Directors members, and stakeholders.” We wonder who these “stakeholders” are, and why they are given influence over Hillel’s policies equal to that of students. If students’ programming can only go forth according to the whims of Hillel’s donors, Hillel will quickly cease to be a meaningful center for Jewish student life.

In response to these recent events, we conclude that Hillel should have no policy on the political affiliation of groups, organizations, and speakers that it partners with, houses, and hosts. We ask that Hillel International remove its guidelines for Standards of Partnership for campus Israel activities, which currently work to exclude groups and individuals with particular political views from campus Hillels. Regardless of the actions taken by Hillel International, we believe that Harvard Hillel should not establish policies that put in place a political test for its co-sponsorships or affiliated groups. Rather, we hope that Harvard Hillel will lead the push for more inclusive policies on a national level.

PJA and PSC will still be holding the “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation” eventnow in Emerson Hall 305 at 7:30pm this Thursday. We invite students from Hillel to attend and to talk to members of PSC, so that Hillel’s current restrictions will not stand in the way of dialogue between Jews and Palestinians on campus.

Most of all, we hope that a broad coalition of Hillel students of all political affiliations can come together in support of more open and inclusive policies. If you have any questions or concerns, members of PJA will be in the Hillel dining hall from 5-7 pm tonight, tomorrow, and Wednesday, and would be happy to talk to you. You can also contact Emily, the chair of PJA, at to bring up any thoughts or to find a time to talk about this in person.  

With hope for a more peaceful and inclusive future,
The Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance
Emily Unger
Rachel Sandalow-Ash
Sandra Korn
Eva Roben
Sasha Johnson-Freyd
Elena Hoffenberg
Joshua Blecher-Cohen
Ann Finkel
Virginia Marshall

PJA Queers the Hillel Library

Check out these books, purchased by PJA and BAGELS, now available in the Hillel lounge!

Friday, November 9, 2012

PJA movie night: Young, Jewish, and Left

Join the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance
for a screening of the film
Young, Jewish, and Left

with free Chinese food!

Saturday, November 10th at 6:45 pm
Harvard Hillel Student Lounge
52 Mt. Auburn St.

Meet Shira Hassan. After she and her trans-gender partner "were literally laughed out of synagogue,” she created a radical Machzor (prayer book) for the high holidays and organized her own queer-positive celebration.

Listen as Loolwa Khazoom, an Iraqi Jew and editor of Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, recounts her experience in a U.S. Hebrew School when the Rabbi told her it was a sin to use a Sephardi (non-European) Jewish prayer book.

And follow Micah Bazant as he praises the feminist possibilities within Jewish masculinity.

A celebration of diversity, Young Jewish and Left weaves queer culture, Jewish Arab history, secular Yiddishkeit, anti-racist analysis, and religious/spiritual traditions into a multi-layered tapestry of Leftist politics.  Personal experiences from many of today’s leading Jewish activists reframe the possibilities of Jewish identity. It presents a fresh and constructive take on race, spirituality, Zionism, queerness, resistance, justice, and liberation.

Photographs from Feminist Shabbat!

We had a wonderful shabbat dinner with the Harvard College International Women's Rights Collective, whose awesome tumblr is here. Check out photozzzzz below!

PJA bakes challah!

PJA kneads challah dough

Welcome to feminist shabbat!

Conversations about judaism and feminist after shabbat dinner

Thursday, November 8, 2012

From the Crimson: Hillel Cancels Event Reservation

Wondering why Jewish Voices Against the Occupation isn't in Harvard Hillel anymore? Read this article from The Harvard Crimson, on Thursday, November 8:

Hillel Cancels Event Reservation 

Just a week before an event on Israeli and Palestinian activists’ peace efforts was set to take place, Harvard Hillel decided Monday that it would no longer host the discussion after administrators learned a Palestinian student advocacy group was a co-sponsor.

Harvard Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg said that he canceled the venue reservation for Harvard Progressive Jewish Alliance’s “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation” talk because, according to Steinberg, co-sponsor Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee’s platform conflicts with Hillel International guidelines.

They state that Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.”

Steinberg said that because PSC promotes boycott, divestments, and sanctions—commonly referred to as BDS—with regards to Israel, this policy prevents Hillel from hosting the discussion. “It is very important to find ways for pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups to enter into meaningful and substantive conversation here at Harvard and beyond,” Steinberg wrote to the Harvard Hillel Board of Director in an email he later gave to The Crimson. “Co-sponsorship of an event with a BDS-endorsing group is another matter.”

PJA chair Emily S. Unger ’13 and PSC member Alexander R. Shams said that at first Hillel, not realizing that Shams’ organization would also sponsor the talk, seemed comfortable with hosting the event.

“At our initial meeting, we were given approval and were assured that there would be efforts to see this event through,” said Shams, a student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “But we later found out that there was a lot of uproar about the event when people from higher up heard that PSC was co-sponsoring it.” The event will still be held on Nov. 15, but now in Emerson Hall. It will bring together Israeli Jew Noam Lekach and American Jew Jeff Stein to talk about Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“I thought that it was clear that it was a co-sponsorship because we were both there and both shared interest in the topic of the event,” Unger said. “But Jonah apparently thought it was a dialogue, not a co-sponsorship.”

Steinberg, realizing that he may have misunderstood PSC’s presence at the meeting, said he scheduled a second conversation. But before that meeting could take place, Steinberg said, he received emails from concerned parties including Boston-area Jewish organizations and the vice president of Hillel International. Upon receiving these emails, Steinberg told Unger and Shams that they could no longer hold their event at Hillel.

“He told us that it would cause too much, far too much outrage and conflict and wouldn’t be worth it,” Unger said.

She added that the Jewish community is “particularly sensitive” to any mention of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions, as such actions can be perceived as undermining, and threatening, the Israeli nation.

Though many Israeli Jews think that settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is justified, not all may agree with this position, Shams said. “I think it’s problematic that Hillel takes a particular political stance on the issue, which may be alienating,” he said. “This silences anyone with a different opinion and pushes them out of the Jewish community.”

Jewish Voices Against the Occupation - now in Emerson!

EDIT: Jewish Voices Against the Occupation, the even we're co-hosting with Harvard PSC, is now taking place in Emerson Hall 305, not in Harvard Hillel's Rabb Hall. See the poster below!

Monday, November 5, 2012

PJA has a twitter!

Our new twitter is @harvardpja;  you can follow us at Also, check out the new twitter feed on our blog!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Power ~ a poem for this shabbat

Adrienne Rich, a jewish lesbian poet

Power, by Adrienne Rich (1929 - March 27, 2012). Shabbat shalom, all!

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end the source of
the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman
her wounds
denying her wounds came from the same source as her power.