hillel-2015-infographic-web-vertical-01The Australian branch of an organisation that openly supports and advocates for Israel, and whose internal policies lead to the exclusion of dissenting voices, has repackaged itself as an ‘apolitical,’ pluralistic Jewish community group. With the help of the local press.

On Monday 23 March, the Australian Jewish News (AJN) reported that a staff member of a theatre in Sydney, The Red Rattler, had rejected a request from Hillel Sydney to rent the premises, with an email stating ‘Our policy does not support colonialism/Zionism. Therefore we do not host groups that support the colonization and occupation of Palestine.’ In response, New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies CEO Vic Alhadeff wrote to the theatre manager on behalf of Hillel Sydney, complaining that Hillel had been discriminated against ‘based on conflicts taking place far from Australia,’ claiming that,

Hillel is an apolitical body which provides educational, cultural and social activities for Jewish students and young adults [and the decision was] at best ill-informed and at worst racist and discriminatory.

The theatre board subsequently sent a letter of apology to AJN, saying it ‘condemns racism of any kind.’ The Red Rattler is now a target of a growing online and media campaign to paint the small theatre as the headquarters of (some combination of) radical, leftist anarchist neo-Nazis.

Whether one agrees with the approach taken by the theatre staff member, it is arguable that the ‘global Hillel family’ – of which Hillel Sydney is a part – is boycottable for the partnership role it plays in Israeli government hasbara efforts. Alhadeff’s plea of political neutrality is insincere: it is Hillel which implicates itself in ‘conflicts taking place far’ away – and on the side of the occupier.

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Hillel International practices exclusion and censorship in a bid to silence criticism of Israel’s human rights record including laws that racially discriminate against Palestinians. Hillel’s guidelines forbid chapters from hosting or organising events featuring speakers in support of BDS and those who oppose Israel’s self-declared status as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’ – a policy that has led to dissenting chapters’ dropping the Hillel name.

The motif of Hillel Sydney’s website is a paint-palette – more primary school than Fine Art college, artless rather than arty -, its pages framed with bright paint spills. Scroll down the homepage, or open the blog, and the initial impression of a innocuous community group starts to fade. Readers are invited

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 17.21.30to sign a petition [tellingly, this has subsequently been removed from their website] calling on Sydney University to fire Associate Professor Jake Lynch, based on an unproven allegation of antisemitism during a verbal altercation with a woman who physically assaulted Lynch at a University lecture by retired army colonel, and Israeli war crimes apologist, Richard Kemp.

Hillel Sydney’s Assistant Director, Shailee Mendelvich, expressed her gratitude for Kemp’s pro-Israel advocacy on Twitter, and her support for the petition:Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 08.35.12

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 16.59.51Responding to press enquiries about the Red Rattler rejection, Mendelvich said she hoped ‘that people working in community service and the not-for-profit sector can acknowledge the common ground we share.’

Visitors to the website can also ‘have a laugh’ over the hashtag #AskHamas, featuring tweets repeating Israeli government propaganda that during the war on Gaza that killed over 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians including 500 children, Hamas launched its rockets from hospitals:

Does it bug you Khaled Meshal was living it up in Doha while you were cowering w/fear in your hospital bunkers during the war? #AskHamas.

Much of their website content belies the claim that Hillel Sydney is an ‘apolitical’ organisation. Yet, the charade continues on the ‘About’ page: its vision, we are told, is that ‘all Hillel endeavours focus on the engagement and development of dynamic Jewish young adults, providing avenues to connect with Jewish life and develop their leadership capacity.’

In 2014, their activities included supporting the ‘Bring Back Our Boys‘ campaign and the ‘Stand with Israel’ Solidarity Rally. Hillel is also involved in the Jewish Change Makers awards, where the B’nai B’rith Alfred Dreyfus Anti-Defamation Unit and Jewish National Fund (JNF) Australia honour individuals in ‘our community’ who have made a difference, specifically those who make a ‘Contribution to the State of Israel.’

We could go on.

The point to be made is that Hillel makes the most superficial of attempts to prettify its propaganda role, and yet Hillel Sydney’s claim to be ‘apolitical’ has not been challenged in the media. It is, therefore, unsurprising, that for many observers the actions of the Red Rattler employee only become comprehensible in the context of antisemitism, not least because of the subject of Hillel’s play:

‘It is disappointing’ Alhadeff told Daily Mail Australia, ‘that a theatre group let politics get in the way of policies, as they claim their ethos is about equality and acceptance… These young people have been the subject of discrimination because of an overseas conflict whilst conducting a play which had nothing whatsoever to do with any conflict overseas…Their focus was on exploring the lessons future generations can learn from the holocaust survivors.’

In the UK, several leading Jewish organisations, like the Board of Deputies of British Jews, play the same double game. However, there is no excuse – beyond fear or laziness – for the media not interrogating them on their hardline Israel advocacy and political lobbying, which also poses a threat to the independence of arts organisations.