Controversy Erupts Over Anti-Israel Group at Columbia University Hillel

Anti-Israel Group Breaking the Silence accused of collecting classified information

Students Supporting Israel

A slide from the BTS presentation at Columbia University. (Photo: Students Supporting Israel/Columbia University)

On Thursday evening, approximately 50 Columbia University students came out to see the Israeli non-governmental organization Breaking the Silence at the Kraft Center for Jewish Life (Hillel). Off limits to the press, the event was sponsored by J Street CU and The Human Rights Graduate Group at CU.

According to their website, “Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”

In a recent interview, civil rights icon and Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz stated that BTS is the “single worst offender in making the case against Israel” and is “acting incredibly irresponsibly by refusing to name sources, by refusing to be specific, by making overly general and false allegations. They are doing tremendous damage to Israel because they are not telling the truth.”

Breaking the Silence appearances have stirred up emotions of pro-Israel advocates across the country who regard BTS as anti-Israel. Former IDF paratrooper and Columbia student Rudy Rochman agrees with that perspective, telling the Hyam Salomon Center in an exclusive interview that he regards BTS as “traitors and liars” and believes featured speaker Avner Gvaryahu’s goal is “to become rich and famous and is willing to sell put his own people, his own country for his own cause.”

Mr. Rochman, who is also head of the Columbia chapter of Students Supporting Israel, explained, “their [BTS] goal is to sellout the IDF and push a political agenda that depicts the IDF as evil and cruel, using individual instances that portrays the whole system in a way that is not true.”

“Gvaryahu will talk about how the IDF entered homes in Hebron for a specific operation during the Second Intifada, but he won’t say they are there because they are looking for a terrorist who is planning to kill 30 people the next day in a restaurant,” Mr. Rochman continued. “And he won’t say that the day before a bus was blown up and that’s why they are there.”

The controversy surrounding BTS at Columbia began at the end of last year when it was announced that the progressive advocacy group J Street was bringing BTS to the Columbia/Barnard Hillel. The idea of an organization that many regard as undermining Israel’s safety and security speaking at the center of Jewish life on campus created a backlash that resulted in Hillel asking J Street to host the event elsewhere.

But just over a month later, BTS is back on campus and appearing where they originally intended. Opposition to their Hillel appearance has only gotten stronger.

A few days ago, 13 prominent pro-Israel voices sent a letter to Hillel International president Eric Fingerhut urging him to stop hosting BTS at Hillels across the country. The group argues that BTS appearances violate Hillel’s own guidelines for campus Israel activities.

Hillel disputes this claim, stating:

Hillel is well aware of the challenges to the credibility of Breaking the Silence. We do not support the organization or its mission in any way. Hillel professionals confronted with Breaking the Silence on their campuses will make sure that students hear from other voices challenging Breaking the Silence’s assertions, including other IDF soldiers who offer a very different perspective, and that all programs are conducted in accordance with Hillel International’s guidelines and standards of partnership.

A Hillel official who asked not to be identified told the Haym Salomon Center that Hillel students on campus have orchestrated efforts to bring BTS to campus and requested that the Hillel building be used for the event. “Hillel by no means endorses anything BTS does or says, but we feel that when dissenting Israeli voices come to campus, Hillel can play a role ensuring that BTS’s assertions are challenged and other programming is designed to counter their claims. And we trust our students to ask tough questions, engage in healthy debate, and not allow BTS to go unchallenged.”

Mr. Gvaryahu, who has been with BTS for five years, has been repudiated by members of his own IDF unit, who have formed Reservists on Duty to counter Mr. Gvaryahu’s claims against Israel. They distributed flyers to attendees before the Thursday nights event to make their case against the featured speaker.

BTS has recently been accused of collecting classified information. Mr. Rochman believes that the pressure of the investigation caused Mr. Gvaryahu to give a “toned down” version of his normal presentation.

An investigation by Shin Bet security forces, concluded on Wednesday, revealed that BTS did collect what Haaretz is calling “low-level classified information.”

Breaking the Silence and J Street did not respond to requests for comment before publishing.