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Hillel Can’t Be a Soapbox for Jewish Millenials’ Anti-Israel Crusade

Filed under: World Jewry

Imagine that it’s your birthday and you’ve planned a big party. Would you invite an estranged relative to come and explain why you shouldn’t have been born?

Me neither.

But that’s exactly what took place at Brown/RISD’s Hillel this month. Three Jewish students organized an event called “Jews Facing the Nakba” at Hillel on the night of Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israel’s birthday. The program featured short films by Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that, even by a charitable assessment, cannot be considered anything but a hardcore opponent of the Jewish state’s right to exist. Originally, the program was sponsored by J Street, Brown Students for Israel and Brown/RISD Hillel, but Hillel withdrew its official sanction for the event after BSI got cold feet and backed out. The organizers apparently weren’t prepared to miss out on a perfectly good opportunity to badmouth Israel, so they held the event in the Hillel building anyway, together with around 70 other students, among them the top brass of Students for Justice in Palestine.   

If you’re reading this article, you are probably aware that Israel is not the most popular country at many American universities. That’s why, in order to help its chapters navigate the blurry line between welcome and unwelcome discourse on Israel, Hillel International came up with guidelines for Israel-related programming. The gist of these rules is that that Hillel property can’t be used to host speakers that oppose the existence of a Jewish state or support boycotts of Israel. 

We’re not talking about left-wing or peacenik NGOs; criticism of Israel is fine even if right-wing Jews find it unreasonably harsh, unfair or demanding. In fact, earlier this year Brown’s Hillel cosponsored an evening with Breaking the Silence, an Israeli anti-occupation organization highly unpopular in some Jewish circles. Our BTS representative was Avner Gvaryahu, who was accused by ultra right-wing NGO Im Tirtzu of being a foreign spy for Germany. A speaker doesn’t have to meet a certain threshold of “Likudness” in order to be allowed at Hillel. The guidelines apply only to a form of anti-Israel agitation characterized by ostracizing the country and advocating it be dissolved as a Jewish state.

Over the past few years, a small but vocal minority of Jewish students — ensconced mostly at private northeastern colleges — has cobbled together an “Open Hillel” movement to pressure Hillel chapters to abandon these strictures. In the eyes of Open Hillel, the guidelines “are excluding people from the Hillel community, shutting down open discourse on Israel within Hillel, and discouraging dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian groups on campus.”

After three years or so, Open Hillel can chalk up two notable achievements. In December 2013, Swarthmore Hillel became the Swarthmore Kehillah (“community” in Hebrew) after it rejected the rules and chose to drop the Hillel brand name. Several months later, Vassar College’s Jewish Union also declared itself an Open Hillel.  

But still, Hillel remains the marquee institution for Jewish collegiate life, and hasn’t wavered in its commitment to making sure that BDS activism gets checked at the door. After the Nakba event at Brown, Open Hillel took to Facebook to crow about their “victory” over the Jewish establishment,  bragging that they had successfully defied the rules with the approval of Hillel’s staff. Indeed, the three organizers told media that Brown Hillel supported their efforts and that they planned to continue this in the future. Two weeks later, Brown Hillel issued a statement denouncing the Nakba event and affirming support for Hillel International’s standards of partnership. This is promising, and it’s essential that Hillel prevent its good name from being lent to activism that undermines its mission. The standards of partnership may be called guidelines, but they should be more like actual rules.  

Although Open Hillel hasn’t gained traction nationwide, it’s an important theater of an important war: the struggle for ownership of the American-Jewish community. There is a small — but not negligible — segment of Jewish millennials who reject Zionism as a mainstay of Diaspora identity. The modern Hillel movement, along with the ADL, is a child of B’nai Brith, the oldest Jewish service organization in the United States. B’nai Brith’s Zionist roots run deep, from its role in securing Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948 to its lobbying to repeal the infamous “Zionism is Racism” UN Resolution. 

But this crop of Jewish millennials — represented by groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Open Hillel — does not believe that Zionism should be a dominant gene in the DNA of American-Jewish life. They see Hillel’s pro-Israel guidelines as typical of an ossified right-wing bureaucracy, imposed by older, conservative donors who are out-of-touch with the progressive inclinations of the students Hillel is meant to serve. There may be a kernel of truth in this, but it amounts to no more than the typical generational gap exhibited by all demographic cohorts; certainly nothing that diminishes Hillel’s ability to attract and engage Jewish students of all religious and cultural backgrounds. 

That’s because Hillel is already open. There is no litmus test for social or religious inclusion at Hillel, and anti-Zionist Jews are as welcome as anyone else. That being said, there is a litmus test for political activism at Hillel — and there ought to be. 

The reconstitution of the Jewish homeland in 1948 restored our birthright and transformed us from the “bastards of humanity” — as Italian philosopher Giuseppe Mazzini called stateless peoples — into a proud, equal nation. It is objectively against our collective interests for Israel to be weakened economically or isolated diplomatically. Just being a Jewish student doesn’t make you a partial shareholder in your campus Hillel, nor entitle you to dictate the organization’s policies and mission. Hillel is a private foundation and has no obligation — legal or moral — to entertain career Israel-despisers simply because there are Jews who want to hear them. On the contrary, Hillel has a fiduciary responsibility to the Jewish people to prevent its resources from being directed toward Israel’s banishment from the family of nations. 

Open Hillel troopers no doubt fancy themselves brave martyrs struggling to speak truth to power, but this is a comical inversion of reality — at least on a college campus. Unicorns aren’t as rare as pro-Israel humanities professors. Hardly a month passes by without some student government or faculty association condemning Israel. 

And guess what? If upholding these guidelines really does alienate some Jewish students, that’s unfortunately the cost of doing business. If you stand for a real and meaningful principle, then it’s inevitable that somebody will feel unrepresented. The only way to appease everyone is to stand for nothing. If there are Jews who cannot feel comfortable in Hillel unless they are granted a soapbox for their anti-Israel crusade, then that’s just a “loss” we’ll have to absorb. 

Besides, we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over it. In perhaps the greatest irony, it turns out that the “open” in Open Hillel is about as accurate as the “democratic” in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Holly Bicerano, who served as a campus outreach coordinator for Open Hillel, recently wrote a blog post explaining why she quit. “Many Open Hillel leaders have no problem with advocating exclusion and alienation within Open Hillel… many Open Hillel leaders are intolerant of pro-Israel voices that they dislike,” she explained. The ringleaders behind Open Hillel aren’t perturbed by the concept of non-inclusiveness; they’re just miffed that they’re the ones being excluded, when they’d prefer to be the ones doing the excluding. 

So if Open Hillel isn’t after openness, what’s its real angle? Bicerano continues, “While Open Hillel’s stated aims are open dialogue and inclusiveness — worthy goals — the organization in actuality has something else in mind. The people who claim that Open Hillel’s main objective is to garner support for the BDS movement may not realize just how right they are.” Open Hillel’s mission is to build Jewish support for BDS. File that revelation under “least surprising news ever.”

Students are capable of weighing evidence and forming reasoned opinions, so the American Jewish community doesn’t need to be afraid of Open Hillel peddling its anti-Israel wares. But it does need to be careful to not allow Open Hillel to mainstream a version of Jewish identity that is, on its best days, agnostic about whether or not the Jewish people have a right to their own state.   

This article originally appeared in Ha’aretz on June 7, 2016.