Jewish Journal

How Open Should Hillel Be?

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

December 17, 2013 | 5:32 am

I am in favor of open-mindedness.

But your mind should never be so open that everything falls out.

That would be my message to the board of Hillel at Swarthmore College.  They want to open their Hillel chapter to anti-Israel activists, even though Hillel International bars its chapters from sponsoring events, hosting speakers, or partnering with groups that oppose Israel's right to exist or support the BDS movement.http://forward.com/articles/189079/hillel-threatens-its-swarthmore-chapter-with-expul/?p=all (Has anyone else noticed that Swarthmore is a Quaker institution? The Quakers have, historically, not been such close “friends” of Israel. I’m just saying…)

Hillel International has the right policy.

Why? A little context.

Just yesterday, the American Studies Association voted for a boycott of Israeli universities. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/17/education/scholars-group-endorses-an-academic-boycott-of-israel.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimesworld&_r=0

This is nothing less than the wholesale recruitment of America’s intellectual class into a war against the Jewish state. Its combatants do not wear battle fatigues. They are dressed in the uniforms of academia. And Roger Waters, who believes that the music industry’s “Jewish lobby” is out to kill him, has lauded their boycott. http://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/2013/12/paranoid-eyes/?utm_source=Mosaic+Daily+Email&utm_campaign=f5f88ac947-Mosaic_2013_12_17&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0b0517b2ab-f5f88ac947-41173017

Memo to Roger Waters: we did not boycott British rock bands during the troubles in northern Ireland. Should we have done so?

Consider the countries with real, live human rights violations that the American Studies Association has not boycotted: Russia, China, Syria – the list goes on and on. Only Israel. Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard University, has said that anti-Israel boycotts are “anti-Semitic in their effect if not necessarily in their intent.” http://legalinsurrection.com/2013/12/lawrence-summers-academic-boycott-of-israel-is-anti-semitism-in-effect/

This is going to sound a little harsh. Hillel should not give aid and comfort – or cover -- to Israel’s enemies. For there is a war going on. It's a war of ideas, and it is a war that Israel, and the Jewish people, cannot afford to lose.

A college student wrote to me about this issue. 

To insinuate that because Hillel supports the Jewish people’s affinity for Israel makes them “closed” is a dangerous double standard.  Students for Justice in Palestine, the nation’s leading college group for advocates for the Palestinian people, is never criticized for its sole devotion to the cause of the Palestinian people and its often aggressive anti-Israel message.”

Swarthmore Hillel intended to create a more comfortable place for students to debate the important and complex political situation in Israel.  They wish to consider with compassion — and in the Jewish ethic of the pursuit of knowledge and understanding — the beliefs of those with a different perspective.  There is nothing wrong with that.  However, college allows endless opportunities for open forums and these should be the places where differing organizations can come together for dialogue.  The battle should not be happening within Hillel.  Hillel should openly come to those forums as an advocate for Israel, because there are few others on college campuses.

Jews on college campuses need a place where they can feel comfortable to meet with other Jews, share in common values and thrive, unfettered, in their Judaism. I would expect nothing less from Catholic student groups, which should not be expected to bring in speakers attacking the Vatican; nor would I demand that any other cultural group open its doors to those who would attack it.  The Jewish connection to Israel is integral to modern Judaism and Hillel should not be a place where those with that connection should ever feel alienated.

My young correspondent is right: no other group would open its doors to a speaker who is so dramatically at odds with its agenda. Should GLBT groups host advocates of “aversion therapy,” which, its advocates claim, “cures” homosexuality? Should black student groups host advocates of racial quotas? You get the picture.

Why should the Jews be the only people who are expected to blithely entertain those who would advocate for the dismantling of one of its key elements – which is the reality and necessity of the state of Israel.

This does not mean that Israel's policies are beyond question or debate. We need those conversations and those struggles, and by opening Hillel to such nuanced conversations, we will actually attract more Jewish students. Check out programs such as Ameinu http://thirdnarrative.org and the Hartman Institute’s IEngage program http://iengage.org.il. which have done a great job of re-framing and expanding the conversation. I offer workshops for high school juniors and seniors on how to deal with Israel-based conversations on campus, and I am clear that what we don't need is a catechism, but a whole new way of imaging who we Jews are in the world. 

The settlements, religious freedom, the role of women: criticize away. This is every Israeli’s favorite aerobic exercise. Why should they have all the fun?

But those conversations are about Israel’s policies, not about Israel’s existence. Israel is the only country in the world whose existence is up for discussion. It’s not what Israel does; it’s that Israel is. During the worst days of apartheid, no one called for the dismantling of South Africa. (In that regard, check out Ari Lesser’s fantastic rap about the folly of comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsOH2Y_CZE0 China decimated Tibet? No calls for its destruction.

No other country, however heinous its human rights violations, is the target of a BDS campaign. Even Mahmoud Abbas is opposed to it. http://www.algemeiner.com/2013/12/13/bds-activists-infuriated-by-abbas-rejection-of-boycotts-of-israel/“ No, we do not support the boycott of Israel,” he said. “We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.”

Like I said, I am all for open-mindedness.

The only question is: What about those who are so viscerally opposed to everything that Israel does, or is?

Are we wrong in hoping that they might be open-minded as well?


PS. I wrote a book about this debate -- A Dream of Zion. You might want to check it out. http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-415-3

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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