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Why Hillel is failing in the fight for Israel on campus

by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

December 30, 2013 | 12:02 pm

Perhaps it’s only fitting that we should end 2013 with the dumbest Jewish debate of the year, namely whether Swarthmore College's Hillel should be allowed to have an open policy of bringing anti-Zionists and other Israel haters to lecture under its banner.

Firstly, Swarthmore’s announcement of their "Open Hillel" policy is wildly hypocritical. Really? You’re that open to free speech? Then why only on Israel? Jesus is arguably the most famous Jew who ever lived. Allow Christian evangelists to lecture to the Hillel students as well, not to mention anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists who espouse Jewish dominance of the media and finance to advocate their positions as well. In fact, why have an “Open Hillel” at all, which is far too limiting. Excise the word Hillel and just make it “Open”, open to all ideas, all persuasions, all religions, all philosophies. Why limit it to things Jewish at all, which is about the most closed thing I’ve ever heard of.

Asking Hillel to open itself to anti-Israel advocates is like asking the Democratic National Convention to have Ted Cruise take a night to speak about the virtues of the Republican party. There is nothing inherently wrong with it, except that it contravenes the entire idea of having a Democratic party in the first place.

So how could we have this debate at all? Who would condemn Hillel – and its brave new Chief Executive Eric Fingerhut – for insisting on Hillel’s pro-Israel posture when no other campus club dedicated to a specific proposition would be asked to shoot itself in the mouth by giving a platform to its most ardent detractors? Noone’s going to ask the pro-Democracy club to give speaking slots to communists, or human rights organizations to have North Korean representatives speak about the glory of dictatorship.

It’s rather a sign of how badly Israel is losing on campus, and how delegitimized Israel has become in the halls of academia, that this debate is happening at all.

Twenty-five years ago last Friday, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me and my wife to the University of Oxford to promote Judaism on campus.  It was 1988 and Yasser Arafat had just proclaimed the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was interpreted as a kind of de facto recognition the State of Israel, thereby grating him and the PLO legitimacy.  I was 22 years old when I founded the Oxford L'Chaim Society and hadn't anticipated an immediate and constant need to defend Israel from vicious attacks.

The tipping point for me occurred that first year when members of the PLO appeared at the Oxford Union and had an open forum to spew overtly inflammatory hate speech against Israel.  Following that event I had to immediately confront additional unexpected philosophical battles pertaining to the Jewish State at every turn.

The model that I used to defend Israel through the Oxford L'Chaim Society was to establish a middle ground between allowing an open assault on Israel by its most ardent critics in my Jewish student center, and outright banning them from our activities.  We chose to debate them instead.  Not in our student facility - that was a place for teaching people to love Israel – but in the leading halls of the University where thousands of students who were not part of our organization gathered. We would engage our critics head on and welcome organized, rules-based debates, pitting two clearly defined sides on Israel, in the University’s main venues. We operated in the confidence that Israel’s cause was just and that the Jewish state could win arguments in the marketplace of ideas.

We organized thousand-student debates on the justice of Israel’s cause, its treatment of its Arab citizens and Palestinians, and Israel’s ongoing fight for survival. We proved in open arguments that Israel had the most humane rules-of-engagement of any country at war in the world. We proved that Israel’s Arab citizens had more rights than any country in the Middle East.

Which leads to my main question as it pertains to the news from Swarthmore: Why isn't Hillel doing the same?

The problem with Hillel, of which I am an ardent supporter, and other Jewish campus movements, like Chabad, of which I am a part, is that rigorous debate of Judaism and Israel’s critics is not central to their activities. Too often intellectual exchange is subordinated to social events. But a Hawaiian Shabbos, or a Jewish film festival, is no replacement for the main purpose of students being at a University, which is to be immersed in an intellectual environment where ideas shape character and identity.

At countless Jewish activities that I witness on campus it’s about this party or that party, this dating event or that movie night.  Such a watered-down format insults the intelligence of the students and inhibits the potential for real intellectual activism.

The L'Chaim Society model was based on engaging in political, religious, and philosophical discussions and, when it came to Israel’s critics, rules-based debates that clearly identified two opposing sides that would battle it out. What we sought to create above all else was a life of the mind that would inform and influence a life of the spirit.  We, of course, had Purim and Chanukah parties, Shabbos dinners, and Passover seders.  But more than anything else we had a focus on intellectual debate, which entailed bringing renowned speakers -- Elie Wiesel, Mikhail Gorbachev, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Natan Sharansky -- to campus to appear and defend Israel and argue other values-based issues that electrified the students. It was the L’Chaim Society that started the world-famous science versus religion debates that were the very first that Richard Dawkins participated in, and that would later spill over into the United States, Canada, Mexico, and beyond.

But more than anything else, we attacked Israel's enemies head on. We would never think of granting Hanan Ashrawi, for example, a platform to simply discuss, let alone, attack, Israel under our banner. But we sure as heck sough to have speakers of her caliber engage Israel’s eloquent defenders in organized, university-wide debate in the belief that the Jewish state and its record of human rights would emerge victorious.

When it comes to Jewish life on campus we always seem to apply the notion that progress is being made by addressing soft issues, largely of a social and politically correct manner, such as Judaism and gender, Judaism and feminism, Judaism and egalitarianism, Judaism and homosexuality, etc.

While these are important issues, they are a poor substitute for the hard-edged debates that will shape the students political, cultural, and spiritual outlook.

It was in these debates at Oxford that gifted communicators like Ron Dermer, one of our student presidents, first cut his chops in defending the Jewish state against attack. Today, he is Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. It was listening to debates like these that Cory Booker, today our Senator from New Jersey and another one of our student presidents, heard the justice of Israel’s cause and became defenders of Jewish nationhood.

Hillel should be sponsoring and funding a national effort where, once-a-week, students are trained and groomed as defenders of Israel and Judaism on campus.

The Oxford Union, where we held so many of our debates – and where I will join Israel’s current and outstanding Ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, in a debate about Iran this March – is internationally recognized as a beacon of intellectual exchange. It is an amazing thing to witness young students achieve what they have always been capable of – riveting and intelligent dialogue and debate – but just needed someone to give them a proverbial nudge to discover said capability.

If Hillel and Chabad want to have a true impact on Jewish students they should subordinate the social events and the tired gender-homosexuality-egalitarian discussions to the hard-nosed debates about Israel, the truth of Judaism, and the other great challenges to Jewish identity.  There is a time for social gatherings.  But the focus must be on the intellectual aspect of Jewish life, the hardcore meat and potato issues that face both Jews and the State of Israel.  There is no shortage of topics, nor of need to address them.  All that is required is a bit of inspiration and focus from the top.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls "the most famous Rabbi in America," served as Rabbi at Oxford from 1988-1999. The international best-selling author of 30 books, he will shortly publish "Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer." Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. Like Rabbi Shmuley's Facebook Page /RabbiShmuleyBoteach.

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