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More Notes on that “Limiting Dialogue on Israel” Nonsense

by Shmuel Rosner

December 17, 2013 | 7:58 am

Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College

  1. Swarthmore

A few days ago, I wrote a rather harsh article about the Swarthmore College Hillel controversy. I called the actions of the student-rebels "juvenile", as I think they are. I wrote that those students want "to have it both ways – to both unilaterally defy the organization and to keep enjoying the benefits of being a part of it".

Arie Hasit, a rabbinical student at Schechter, is more understanding, yet still critical of the Swarthmore position. In an excellent article he explains why the rebels are wrong. He also said that the Hillel leadership is wrong. I'll get to that second part, where he might be wrong, later:

Ultimately, the problem with the current debate lies with the lack of nuance. Hillel International, in aiming to prevent its affiliates from becoming a home for extremist groups that espouse anti-Semitism, has essentially given a national directive to severely limit dialogue. Swarthmore, on the other hand, in its attempt to strike back, has publicly stated that it will be a home to any voice, no matter how hateful. Both would do well to evaluate every program and every speaker case by case, remaining true to their mission as a home for an exploration of Judaism and all that that entails.

Hasit rightly identifies the problem with the students: they want a carte blanche to use the Hillel brand and to share it with whomever they choose to let in. The recent episode only proves that giving them such a carte blanche would not be a good idea. Where Hasit is wrong – I believe – is in assuming that the current Hillel policy "severely limits dialogue". In fact, what I know suggests that Hillel – when it is not confronted by blatant incidents of deliberate provocation – is fairly loose in applying its guidelines on Israel. Critics of Israel are let in without problems. Harsh critics, too. Post-Zionist speakers, if they are deliberate and not hateful, too.

In fact, as far as I know (and if proven wrong, my position on this matter will be altered) the number of cases in which Hillel has asked its branches to disinvite or refrain from inviting speakers is not very high. Of course, there is the famous case of the Harvard Hillel and Avrum Burg that we all heard about. So let's talk about it.

  1. Harvard

Larry Cohler Esses wrote a useful post on The Forward's web site about Burg and Hillel. Form this post you can learn the following:  A. It is not at all clear whether this 'Burg barred from Hillel' incident even happened B. Burg did speak at a closed Hillel event at Harvard. C. the Harvard Hillel would not cosponsor an event with an organization that advocates a boycotting of Israel.

I called Burg, whom I know well. He didn't seem offended by Hillel or by what had happened. This was not about barring me from appearing before Hillel students, he said. In other words: Burg – as provocative and as annoying to some as he might be – is allowed to appear at Hillel events (as he did in Harvard). The story that is repeatedly popping up in posts written by hotheaded leftists ("Recent events where Avraham Burg was denied the chance to speak in the Harvard Hillel") is, to be generous with the writers, not exactly accurate. The issue at Harvard was not Burg, it was the association with the "Palestine Solidarity Committee". Hillel doesn't want to have joint activities with a group that supports BDS against Israel. I don't see a problem with that. The Harvard/Burg story, in other words, hardly proves that Hillel "severely limit[s] dialogue".

  1. Hillel

As I wrote in my other post on this matter, two different issues are at hand here: A. is the Hillel stance moral/reasonable/defensible? (It definitely is.) B. is it wise? On this issue, Hasit makes a point similar to the one I made the other week:

Swarthmore’s Hillel is operating out of a desire to make sure that Jews who identify as anti-Zionist still can come to Hillel as a place to deepen their connection to Judaism. But who is to say that such a stance may not prevent many Jews from feeling that Hillel is a safe place in which they can explore their Judaism? 

On this specific point I'd up the ante a notch by saying the following: Hillel is obligated to first make the pro-Zionist students comfortable, and only then strategize about how not-so-pro-Zionist students can also be brought into the tent. Think about this the way politicians think about their constituency: the core first - and only then the more distant groups of potential supporters. Those who neglect the needs and demands of their core group of supporters don't last.

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