Jewish Journal


The Juvenile Swarthmore College Rebellion and the Priggish Talk of “Censorship”

by Shmuel Rosner

December 12, 2013 | 8:05 am

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

There's nothing I find more boring than the cries of "censorship" over every attempt to set ground-rules for discussions in Jewish institutions over Israel. Boring, Whiny, and Dishonest. These three adjectives perfectly fit the recent discussion about the decision by a branch of Hillel in Swarthmore College "to reject the Hillel guidelines for campus Israel activities".

Hillel guidelines state that "Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility".

Like it or not– Hillel is an organization, and organizations have rules. Those who don't want to follow these rules can always opt out and build their own organization. Or they can try to convince the heads of the organization to change the rules, or to make an exception. If they do, the organization would be wise to hear them out. But that wasn't the case with Swarthmore College.

The Swarthmore College students wanted to have it both ways – to both unilaterally defy the organization and to keep enjoying the benefits of being a part of it. The Hillel management, rightly, does not approve of such behavior. The President of Hillel, writing to the leaders of the Swarthmore College rebellious movement, explained that "we encourage debate and dissent, but we draw the line at hosting groups who would deny the right of the State of Israel to exist". I find this policy quite reasonable, if acted upon with a healthy measure of flexibility. But I also understand why other people might find it annoying, or might think that the rule is too strict, or that it's not smart, as it drives away students who have the potential to become engaged with Hillel. The debate over these rules is worth having. But the Swarthmore College branch didn't want to have a debate- it wanted to create a childish provocation, and to see how the adults react.   

It is clear why people want to have it both ways – do whatever they want and still enjoy the benefits of being part of an organization. Wanting to have it both ways is a general human desire. It is thus an important lesson for the young students of Swarthmore College to realize that in reality people can't usually have it both ways.

Enter the whiners. Like Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.

I only pick on poor Rabbi Bachman – surely a dedicated and worthy leader - because he penned an article for The Forward. And in this article he used the "censorship" formulation that tends to ignite my ire. So I should apologize to him in advance for unjustly making him, and him alone, the exemplary speaker for a camp to which he belongs. There are many Bachmans out there, and this post is addressed to all of them.

Anyway - Bachman explained in his article that he finds it "troubling to read about the recent controversy taking place between students at the Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel International over the alleged attempt by Hillel International to censor Swarthmore Hillel for joining the 'Open Hillel' movement and allowing for non-Zionist or anti-Zionist campus organizations to debate Israel under the Hillel umbrella".

Why "troubling"?

The rabbi has a blender, to which he pours a mix of anecdotes: from the anecdotes about Rabbi Hillel's life of great tolerance he learns that "censoring" a discussion is supposedly anti-Jewish. From the anecdotes from his own life as a participant and a leader in Hillel he learns that tolerating anti-Israel views is crucial for engaging young Jews today. In other words: the rabbi doesn't quite choose between making an argument against Hillel based on value, and making one based on pragmatic considerations.

There is a big difference, though, between these two possible arguments against the Hillel policy.

The one based on value is ridiculous: as I've already said – homilies about Rabbi Hillel aside - every organization has the right to draw a boundary for debate. Rabbi Bachman boasts about having tolerance for a "range of expressions and views on Israel" in his synagogue. And that's very nice. But I'm sure the synagogue also has its limitations, on Israel and on other matters. At least I hope it has limitations. Having a boundary is at the very essence of being an institute and having a world view. Would Bachman's synagogue tolerate a white-supremacist advocate of anti-Semitism as a speaker? I doubt it. Would it tolerate a blatant anti-gay activist as a speaker, or an anti-abortion activist preaching for the harassment of abortion clinic workers? The "range of expressions" must stop somewhere. For Bachman BDS is still within the tolerable camp, for Hillel it isn't. Based on a lot of experience I can testify that in most cases such boundaries are dictated by the political views of those drawing them.

Yet putting the priggish talk of "censorship" aside, we still have to answer the question of Hillel's policies' wisdom. Is this policy of keeping anti-Zionist and pro-BDS advocates out sensible? The advocates of openness – and again, let's be honest here: these are quite often the advocates for more criticism of Israel – would like you to believe that it isn't, that it makes youngsters of dovish persuasions not want to join Hillel. Of course, that's possible, but clear evidence is unavailable (unless one considers a string of articles by Peter Beinart evidence). The counter argument would be: have more anti-Israel talk in Hillels, and you might end up pushing away a core group of likely Hillel activists, of highly engaged students, of highly connected Jews, of the most dedicated leaders, and the most reliable philanthropists. In other words: contrary to what the Bachmans would like you to believe, either way – whether we allow anti-Israel talk or disallow it – there is risk of alienation involved.

So I guess there's only one way to find out if allowing blatant anti-Israel talk creates a bigger tent for Jews on campus, if it is just a way to keep the tent roughly the same size (but with other people), or if it is a way to make it even smaller: cut the leaders of the Swarthmore College rebellion loose and see if they manage to do something impressive on their own. See if their level of dedication to having an "open" Jewish group within campus matches their rhetoric. See if their juvenile provocation lasts more than one cycle of Jewish weeklies.

Oh, and one last thing: See if they – the rebels – keep their tolerant convictions to the extent that they include speakers of staunchly different persuasions (say, rightwing religious settlers) on their list of guest speakers.

As our fathers would say: let's see if this one is really - like Hillel and Shamai's - "a dispute for the sake of heaven". If it is not, they wisely taught us, it will not endure.

* * *

A calmer afterthought: What should really be done now is an attempt to engage the rebels, in hope that a detailed and reasoned conversation can persuade them to scale back their provocation and remain within the existing tent. My assumption, based on two conversations with people who claim to be familiar with the current situation: some of them already regret the hasty move and can be brought back into the fold, others will insist on remaining contrarians.

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