Open Zion

12.16.13

How Hillel Is Losing Touch With the People It Purports to Embrace

The continuous attempts of Hillel’s directors to silence voices critical of Israel, which recent events at Swarthmore College exemplify, are a battle waged by Hillel’s directors against the Jewish tradition of pluralism, tolerance and the pursuit of social justice.

Hillel’s insular policies are enshrined in its Israel guidelines. The guidelines are unequivocal in stating not only Hillel’s support of Israel and Israel's centrality to American Jewish life, but also that this is to be accepted as an unquestioned axiom. Thus the guidelines deny room for any view that questions or rethinks the sustainability or value of an Israel defined as a “Jewish and democratic state,” regardless of the obvious tension that is built right into this formula. The mere acknowledgement of this tension is deemed un-Jewish by Hillel’s guidelines. The guidelines go further in forbidding the mere consideration of any significant political action against Israel. That is, regardless of any policy implemented by an Israeli regime, reprehensible as it may be, any position that calls for, say, sanctions against such a regime cannot as much as be voiced within Hillel.

swarthmore-college-openz
Swarthmore College (Fritz Ward / Flickr Creative Commons)

As Hillel is the dominant Jewish organization on most American campuses, we, Jewish Israelis and Israeli-Americans with close ties to academic life, find the narrowness of views that are deemed legitimate by Hillel intellectually meek, counterproductive for sustaining a thriving Jewish community on American campuses, demeaning of our Jewish tradition and identity, stifling of both our Israeli and American voices and concerns, and finally morally offensive.

The events unfolding at Swarthmore remind us that Hillel’s guidelines leave out an increasing number of American Jews, and many have begun to take action. Hillel here is in danger of becoming progressively less relevant, if not positively alienating, for more and more Jewish students as part of a process that has been excellently drawn out and analyzed by Peter Beinart in his NYRB piece. While we certainly do not claim that Hillel should be the only center for Jewish life on American campuses, we merely state that as long as Hillel presumes to represent Jews and Jewish lives it cannot consist of this single voice.

As Israelis, we can testify that Hillel is increasingly excluding more of us, whose nation Hillel purports to embrace. Recent events where Avraham Burg (a former chairman of the Knesset) was denied the chance to speak in the Harvard Hillel, or where members of Breaking the Silence (all former Israeli combatants) could not participate in events sponsored by Hillel only serve to make this evident. The upshot of this is not necessarily that Hillel must be more inclusive of Israelis—Hillel is an American organization—but rather that Hillel’s not-to-be-questioned vision of Israel is simply losing contact with the reality experienced by an increasing number of Israelis.

With this in mind, there is an important constituency within the Israeli borders that Hillel has already lost contact with, namely Palestinians (both within and outside the 1967 borders) who can tell a story or two about the meaning of a “Jewish and democratic state” that Hillel so cherishes. For Hillel to foster a vision for American Jews that is centered around Israel while setting guidelines that effectively prevent contact with the people who are on the receiving end of this vision and integral part of Israeli reality is perhaps the most egregiously immoral aspect of the guidelines.

The action taken by Swarthmore Hillel in declaring itself an Open Hillel points at the right direction: It is time to stop censorship, recommit to true pluralism and openness, and reaffirm the value of open democracy and critique, including radical critique. A one-view organization cannot represent us all, least of all in a university setting that aims for universal values and open critique. A one-view organization cannot represent us all, least of all when it is concerned with our diverse and conflicted region.