Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life will soon name a new leader. As the JNS news agency reports, the group, which operates at campuses all over the nation, is set to appoint a new CEO to succeed Wayne Firestone, who presided over a period of growth and controversy as the group both expanded its reach while also coming under fire in some quarters about the nature of its response to anti-Israel agitation at American universities. The prospect of a change at the top of Hillel has prompted a debate not so much about who the choice should be but about what the group should be focusing on as it deals with the problems of students who are largely representative of an American Jewish population that is often Jewishly illiterate, doesn’t affiliate with synagogues and Jewish groups, and has distanced itself from Israel. Most important, Hillel is, in the absence of viable competitors, the frontline defense group for students who must contend with a growing movement to demonize Israel.
Everyone concerned with or about the group seems to agree that the response to the BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement against Israel is an important element of Hillel’s task. But there is deep division about how aggressive it should be in dealing with the increasingly venomous campaign against the Jewish state which has long since crossed over from mere criticism of policies to open anti-Semitism. There’s also debate about how big Hillel’s “big tent” approach to Jewish community should be as left-wing groups critical of Israel as well as avowedly anti-Zionist organizations want to be included. This is something of a trap for pro-Israel activists on campus as well as for those who want to aid and/or influence Hillel to be more effective. The main problem that will face Hillel’s new CEO is not so much who gets to join the group or their politics but whether the organization is prepared to drop the gloves and the usual kumbaya pabulum that seems to be the standard response of so many Jewish professionals and campus organizers when faced with BDS agitators.
Some critics of Hillel have focused on the willingness of many campus branches to welcome J Street into its ranks and to allow the group to help influence its decisions about programming. Given J Street’s willingness to reflexively criticize Israel and to align itself against the Jewish state’s democratically elected government, the rancor of many in the pro-Israel community toward the group is understandable. But those who wish to draw a line in the sand that would put J Street effectively outside the community are making a mistake.
J Street’s stands have often marginalized it in the Jewish community and rightly so. Their approach is wrong-headed, but they are not so much a threat to Israel as they are irrelevant to the main questions facing it or its supporters. J Street’s only significance is that it is an attempt by a portion of the Jewish left to dispute the question of who speaks for American Jewry—the mainstream AIPAC or a small liberal group. Without the affection of a mainstream press that has no love for Israel, few would hear of them and they have virtually no influence on Capitol Hill or even in an Obama White House that they ardently support.
But there is no point in excluding it from Jewish communal bodies. Doing so is not only tactically wrong because it makes them martyrs and feeds the false narrative that the pro-Israel majority is suppressing critics. It’s also wrong because any group that is willing to not just say it is “pro Israel” but to actively oppose BDS deserves to be inside the tent, not kept out. For all of its faults, J Street has consistently passed that test. As much as I find its outreach to BDS supporters unsettling, the group is right when it says it has a better chance of convincing fellow leftists of the need to oppose boycotts than do mainstream groups. Thus, I find myself in agreement with those liberals who wish to include J Street inside the Hillel tent.
The key issue is not keeping out J Street, it is in resisting those like Jewish Voices for Peace–who make no secret of their opposition to Israel’s existence, its right of self-defense and their support for BDS–and those groups like Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance that are ready to make common cause with them. Those students and their backers who wish to create an “open Hillel” that would welcome and sponsor joint events with pro-BDS groups ought not to have a place in the organization. It is that bright line that must be preserved if students are to have a chance to face down the anti-Israel mob.
Hillel needs a leader that can work to unite students under the pro-Israel banner but in a context that recognizes the fundamentally anti-Semitic nature of BDS thinking. It should be remembered that any group that is willing to treat Israel and the Jewish people differently from any other and to deny it rights they wouldn’t deny anyone else is demonstrating prejudice. Prejudice against Jews is anti-Semitism and any argument that fails to make this point about BDS will flop.
While Israel’s supporters should not get side-tracked into a spat with J Street that serves no purpose, what Hillel’s new head must understand is that the fetish with inclusiveness at all costs will fatally handicap the group’s efforts to defend Israel and Jewish students. While all groups that back Zionism should be welcomed, neutrality toward BDS is no different from being open-minded about anti-Semitism. Calls for an “open Hillel” give a pass to hate that has gone mainstream on many campuses especially on the West Coast.
Hillel can respond positively and effectively to BDS in many ways that do not include confrontations. But above all, what Hillel needs to remember is that the most important thing the community can do for students is to help give them the courage to stand up against the haters and their cheering sections among the faculty and other bastions of left-wing conformity. If Hillel cannot muster the courage to denounce those advocating BDS, then it will not be doing its job.