Those seeking to keep Jewish organizations alive and well in an era when assimilation is shrinking the numbers of those affiliating with such groups can’t be blamed for emphasizing inclusiveness. There aren’t that many Jews to start with, so a big tent is always a necessity when it comes to creating a viable community. But there are times when such groups must draw the line. That’s what Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut did when he warned the group’s Swarthmore College chapter that it was out of line for deliberately ignoring guidelines about Israel advocacy. Fingerhut will take a beating in some quarters for this decision since it will be portrayed on the left as an attempt to suppress free speech or as a measure that will exclude some Jews from the umbrella organization for campus activities. But Fingerhut made the right call.
By telling Swarthmore that its willingness to host anti-Israel groups and speakers was out of bounds, Fingerhut is sending a necessary message that should be heeded throughout the American Jewish world. At a time when worry about inclusiveness and outreach has become an omnipresent mantra, Hillel has reminded us that inclusiveness for its own sake is a trap, not a formula for a stronger community. Providing a platform for those who advocate for Israel’s destruction is legitimizing hate, not facilitating a productive dialogue. If Swarthmore wishes to promote anti-Zionism and efforts to boycott, divest, and sanction the Jewish state, it cannot do so under the imprimatur of Hillel.
As JTA reports, Swarthmore’s chapter rejected Hillel’s guidelines for campus activities saying, “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” On the surface that sounds reasonable and non-judgmental. Why shouldn’t a student group welcome anti-Zionists? Aren’t their views just as worthy of a hearing as those of people who support Israel’s right to exist?
Actually, no they’re not. There are plenty of venues, especially on contemporary college campuses, for those who wish to argue for waging economic warfare on Israel or to claim that the Jewish state must be dissolved. In a free country, people have the right to spew all kinds of hatred. But there’s something particularly bizarre about the notion that it is the responsibility of Jewish groups to facilitate such activities.
Israel is not perfect and Jewish groups should reflect the same diversity of opinion about its politics and government that is present in the country’s lively free press and democratic political system. But supporters of BDS and anti-Zionism are not mere critics of West Bank settlements or urging Israel’s leaders to make more concessions to the Palestinians in peace talks. They are working for Israel’s destruction.
Doing so puts them not only outside what passes for reasonable discourse in a Jewish community but in the category of those who are supporting hatred and rationalizing violence. These Israel-haters don’t merely judge democratic Israel by a double standard not applied to genuine tyrannies around the world like China or Iran. They would deny the Jews the right to their own country (wherever its borders might be drawn) in at least a part of their ancient homeland and their right of self-defense against the terrorists and terror-supporting states that threaten it. That is something they wouldn’t think of applying to any other ethnic or religious group. As such, it is an act of bias. While some are shy about calling such activities anti-Semitic, that is exactly what they are no matter whether those taking part claim Jewish ties or not.
Swarthmore is not alone in wishing to legitimize Israel haters. As I noted last week and yesterday, the willingness of liberal groups like the New America Foundation to support the author of a vicious anti-Zionist book shows the troubling manner in which such haters have been able to use their connections on the left to mainstream their noxious point of view. But as dangerous as that trend is, it is even more insidious for Jewish groups to fall prey to the same trick.
Some in the Jewish community, such as Rabbi Melinda Weintraub, the director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs Civility Initiative (who spoke at a forum with me at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center this past weekend), think it is a mistake to close any doors to groups taking such positions. She says we are misconstruing their positions or misunderstanding the motives of anti-Zionists and believes the community will be stronger if it places no such limits on dialogue with the BDS crowd.
But a community that is willing to treat hatred against Israel as normative will not only be incapable of organizing support for the embattled Jewish state. It will be committing suicide. A community that stands for nothing but inclusiveness is one that stands for nothing and has no reason to go on functioning. A group that legitimizes such hate is adopting a deconstructionist view of Jewish life that would both make a mockery of its liberal principles and betray its Jewish mission. Hillel has no more business hosting a BDS advocate or anti-Zionist than it does in providing a platform for neo-Nazis or a racist like David Duke.
Fortunately, Hillel has recognized that as much as it wishes to encourage diversity it cannot compromise on fundamental principles. A line must be drawn when it comes to advocating against Zionism or for Israel’s destruction. The Israel-haters have no place in American Jewish life.