Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hillel

What Jewish Students Really Need

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.

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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.

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Hillel’s BDS Battle and Anti-Semitism

To listen to the arguments put forward by Harvard students to create what they call an “open Hillel,” their fight with the national Hillel group is about the right of young Jews to free association. The students say that rules mandating that the organization not partner with groups that support BDS—the anti-Zionist campaign that aims to boycott, disinvest and sanction the State of Israel—or host speakers that advocate such measures are unfair and limit their ability to have dialogue with Palestinians. To the thinking of the Progressive Jewish Alliance that is, according to the Forward, organizing the campaign against Hillel, such rules “stifle discourse” and discriminate against those who disagree with Israeli policies.

But this controversy isn’t about the deadening hand of a Jewish establishment determined, as leftists claim, to silence dissenters. Any Hillel branch that regards groups that are struggling to destroy Israel in this manner would in essence be declaring their neutrality not only about the continuation of the Zionist enterprise but that they can no longer be counted among those prepared to bear witness against the discriminatory ideology at the heart of the drive for BDS. Those who wage war on one people and deny the same rights they readily concede to any other group are advocating a form of bias. Such a bias when directed against Jews has a name: anti-Semitism.

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To listen to the arguments put forward by Harvard students to create what they call an “open Hillel,” their fight with the national Hillel group is about the right of young Jews to free association. The students say that rules mandating that the organization not partner with groups that support BDS—the anti-Zionist campaign that aims to boycott, disinvest and sanction the State of Israel—or host speakers that advocate such measures are unfair and limit their ability to have dialogue with Palestinians. To the thinking of the Progressive Jewish Alliance that is, according to the Forward, organizing the campaign against Hillel, such rules “stifle discourse” and discriminate against those who disagree with Israeli policies.

But this controversy isn’t about the deadening hand of a Jewish establishment determined, as leftists claim, to silence dissenters. Any Hillel branch that regards groups that are struggling to destroy Israel in this manner would in essence be declaring their neutrality not only about the continuation of the Zionist enterprise but that they can no longer be counted among those prepared to bear witness against the discriminatory ideology at the heart of the drive for BDS. Those who wage war on one people and deny the same rights they readily concede to any other group are advocating a form of bias. Such a bias when directed against Jews has a name: anti-Semitism.

Were Hillel to back down on this issue it would not be a victory for free speech or free association. Rather, it would mean the most important Jewish campus organization would be signaling that the war on Israel is neither hateful nor worth opposing. BDS is, after all, not just a point of view about the settlements or borders or the peace process. It is an economic war on Israel whose purpose is not an alleged reformation of its policies but a desire to bring it to its knees and hasten its destruction. It is an attempt to deny to the one Jewish state in the world the right to self-determination and self-defense in the face of armed foes who threaten it with terror and violence.

It needs to be understood that this is a very different argument from those that have divided many Jews in this country about the peace process. Groups like J Street and other left-wing critics of the current Israeli government may take a point of view about the country that is harmful as well as based in a poor understanding of the realities of the Middle East. Those who think Israel should be pressured from abroad in order to make concessions that are opposed by the country’s democratically elected government and the vast majority of its citizens are doing something shameful. But so long as they continue to support the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself and oppose those who seek to wage war on it, such groups must still be considered as having not crossed an important line between legitimate dissent and actions that are beyond the pale of communal conduct.

This debate is illustrative of the fact that there is a point of view prevalent in contemporary Jewish life that views any attempt to draw lines between those inside the community and those outside it as illegitimate. It values inclusiveness above Judaism, Jewish values and even Jewish survival. It fetishizes dialogue with all comers as the supreme good even if such encounters serve only to legitimize forces that are serve as fronts for those who wish to destroy the Jewish state.

The increasing acceptance of this frame of reference about Jewish life is a dangerous development for an American Jewish community that has spent the last two generations faltering in its effort to maintain itself against the ravages of assimilation. While the idea of welcoming everyone fits in nicely with our pluralistic American ethos, a community that is defined primarily by inclusiveness is one that stands for nothing. Such a community is not only unsustainable; it may not be worth saving.

But the application of the principle of inclusiveness to BDS supporters takes this trend to a new low. It is one thing to say Jews may believe anything about their faith or support any political point of view. It is quite another to say that there is nothing amiss with a nominally Jewish group that is neutral about the war on the Jewish state.

Any student who believes that being “progressive” requires them to be open to working with BDS supporters fundamentally misunderstands not only liberalism but the intent of Israel’s foes. Neutrality toward BDS is no different than neutrality toward beliefs that stigmatize Jews. What these students don’t understand that is that their fight for an “open Hillel” means giving a pass to hate.

It is up to Hillel to resist this attempt to transform a Jewish campus group into a beachhead for those who make common cause with these anti-Semites. Inclusiveness is not an excuse for acquiescing to an ideology of hatred. There is no alternative but for Hillel and its supporters to stand their ground and to help Jewish students find the courage to stand up against the enemies of their people.

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