Commentary Magazine

The Anti-Zionist College Ploy

Hillel, the world’s largest campus organization for Jewish students, has become embroiled in a row over its guidelines for debate and discussion about Israel. It began with the decision by the Harvard University Hillel not to host a lecture by Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, because of the cosponsorship of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, a group explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel as an independent state. This resulted in a flurry of condemnation among Jewish liberals—one commentator, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, went so far as to accuse Hillel of violating the second commandment by encouraging “idolatry of the State.” Then, most dramatically, a group of Jewish students at Swarthmore seceded from Hillel in a gesture of protest, relaunching themselves as an “Open Hillel.”

It is unusual for national newspapers to provide detailed coverage of political disputes among students. But if the students are Jewish, and if the topic of their quarrel is the Palestinian conflict with Israel’s legitimacy, then—at least as far as the New York Times is concerned—an exception will readily be made.

As Times correspondent Laurie Goodstein related the Swarthmore saga, Jewish leftists on campus were being willfully prevented from holding an honest exchange of views on Israel by an establishment terrified of criticism in any form. Pride of place in Goodstein’s account was given to the clarion call in the Swarthmore “Open Hillel” manifesto: “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.”  

Since an integral part of Hillel’s mission is to encourage the identification of Jewish students with Israel, it would seem understandable that its gently restrictive guidelines might forbid collaboration with those, like the Palestine Solidarity Committee, who enthusiastically subscribe to the holy trinity of contemporary anti-Zionism. This involves, first, the portrayal of Zionism as a form of racism, along with its corollary, that Israel is an apartheid state. Second, it mandates support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that depicts Israel as the most capricious and repressive of all 193 member states of the United Nations. Third, it backs the elimination of Jewish sovereignty in the name of a single state, Palestine, in which Jews would, at best, become a subjugated minority.

Yet, as Swarthmore’s Hillel rebels would have it, positions such as these should be welcomed with open arms by Jewish institutions on campus. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, one of the Hillel critics at Swarthmore, Joshua Wolfsun, was careful to paint the dispute as being between young, restless minds on the one side and paranoid, dogmatic adults on the other.

Hillel’s role, Wolfsun said, should be to allow “students of different perspectives [to] come together and talk about things”—even if those “things” include giving serious consideration to a “solution” to the conflict that the vast majority of  Israelis regard as a warrant for their annihilation. In the name of free speech, the “Open Hillel” proponents believe it is perfectly acceptable to usher into Hillel’s meeting rooms organizations such as the Palestine Solidarity Committee, whose website includes a “salute” to the BDS strategy by Richard Falk, an anti-Semitic UN rapporteur who has dabbled in 9/11 conspiracy theories, and Jewish Voice for Peace, a tiny anti-Zionist group whose offerings include special prayers for the Palestinians to be recited on Tisha B’Av—one of the most solemn fast days in the Jewish calendar, which mourns, ironically enough, the destruction of Jewish sovereignty by the Babylonian and Roman conquerors in ancient times.

As a consequence of this frenetic activity, the stage was set for yet another blazing fight about political tolerance in the American Jewish community. Moreover, with one set of protagonists cleverly staking an immediate advantage by declaring themselves to be “open,” in the expectation that their adversaries would henceforth be reviled as “closed,” opponents of the anti-Zionist onslaught found themselves playing a defensive game from the outset.

The left’s stress on openness did not begin with the present quarrel over Hillel’s guidelines. For decades, American Jewish opponents of Israel have bemoaned what they regard as the indisputable fact that their views are deliberately marginalized. The most obvious and innocuous explanation for this state of affairs (that these detractors are, in numerical terms, a tiny minority within a Jewish majority that both supports Israel’s actions and sympathizes with its strategic predicament) is cast aside in favor of something more sinister: the accusation that American Jewish organizations engage in a kind of ideological gerrymandering that muzzles non-conformist voices.

The complaint is ludicrous. No one is asserting that anti-Zionists have no right to speak; indeed, so prevalent is their influence in Middle East Studies departments and among student activists that it is actually the pro-Israel groups that should be worried about discursive balance. This is hardly a new development. As the Middle East scholar Barry Rubin recently explained, Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, which he classifies as the university program that has historically been most “supportive of the Arab nationalist… Islamist, and anti-Israel line in the United States,” decided on this exact name in 1975 for the sole purpose of circumventing the restrictions on teaching about Israel laid down by its astronomically wealthy funders in the Arab world. In our own time, students engaging with the Middle East are quite likely to encounter the invective of Joseph Massad, the assistant professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia who has asserted on Al Jazeera’s website that any mention of the “holocaust” (a word he deliberately spells with a lowercase h) should be balanced with an invocation of “Israeli and Zionist crimes.” They are far less likely to have a professor who discusses the virtues of Jewish settlement on the West Bank.

Nor is there any concerted attempt to block criticism of Israeli policy, even when this strays into the territory of outright delegitimization. The writer Peter Beinart, who has pushed for an adaptation of the BDS strategy so that it prioritizes the targeting of Jewish communities living in the West Bank, has lectured at several Hillels around the country, making his argument that the “Jewish establishment” lives in a “cocoon.” In addition, there is at least one case of Hillel citing its guidelines in defense of the Jewish left. When, in December 2011, the umbrella body at Berkeley known as the Jewish Student Union voted to deny membership to the college chapter of J Street, a lobbying group that calls itself “pro-Israel” while opposing sanctions on the Iranian regime, both the Hillel president and its executive director issued a statement urging that the exclusion be reversed. J Street, which has frequently exploited the theme of a closed Jewish establishment in its own battles, then shamelessly inverted the same argument in a letter to the Forward. “Even as pillars of the American Jewish establishment recognize the need to include J Street and others like us in the broadening tent of pro-Israel advocacy,” wrote four of its supporters from the Berkeley campus, “those on the right double their efforts to shut us out.” (My emphasis.)

All this raises an obvious question. If this same myopic establishment is “broadening its tent,” if students, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, can access anti-Zionist arguments with ease (some might say that the real challenge lies in avoiding them), and if full-blooded criticism and debate concerning Israel’s actions is not just allowable but encouraged, then why the need for an “Open Hillel”—or an “open” anything else?

The left’s answer is that Jewish institutions need to adopt an openness that is limitless. In essence, Hillel is being press-ganged into welcoming a strand of anti-Israel opinion that sees no purpose in debating Israeli policy because of its hard-wired belief that Israel as a state should not be there to begin with. Beinart and those who share his perspective are, apparently, not enough: What must happen, as the website Mondoweiss predictably and gleefully proclaimed, is that “young anti-Zionist writers” like Max Blumenthal (an American Jew who recently authored a diatribe against Israel entitled Goliath) and Susan Abulhawa (a Palestinian) must be invited to speak under Hillel’s roof.

This highlighting of Blumenthal’s and Abulhawa’s ethnic origins, which would probably be condemned by leftists in any other context, is not an accident. By dint of his being a Jew, the logic goes, Blumenthal’s foaming hatred of Zionism deserves a hearing. By dint of her being a Palestinian, the same argument continues, Abulhawa is entitled to the same courtesy, because she belongs to a nation whose iconic, transcendental victimhood has been consistently denied by Israel’s supporters in the United States. Any of the well-grounded anxiety about the substance of their positions—Blumenthal’s career as a demonizer of Israel has been aggressively promoted by the Iranian state broadcaster Press TV, as well as by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, while Abulhawa straightfacedly believes that such is the power of the so-called Israel Lobby, “if you criticize Israel, you must expect to become persona non grata”—is subsumed by the contention that their backgrounds absolve them of any malicious intent.

Even so, the putatively amiable appeal on behalf of openness at Swarthmore requires the “Open Hillelians” to jump through several hoops to defend it. Most critically, it demands that any semblance of independent judgment be suspended when it comes to addressing the one aspect of this dispute that has, thus far, been buried: the intimate relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

From J Street leftwards, there is a marked emphasis on the importance of decoupling anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism. The contention is that using the term “anti-Semitism” to describe someone’s views is a ruse to divert attention away from Israel’s iniquities. This is accompanied by the idea that no Jew can be an anti-Semite, along with the claim that any Palestinian indiscretions on this subject can be forgiven with reference to the traumas induced by the “occupation.” Hence, the bearers of anti-Zionism faithfully follow the precedent set by European anti-Semites more than a century ago, insofar as they present their prejudice and bigotry not as prejudice and bigotry but as worthy ideals that carry the promise of justice for all. And why on earth would anyone want to “censor” those pro-justice aspirations?

In the process of advancing these shibboleths, the true goals of anti-Zionism are either obscured or sanitized. Swarthmore’s “Open Hillel” is particularly telling in this regard, offering the following summary of the BDS movement’s nature and purpose. “BDS is a political strategy to pressure Israel to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories and change certain policies,” it announces breezily on its website, thus enabling the unsuspecting reader to reasonably conclude that the objective of eliminating Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people is nowhere on the agenda.

Before anything else, what has been published here is actually a distortion of the stance of the original authors of the BDS strategy. Compare the above sentence with the opening paragraph of the declaration of the “Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel” (PACBI), the foundational document for the academic boycott campaigns that mushroomed in the U.S. toward the end of last year, as well as in Europe during previous years: 

Whereas Israel’s colonial oppression of the Palestinian people, which is based on Zionist ideology, comprises the following:

• Denial of its responsibility for the Nakba—in particular the waves of ethnic cleansing and dispossession that created the Palestinian refugee problem—and therefore refusal to accept the inalienable rights of the refugees and displaced stipulated in and protected by international law;

• Military occupation and colonization of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza since 1967, in violation of international law and UN resolutions;

• The entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which resembles the defunct apartheid system in South Africa.

In identifying “Zionist ideology” as the root of Israel’s original sin, in its designation of the political system within Israel’s 1948 borders as “apartheid,” and in its portrayal of Israel’s creation as a nakba (“catastrophe”) for the Palestinian Arabs, the PACBI text is unambiguously clear on the point of Israel’s legitimacy: It doesn’t have any. It therefore follows that the only policy adjustment that Israel needs to make is the one whereby it commits suicide—or else. No amount of editing wizardry on the part of “Open Hillel” activists can change this basic reality.

Why is this anti-Semitic? There are two principal reasons. First, the demand to dismantle the state of the Jewish people by effectively quarantining it represents a frontal assault on the main guarantor of Jewish security in the post-Shoah era; what is stipulated here is not the sharing of power or land, but the destruction, without discussion or negotiation, of a sovereign state that emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust. Second, the eliminationist position magnetically attracts the stalwarts of ancien régime anti-Semitism. It is what led the authors of the Kairos Declaration on Palestine, a radical Christian initiative in support of BDS, to recycle pre-modern Church anti-Semitism by decrying Israel’s existence as a “sin against God and humanity.” It is what encouraged advocates of the academic boycott on an inter-university listserv to spread the Goebbelsian conspiracy theory that Lehman Brothers transferred its assets to Israel just before the investment bank collapsed in 2008. And it is what undergirds similarly foul slanders that are absorbed uncritically by the proponents of BDS, such as the allegation that Israeli doctors “harvested” the organs of Haitian earthquake victims.

Much as some elements of the Jewish left would like to construct a Chinese wall between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, the breach has already occurred. Were Hillel to give its seal of approval to speakers who position themselves as anti-Zionists, it would quickly discover that its buildings would host all sorts of conspiracy-mongers. Supporters of the boycott no longer confine their justifications to attacks on Israel’s Jewish nature; weaved into their propaganda are related tropes about the dangers of Jewish political power outside Israel, together with the suspicion that Diaspora Jews who view Israel benignly are by definition disloyal to the countries where they reside. This, more than anything else, explains why so many Jewish members of Britain’s Association of University Teachers (AUT) felt compelled to resign from the union at the height of the academic boycott campaign in the UK. It also explains why French President François Hollande felt compelled to reassure his country’s Jewish community with these words: “Your attachment to Israel is normal.  You don’t have to apologize for it.”

By contrast, Americans are far less amenable to such demonizing rhetoric. The pretensions of the BDS campaign here to emulate the success of the movement against apartheid in South Africa seem almost laughable when one considers that, in the days following the announcement of an academic boycott of Israel by the American Studies Association, nearly 100 universities denounced the move. Indeed, some of them followed up by disaffiliating from the ASA. This was exactly the reverse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s malicious warning, as reported by Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, that Israel’s settlement policies would lead to a delegitimization campaign “on steroids.”

For that reason, Israel’s defenders need to approach the Hillel guidelines dispute by recognizing that they do so from a point of strength, not weakness. The greatest threat posed by the BDS movement is its slipperiness, which enables its advocates to traffic in anti-Semitic themes while woundedly denying anti-Semitism in both intent and effect. Yet this hackneyed technique is not insurmountable. A confident Jewish community should be able to point out that there is not a single instance of post-Holocaust “anti-Zionism” that has not been stained by anti-Semitism from the Communist repression of Soviet Jews in the name of combating Zionism to the forcible separation of Jewish from non-Jewish passengers on an Air France jet hijacked by left-wing German terrorists in 1976.

Doing so should radically convert the current debate. By abusing the notion of “openness,” the “Open Hillelians” are, with greater deliberation than has been recognized thus far, attempting to secure Jewish institutional blessing for eliminationist anti-Zionism, more commonly known as anti-Semitism. It is time to tell them—firmly, assuredly, boldly—no.

About the Author

Ben Cohen is a writer in New York. He contributes frequently to Commentary’s blog.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.