Don’t blame Hillel

Don’t blame Hillel

Last November, when former Knesset member and Jewish Agency chair Avraham Burg appeared at Harvard, a left-wing Jewish group at the university issued a news release declaring “Burg Barred from Speaking at Harvard Hillel.” The campus newspaper reported that “Hillel Leaders Seek To Open Discourse as Policy Bars Speaker.”

No, Burg did not speak at Harvard Hillel, but rather in a dorm common room. Because his appearance on campus was cosponsored by a Palestinian group that supports the movement to boycott Israel, Harvard Hillel chose not to host his talk, following guidelines set out by its national movement. Those guidelines say that Hillels “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

Those guidelines, which also reject partnerships with those who “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state,” are under scrutiny of late. Members of the Swarthmore Hillel voted to reject the national policy and instead declared they would partner and dialogue with “people across the political spectrum,” whether they be “Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” The Burg incident has been cited in most articles about the controversy, usually as an example of how the Hillel guidelines are suppressing dialogue over Israel.

Hillel has defended its guidelines as a sensible way to fulfill its mission, which is to “build an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning, and Israel,” as its president and CEO, Eric Fingerhut, put it this week. From this perspective, Burg wasn’t “barred” from Harvard Hillel; rather, Hillel chose not to partner with a sponsor of his talk. I can’t think of a private organization in this country — religious, civic, social — that doesn’t have parameters about whom it considers a friendly or useful partner. The notion of “free speech” was never intended to force private organizations to make nice with adversaries. As Matti Friedman reminds us in Tablet, “Anti-Zionism in 2013 is the belief that this country [Israel] should not exist — that it should, in some way, be made not to exist.” I’m sure most gay rights groups don’t cosponsor events with proponents of “reparative therapy” — that is, the eradication of gay behavior.

Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel, explained the guidelines to me this way: “If a student wants us to cosponsor a speaker who is dealing with Israel from the perspective that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state, Hillel guidelines direct me that I cannot cosponsor that event. Practically speaking, that’s very useful. It gives our students a sense of what Hillel stands for. We want to engage Jewish students wherever they are at, and with a wide range of options, but we do have limits.”

Nevertheless, critics of the guidelines say they are censorship, pure and simple. “This is an attack on free speech in its most naked form,” said a Harvard student who felt Hillel should have hosted the Burg appearance.

At heart, however, this is not a free speech issue at all. It’s really an internal Jewish debate over how big the “big tent” should be. I suspect that some of the Swarthmore students and other critics of the Hillel guidelines aren’t rebelling against Hillel, but against years of Jewish education that offered a narrow view of what was permissible or acceptable in talking about Israel. Jewish institutions, starting with Hebrew schools and expanding out to Birthright and the range of “advocacy” programs, do a great job in creating a sense of pride in Israel and its accomplishments. They are much less adept in conveying the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or discussing the kinds of wrenching internal Israeli debates reported so vividly in Ari Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land.

Some students exposed to these complexities as they emerge from the bubble of Jewish education are clearly overcorrecting in the interest of “open debate.” So too are Jewish students whose only exposure to Israel, Getraer reminded me, is through the lens of conflict or criticism.

But Jewish organizations have also overcorrected: Seeing the rise in anti-Israel sentiment on campus, they sometimes treat Jewish college students as victims and, worse, as children who need the protection of adults who know better.

Hillels, in this sense, are taking a hit for the missteps of others. The Hillel guidelines allow for a wide range of opinions and disagreements within what strikes me as flexible parameters — they specifically encourage local Hillels to “create their own Israel guidelines that are consistent with this document and reflect the local environment.” That leaves room for a Hillel to partner, say, with a Muslim group on nonpolitical activities, or entertain a debate on BDS short of “sponsorship.” If some students don’t feel safe in airing their views, that may be the failing of the student or professional leaders who interpret the rules. And many of those leaders are products, I suspect, of Jewish upbringings that did not value a full, probing dialogue on Israel.

If our educational and advocacy institutions were more willing to discuss Israel’s challenges as well as its triumphs, our college kids would be better equipped to deal with Israel’s critics and more willing to live within the framework of the mainstream Jewish institutions, starting with Hillel.

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