In one of my favorite stories in the Talmud, the disagreements of the schools of Hillel and Shammai are solved when a heavenly voice calls out, “These and those are the living words of God, but the law is as according to the school of Hillel.” The reason, we are told, is that the school of Hillel not only presented both points of view, but even taught the opposing view first.
To me, this story teaches us two important lessons. First, we must listen to and understand the claims of our intellectual opponents, to the point where we can explain their point of view as if it were our own. Moreover, even when we recognize the logic and validity of a dissenting voice, we nevertheless may remain convinced that our path is the right one.
During my years as an active participant at the Hillel at Harvard University, I felt that the institution lived up to the worldview of its namesake and students. The institution would take a stand on various issues (religious, political or social) but it allowed multiple voices to be heard.
So I must admit that I am somewhat disappointed by the latest controversy between Hillel International and Swarthmore Hillel over the validity of inviting non- and anti-Zionist voices to speak at Hillel-sponsored events. The position of Hillel International calls for open dialogue on the one hand, but on the other hand restricts the voices that do not support Israel as a Jewish state.
Hillel has defined its mission as “enriching the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” Judaism thrives on a culture of respectful yet impassioned disagreement, and I question if the decision to prevent - not recommend against, but forbid - voices that do not support Israel in its current state from even speaking under a campus Hillel’s roof indeed enriches the lives of Jewish students. I cannot imagine how the best way to inspire a sense of strong Jewish identity would be to shield a student from views that may challenge him or her.
Indeed, Hillel should be exactly the place where college students explore and challenge their relationships to Israel by being exposed to a variety of views. The organization does not need to endorse a particular viewpoint that disagrees with Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in order to feel that it is worth being heard. Instead, Hillel should be a place where Jews and non-Jews explore the different sides of the many issues that are relevant to Jewish life today, with the State of Israel high on that list.
At the same time, Swarthmore College’s Hillel leadership should see that Hillel’s policy is not without wisdom. Groups that define themselves as “anti-Zionist” choose to take an amorphous term (after all, there is no one definition of Zionism) and oppose it at all costs. A group that appears hostile toward 6 million Jews living in Israel may come off as - or indeed even be - hostile toward Jews, and their inclusion in the discourse may prevent Hillel from succeeding in its mission.
Swarthmore’s Hillel is operating out of a desire to make sure that Jews who identify as anti-Zionist still can come to Hillel as a place to deepen their connection to Judaism. But who is to say that such a stance may not prevent many Jews from feeling that Hillel is a safe place in which they can explore their Judaism? Perhaps Swarthmore’s stance, like that of Hillel International’s, gets in the way of fulfilling its mission.
As Jonathan Tobin points out in Commentary Magazine, Hillel should not be inclusive for the sake of being inclusive. Yet, a blanket statement such as that which Hillel International has made does not only exclude hate speech, it excludes any questioning of whether the current State of Israel is the proper expression of Torah and Judaism. Even if it believes that Israel should exist as a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders, Hillel can recognize that engaging with Judaism involves engaging with that question, too.
The approach of Hillel International also ignores one crucial aspect of the dialogue around the state of Israel: the Palestinians. Does Hillel believe that hearing Palestinian voices is an important part of developing an opinion on Israel? If not, is Hillel promoting a worthy discussion on the topic? If so, does Hillel believe that only “pro-Israel” Palestinians are worthy of being heard?
Ultimately, the problem with the current debate lies with the lack of nuance. Hillel International, in aiming to prevent its affiliates from becoming a home for extremist groups that espouse anti-Semitism, has essentially given a national directive to severely limit dialogue. Swarthmore, on the other hand, in its attempt to strike back, has publicly stated that it will be a home to any voice, no matter how hateful. Both would do well to evaluate every program and every speaker case by case, remaining true to their mission as a home for an exploration of Judaism and all that that entails.
Arie Hasit, a rabbinical student at Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM - the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.
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