In Boycotting the Boycotters, Hillel Is Shooting Itself in the Foot

Hillel is no better than the ASA: By muting opposition voices, it excludes the very people it should engage.

Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon

What do Hillel International and the American Studies Association have in common?

While they have very different perspectives on Israel, each organization employs the same tactic to advance its agenda: excluding certain voices with which they disagree.

Hillel did it when it threatened to expel its Swarthmore chapter for passing a resolution to reject Hillel International’s Israel guidelines, and the American Studies Association did it when it boycotted Israeli academic institutions.

Both organizations were deeply misguided in their decisions.

In both of these cases, the groups claimed that they would refuse to endorse or give voice to institutions that support so-called controversial political views. In both cases, members of the Jewish community responded with outrage, citing the intellectual dishonesty of banning important ideas from the conversation, and the inherent problems in singling out whole groups of thinkers over their political sympathies.

In a an article in Open Zion, Peter Beinart aptly noted that responding to the ASA boycott by appealing to freedom of speech or “double standards” is an easy way out for critics who wish to suppress challenges to Israeli policy. The cop-out is more than just a refusal to engage with a debate on occupation; it reflects a total disregard for the limits on speech that some American Jews place on our communal conversations.

Hillel International’s president, Eric Fingerhut, claims to be a supporter of open discourse among individuals, saying his organization accepts Jewish students no matter their views, but would be more picky about which organizations it partners with and which programs it sponsors. The ASA has the same approach: Collaboration with individuals is fine, so long as it takes place outside institutional arrangements. But a truly open conversation requires both individual and institutional participation. Individuals with competing ideas can only engage in public conversations when facilitated by institutions. Views that “individuals are allowed to hold” cannot possibly add anything to the conversation if they are denied public platforms.

When an institution decides which public debate is allowed, it reduces its own ability to credibly object to boycotts – including those of Israel. While much of the Organized Jewish Community - from J Street to the Anti-Defamation League - rightfully rejected the ASA boycott’s attack on open discourse, Hillel, the foundation for Jewish student life, did not. While Hillel International did not release a statement condemning the ASA boycott, individual actors within the organization – including its president Fingerhut and many individual Hillels – wrote Facebook posts condemning it. The lack of response from Hillel international highlights the challenges of organizationally rejecting one boycott while supporting another.

Matti Friedman argued in Tablet that Hillel’s restraints are ultimately good, because the “repugnant ideas” the guidelines protect have no place in the organized Jewish community. I, as a university student who is passionate about the work our campus Hillel does, disagree. Events we’ve hosted on my campus in conjunction with our Hillel, like “Breaking the Silence,” – Israel Defense Forces veterans who speak out against the injustices of Israeli military actions in the West Bank and in doing so allegedly delegitimize the Israeli army - have drawn hitherto uninvolved Jews into an increasingly diverse dialogue about Israel and the Palestinians. (While our Hillel believed BtS fell within the guidelines, Swarthmore’s board noted that in other places, this was not the case.) Similar events, including those outside the framework of the current Israel guidelines could have the same impact. Just last week, the Forward reported on students at Swarthmore on the left and right who came out of the woodwork following the Open Hillel resolution, to have the largest Shabbat dinner Swarthmore Hillel has seen.

Thus, while Hillel is a private institution with no stated commitment to “academic freedom,” and no stated obligation to promote intellectually honest discourse, it has the power to further enrich Jewish life on campus by actively facilitating open conversations.

So why does Hillel continue to impose such strict, self-defeating conversational limits? It’s a matter of conflicting interests between Hillel’s donors and students, according to J Street U’s president, Jacob Plitman. In an article in the Jewish Week, Plitman wrote that while the students seek a broader conversation and an end to the occupation, the donors want Hillel to toe its conservative line on Israel. Hillel’s double standard on boycotts throws Plitman’s argument into sharp relief; Hillel only opposes the boycotts that the old guards of American Jewry - many of whom also make up their most substantial donors - oppose.

No wonder young American Jews committed to ending the Israeli occupation feel disillusioned and angry when Hillel treats them the same way the ASA treats Israeli universities. The more Hillel alienates criticism of Israel from its party line, the more it alienates students who are passionate about Israel but object to its policies or ethnocentric character.

In its mission statement, Hillel International says it wishes to build enduring connections to Israel. By enforcing the Israel guidelines, the organization stands in its own way of achieving this goal, because a sizeable group of students define their connection to Israel beyond, or on the fringes of, Hillel’s framework for permissible dialogue. So when their voices are stifled, they cannot partner with Hillel to foster anything. Really, Hillel’s tactic is no better than that of the ASA: It serves to exclude the very voices it should engage.

Benjy Cannon studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is deeply involved in collegiate Jewish life at Maryland Hillel and is a J Street U communications co-chair. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at

Boycott Israel sign (illustration)Credit: Dreamstime

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