Hillel International's Shameful Retreat Behind the Barricades on Israel and Palestine

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A pro-BDS student attending the first Open Hillel conference in Harvard, Oct., 2014. Illustrative.
A pro-BDS student attending the first Open Hillel conference in Harvard, Oct., 2014. Illustrative.Credit: Gili Getz

On Kol Nidre evening, 1936, my parents – Norman (a Republican from upstate New York) and Vivien (a passionate leftist) – met each other for the first time at the University of Michigan Hillel House, and the rest, as they say, is history.  They married and created an observant Jewish home in a small town in northwest Pennsylvania nurturing their three children with deep Jewish values and learning.

Thirty years later, at the University of Chicago Hillel House, I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to learn and pray with Rabbis Max Ticktin and Danny Leifer.  To this day, I look at Max and Danny as mentors for my Jewish life.  My Hillel rabbis taught me how I could weave together my social justice values with the tradition and how to engage Jewish texts to find meaning in my life.  They also set me off on a lifelong study of the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber.

And then thirty years later, my son Jonathan had the privilege to go to the University of Chicago and to learn from Danny. Jonathan was active in the egalitarian Upstairs Minyan, became President of Hillel at U. of C., and started an outreach Shabbat dinner program for unaffiliated Jewish students.  He reveled at Hillel – as he does to this day - in being able to navigate between Orthodox, Conservative, and nonaffiliated Jewish friends.

Unfortunately, my family’s three-generation romance with Hillel has recently been destroyed.  Hillel International has adopted its Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities that exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel.  Those Guidelines have been used by Hillel groups at a number of campuses throughout the country to bar speakers, prevent co-sponsorship of programs with Palestinian groups, and sanction student leaders who participated in non-Hillel related activities thought to be prohibited by the Guidelines.

The Hillel experiences of my folks, my son, and I were ones which did not require loyalty oaths or litmus tests for participation. Instead, they provided experiences with different kinds of Jews and Jewish belief.  Our mentors did not shy away from controversial issues but instead inspired us to struggle with texts and with each other.  I think for all of us, Hillel provided a model for the ideal kind of Jewish community we wanted.

Hillel’s Guidelines are totally inconsistent with the Hillel my family has experienced over the generations.  I am a non-Zionist who supports Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel for its treatment of Palestinians both in and outside the Occupied Territories. In an odd way, I attribute this support to my Hillel experience. While Max Ticktin disagrees strongly with some of my positions, he’s the one who introduced me to Buber’s writings on a bi-national state, and he’s the rabbi who helped me explore the social justice roots in our tradition. And he’ll certainly be the one to engage with me about our differing positions – but with serious arguments and respect. 

And because of Hillel’s Guidelines, my son Jonathan, a Zionist, has thrown Hillel International’s recent solicitation letter in the garbage. The Hillel he experienced with Danny Leifer – and his assistant Rabbi Suzanne Griffel – was one which focused on outreach not barricades. (Jonathan, in fact, is now a member of a havurah in Chicago with Rabbi Griffel.  That community reflects positions from BDS-supporters to hawks, but, like the Hillel we remember, respects diversity of opinion.)

Precisely because of my commitment to the model of Hillel that my family and I have experienced, I have become a member of the Academic Council of Open Hillel, a grassroots movement run by students and recent graduates that opposes Hillel International’s Guidelines. Open Hillel takes no position on issues of Israel and Palestine but encourages inclusivity and open discourse about those issues.

As an academic for the past thirty-six years, I have been struck by my students’ independence of thought and openness to dialogue with fellow students holding views diametrically opposed to their own. In classroom discussions, I have often been impressed with the ability of students to respectfully listen and respond to their peers on even the most controversial issues of the day. They balk at any attempt to police their thoughts. I have never seen a reason to “protect” students from dangerous ideas. The only protection they need is from those who attempt to stifle their vibrant dialogue. From my perspective, the primary purpose of a university education is to for student to develop the ability to think critically and deeply – a skill which will serve them for the rest of their lives.

It is shameful – I would even say a Chillul HaShem (a desecration of God’s name) – that Hillel’s policy undermines not only the purpose of a university education but also is turning away Jewish students who wish to have the same experience of give-and-take with other Jews my family has had over the last eighty years. To me, this isn’t simply an issue of civil liberties; it’s an issue of destroying Hillel’s core identify. For that Hillel International should be ashamed.

Stefan Krieger is Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Applied Legal Reasoning at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law, Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.

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