Bar the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Amos Oz and Half the Israeli Cabinet From Hillel

The Jewish student organization's speaker guidelines are merely an excuse for powerful figures to torpedo speakers they don’t like. But why should the U.S. Jewish community be afraid of real debate on Israel?

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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The Swarthmore College chapter voted unanimously to reject Hillel International's restriction on Israel boycott programming.
The Swarthmore College chapter voted unanimously to reject Hillel International's restriction on Israel boycott programming.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

I’ve created a game. It’s called: “Which famous Jews, past and present, could be barred from speaking at your local Hillel, based on the organization's Israel guidelines?”

Contestants Number One: David Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua

Sure, they’re three of Israel’s most eminent novelists but, in 2010, each signed a letter declaring, “We will not take part in any kind of cultural activity beyond the Green Line.” That means they’re boycotting part of Israel, and the Hillel guidelines say it won’t host speakers who “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

It gets worse. According to a book entitled "The Jewish-Chinese Nexus," Oz visited China in 2007. China! A place at least as repressive and undemocratic as Ariel. Which means that Oz applies a “double standard to Israel,” yet another violation of Hillel’s guidelines.

And just this weekend, he called the practitioners of “price tag” attacks against Palestinians and other non-Jews “Hebrew neo-Nazis.” According to the Anti-Defamation League, comparing Israelis to Nazis equals “demonizing Israel.” You guessed it. “Demonizing” the Jewish state constitutes yet a third violation of Hillel’s guidelines.

If Amos Oz shows up anywhere near your campus kosher kitchen, alert a Hillel representative immediately.

Contestant Number Two: The Lubavitcher Rebbe

Last December, Hillel President Eric Fingerhut declared that, “’anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” What about a guy so passionately anti-Zionist that he refused to utter the words “State of Israel?” What if that same guy punished his supporters for even being present during the singing of Hatikva? What if he commissioned articles and books attacking Zionism?

The guy in question is Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last rebbe of the Lubavitcher Chassidim. Yes, Schneerson cared deeply about the people of Israel, because he cared deeply about all Jews. But when it came to the State of Israel, he was, by any reasonable standard, an “anti-Zionist” and a “delegitimizer.” And “anti-Zionists” and “delegitimizers,” according to Hillel, are beyond the pale.

Contestant Number Three: Ahad Ha’am

Ahad Ha’am was certainly a Zionist, perhaps the most important one after Theodore Herzl. But while he wanted a Jewish presence in the land of Israel as a cultural center for Jews around the world, he questioned whether that presence needed to take the form of a Jewish state anytime soon. In the 1920s and 1930s, his disciples in the Brit Shalom group—intellectuals like Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Judah Magnes and Henrietta Szold—believed they could promote Ahad Ha’am’s cultural Zionist vision while supporting a binational state.

The cultural Zionist tradition, in other words, runs afoul of Hillel’s demand that speakers support a “Jewish and democratic state.”

Contestants Number Four: The Israeli cabinet

Danny Danon, Israel’s deputy defense minister, has claimed that a majority of Israel’s cabinet members oppose the two state solution. Given how many Likud ministers— let alone their colleagues from Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party— support annexing most of the West Bank to Israel, Danon is probably right.

That means a majority in Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet wants Israel to permanently control millions of Palestinians who lack citizenship and the right to vote in the state in which they live. Thus, if Brit Shalom fails the “Jewish” half of “Jewish and democratic,” a majority of Israel’s cabinet fails the “democratic” half.

Why play such parlor games? After all, no one would really bar David Grossman or Naftali Bennett from Hillel; they’re far too important. But that’s exactly the point. The Hillel guidelines are so vague, and could be read to exclude so many people, that it’s impossible to enforce them fairly. As a result, all they really do is provide an excuse for powerful people in a given Jewish community to torpedo speakers they don’t like, provided those speakers are weak enough to be pushed around.

Hillel is reportedly reviewing its guidelines. I’d reduce them to one line: “Hillel will only host speakers who affirm the right of both Jews and Palestinians to live in the land of Israel.” Not everywhere in the land of Israel (which among other things would require supporting full Palestinian refugee return) but in the land of Israel.

That would exclude racists and would-be exterminationists who dream of a land cleansed of the other side. It would open Hillel’s doors to Palestinian intellectuals, virtually all of whom the organization’s current guidelines exclude. It would allow Hillel to host big, searching debates between people like myself who support the two state solution and one-staters to our right and left.

More broadly, it would show young American Jews that the open, noisy, creative argument culture that they identify with Judaism does not stop at Israel’s doorstep. And it would show them that when it comes to the most profound intellectual and moral debates surrounding the Jewish state, the American Jewish community is not afraid.

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