Hillel, Intimidation and ‘Free Speech’ for Jewish Students on Israel

A former Hillel director asks Hillel International’s CEO why his organization’s Israel guidelines seek to limit free speech and critical views of Israel by Jewish students on campus.

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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

Dear President Fingerhut,

As a former Hillel director it pains me to declare in the strongest possible language my objection to – and disappointment at - Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines.

As a Jewish professional I fully acknowledge the historical, theological, spiritual and cultural relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. At the same time I recognize that the nature and particular approach to that relationship can take many forms and, most importantly, does not necessitate a particular view of the policies of any Israeli government.

Hillel presents itself as “The Foundation of Jewish Life on Campus” and has historically endeavored to include and reach out to all Jewish students. The commitment to diversity and inclusion has always been at the core of the Hillel mission – a mission that all of us Hillel professionals have always embraced. This is a commitment that Hillel International, on its web site and in public statements, continues to honor. Except in relation to the State of Israel.

As part of its Hillel Israel Guidelines, Hillel professes, commendably, that it

“welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensible partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning,”

and further, that

Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

But then the Guidelines undermine its commitment to “diversity” by adding:

Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders;
Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel;
Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;
Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.

I fully agree that students or groups should not “demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel” or “exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior . . .” However, these guidelines effectively assert Hillel International’s power to determine the limits of criticism and assert that support of Israel can only be defined the way Hillel defines it.

Judaism has a long tradition of open discourse and even controversy. Hillel’s restrictive guidelines present some serious issues of free speech, inclusivity and political intimidation, and are a serious break from Jewish values and traditions.

Declaring that everyone associated with Hillel must accept Israel as a strictly Jewish and democratic state is highly problematic. To begin with there are those who believe that Israel’s current policy is moving inexorably toward a Jewish and racist state which is terribly self-destructive and actually threatens not only Israel’s character as a democratic state but its very existence.

Should those who love Israel but worry for its future and are therefore led to support, for instance, a so-called “one-state solution” be excluded from participation in Hillel? If that is the case, some ardent Zionists of the past such as Martin Buber, Judah Magnes , Haim Kalvarisky as well as Asher Hirsch Ginsberg [Ahad Ha’am] would have to be excluded from Hillel. And Brit-Shalom, a deeply committed Zionist organization that some of these revered individuals identified with, would not be allowed to meet in a Hillel building. It’s time for Hillel, in keeping with its commitment to inclusion, to stop trying to define for everyone what concern for Israel really means.

As for BDS, the reality is that people who use BDS as a cover for anti-Semitism are a small minority in a BDS movement that is itself far from homogenous. There are those who advocate for not supporting entities that help maintain what they view to be an illegal and immoral occupation of Palestinian territory and there are others who believe that only the economic pressure of boycott will move Israel’s leadership to end the occupation and restore civil and human rights to the Palestinian people.

A significant majority of American Jews have historically supported boycotts as a viable and effective non-violent strategy to move immoral actors to “do the right thing.” We [Jews] were in the forefront of opposition to Apartheid in South Africa, stood with the farm workers when we were asked to boycott lettuce and grapes, marched [as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously did] with civil rights marchers – and bus boycotters – and for that matter we supported the boycott of Pepsi Cola when it chose not to do business with Israel in response to the Arab World’s own boycott of Israel. More recently the institutional American Jewish community aggressively lobbied for a boycott of Iran.

Regardless of what any individual believes about any of these strategies it is unacceptable to exclude Jewish students or student groups because they believe that, for instance, the occupation of Palestine is illegal and immoral, that previous strategies have not moved Israeli leadership and, therefore, others must be employed. Is it now acceptable for Hillel to defend free speech for Jewish students only if they agree with what we tell them to believe about Israel? I would hope not.

Hillel does itself and Israel no favor by alienating young Jews. As you know, recent studies have shown that political support for Israel is declining among young Jews. Hillel’s role should not be to fight criticism of Israel on campus, but to draw as many Jewish students into its buildings and programs, offering them the “civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning” that it claims it “seeks to facilitate.”

Respectfully, and with gratitude for the privilege of doing the work I was able to do at Hillel.

Martin R. Federman is a Jewish educator who was the executive director of the Hillel Foundation at Northeastern University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He is currently an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace and co-chairperson of American Jews for a Just Peace-Boston.

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