Jewish Students on Campus Should Be Free to Make Up Their Own Minds on Israel

Hillel only practices paternalism on one subject. While it’s OK to express disbelief in God or halakha within their bounds, the same can’t be said for expressing certain beliefs about Israel.

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Hipster Herzl.
Hipster Herzl.Credit: Amit Shimoni

Last week, Tablet Magazine’s Unorthodox podcast interviewed Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-occupation movement that supports BDS. The conversation was tense at times, with Vilkomerson sometimes taking issue with the questions posed to her by the hosts, particularly Liel Leibovitz (who recently wrote a column encouraging readers to buy wine from Israeli settlements.) But while both sides were far apart politically, the conversation was generally respectful.

While a centrist Jewish publication could have this conversation, it couldn’t happen at Hillel: Hillel International thinks students can’t handle it. In 2010, Hillel enacted its Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities, which prohibit Hillel chapters from hosting speakers or partnering with groups that do not support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; that “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against Israel”; or that “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.”

We represent two generations of student activists in Hillel: one from now and one from the 1970s. While many details are different, the fierce debates around Israel have not changed in nearly half a century. But for both of us, one thing remains the same: Jewish students need to be allowed to make up their own minds and not be told what to think by “adults.”

Hillel does not practice this paternalism on other issues on which Jewish students differ. Some religious students may be uncomfortable with Hillel supporting Jewish LGBT groups, but Hillel has consistently welcomed such groups, even a decade ago when they were more controversial than today. Similarly, Hillel would never bar a Jewish atheist from speaking about secular Jewish identity.

But while it’s okay to express disbelief in God or halakha at Hillel, the same can’t be said for expressing certain beliefs about Israel. Instead of allowing students to grapple with the entire breadth of views on Israel, Palestine, and the conflict, Hillel has decided to infantilize students by creating discursive boundaries — which they have enforced by threats of legal action — on which views are acceptable.

For three years, Open Hillel has protested Hillel’s policies and called for the elimination of such restrictions on communal discourse. We envision campus Jewish communities in which all students — including those who hold controversial opinions — are able make their own decisions on programming.

Open Hillel’s opponents say that Hillel should not give a platform to those who do not want Israel to be a Jewish state.

Many, however, argue that the champions of the settlement movement and those who want to continue the Israeli Occupation also threaten Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Should Hillel International bar them as well? And despite Hillel’s ostensible opposition to speakers who don’t support a democratic Israel, last June Hillel International reportedly planned to attend an anti-BDS summit hosted by right-wing billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has said, “[God] didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?” We find it difficult to believe that Hillel would ban Adelson from speaking at campus chapters - despite his blatant contravention of their policies on Israel - when they attend events hosted by him.

But rather than banning views that some find disagreeable, we believe that Hillel should ensure that students can hear these voices on the right together with those on the left and everyone in between. To do otherwise would be to tell students that they should not struggle to understand these issues in a Jewish context.

Some have questioned why we focus on Hillel and do not attempt to open other organizations — such as J Street, JVP, or AIPAC — to all points of view. These groups are advocacy organizations that aim to advance particular political positions, not to serve as a home for all Jewish students on campus. Hillel, by its own charter, is different.

Hillel, which calls itself “The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life,” has to decide whether it’s an umbrella organization for all Jewish students or one that prioritizes a political agenda above this goal. Having seen many Jewish students’ opinions on Israel evolve dramatically during the college years, we believe students should enjoy a politically diverse Jewish space for exploring and debating their views.

Some contend that students who disagree with Hillel’s Israel policies should go elsewhere. We beg to differ. In Pirkei Avot, Hillel is recorded as saying, “Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not be sure of yourself until the day you die.” We do not believe in separating ourselves from our fellow Jews. And while many of us have strong views on Israel, we also believe in having a degree of intellectual humility, listening to the diverse viewpoints held by all in our community, whether they boycott Israeli products or buy wine from the settlements. If only Hillel International held by the same views as the original Hillel.

Caroline Morganti is a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the head of the Open Hillel Steering Committee. David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis, a three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award and a member of Open Hillel’s academic board.

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