Which Hillel are you?

hillel_logo_print300Ah, youth!

For only youth, in all its headstrong, contradictory and stubborn ways could see the need to partner against its own interests. The driving desire to be seen as open-minded, fair and even-handed, though, is what must drive the Open Hillel movement, those students who feel that International Hillel’s partnership guidelines are too restrictive.

The movement began with the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance in 2012. The organization was set to host a discussion, “Jewish Voice Against the Israeli Occupation,” with the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee. Harvard’s Hillel asked them to move the discussion from Hillel to another site. International Hillel’s guidelines prevent its affiliates from partnering with groups that support the B.D.S. (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, as well as those that deny Israel’s right to exist, demonize the state of Israel or hold it to a double standard or foster a disruptive campus atmosphere in regards to Israel activities.

Open Hillel gathered steam in 2013 when first Swarthmore’s and then Vassar’s Hillel groups declared themselves part of the movement. And now, two students, Daniel Mael, a Brandeis University junior, and Raphael Fils, a sophomore at Boston University, have started Safe Hillel, a countermovement, insisting that Jewish and pro-Israel students need a place where they can air their views, free from the harassment that takes place on some college campuses directed at Israel and its supporters.

I am reasonably sure that the 91-year-old Hillel movement, could no more imagine when founded that it would one day be defending itself against Jews who wanted to unite with groups that actively speak against the Jewish state anymore than it could have imagined that such a state might one day exist. Started in 1923, the group was designed to support the tiny Jewish minority on college campuses, giving them a place to be Jewish and to counter the secular allure of the outside world.

The two students at the heart of Safe Hillel say they have no desire to squelch debate and feel that discussions between Jewish and Palestinian groups on campus should happen. Hillel just doesn’t need to be a a host. The idea that a group cannot set parameters about what sort of groups it wants to partner with and what sort of image it wants to craft, without being accused of stifling free expression, they say, is ludicrous. The NAACP, they point out, would in all likelihood not choose to partner with the Ku Klux Klan.

As someone who worked most of my life in newspapers, protecting free speech is a core value. I’m sympathetic to Open Hillel, but not to the point that I think they are right. I’m reminded of the time in the early 90s when I was working at the News & Observer in North Carolina, when Bradley Smith, the Holocaust denier, sought to place ads in college newspapers, and did so successfully at Duke University. The gambit almost always worked: Smith would purchase an ad; the students running the paper would debate whether to accept it and worry that its content – that the Holocaust didn’t really happen the way history said it did – would be offensive; but their strong leanings toward “free speech” and “fairness” would win out. The aftermath was the perfect storm of publicity for Smith, who would end up in local and sometimes national news stories, in mass-circulation dailies that would never have dreamed of accepting his ad to begin with.

I don’t mean to imply that Open Hillel groups are seeking craven publicity the way Smith was; but they have a lot in common with the students who felt that they somehow owed Smith fairness and had an obligation to air his views. Open Hillel appears to genuinely desire that Hillel be a leader in the Israel-Palestine debate and that in doing so should be obliged to partner with groups that support anti-Israel and B.D.S. sentiments.

Partnering with groups that support B.D.S., in particular, is naïve and you have to be blind to not understand that their ultimate goal is a world without Israel. Roger Cohen of the New York Times, not Israel’s strongest proponent writes that the B.D.S. movement supports the Palestinian right to return to the homes from which they were displaced and that this, combined with the movement’s desire to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and its support of the rights of Arab-Israeli’s in Israel, “equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This is the hidden agenda of B.D.S., its unacceptable subterfuge: beguile, disguise and suffocate.”

So in Hillel’s defense, the organization is merely protecting what it sees as the core value for which it stands, a world where Jewish values are supported and furthered. I’m not sure that’s possible to do with groups that are hoping you really aren’t a  long-term option.

Certainly, I would not want to see Hillels unable to offer thought-provoking, difficult programming. We’ve seen Jewish federations and JCCs around the country come under fire for supporting cultural programming with controversial films and plays that challenge our assumptions and views on Israel. At JCC Rockland’s 2012 Cultural Arts Festival, Ibrahim Miari presented his one-man play “In Between,” about what it was like to grow up in Israel, the son of a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father. It was a fascinating, not-often seen point-of-view and I was glad for the opportunity to take it in, even if I wasn’t always comfortable throughout the performance.  I would hate to see funding and support dry up for such work.

At the same time, open Hillel strikes me as a bit like anti-vaxxers, those people who wish to opt out of vaccinating their children for perceived potential harm. The anti-vaxxers simply have no reference point, no recall of a world in which diseases like small pox scarred and deformed people at best, killed them painfully at worst. Likewise, the students at the heart of Open Hillel simply have no recollection of a world where they might not wear their Jewishness so outwardly on a college campus, one without a Jewish homeland, one in which at least six million of us were destroyed.

That is the luxury of their youth. But given the stakes, is it a luxury they can afford to have?

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