Hillel, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization-with staff, funding and physical space on some 500 mostly US campuses – says it wants to create a “welcoming environment for Jewish students on campus by fostering students’ ability to incorporate Jewish tradition into their lives.” Translation? Only Jews who pass an ideological litmus test on Israel are welcome. Others can stop at the door.
Despite the fact that Hillels exist on campuses where, by definition, intellectual inquiry and open discussion is embraced, Hillel’s national director Wayne Firestone is sharply opposing open inquiry and free expression for many progressive Jews who want to be part of organized campus Jewish life. In an essay he published this week:
Hillel’s Schusterman International Center issued guidelines this week to ensure that local Hillels know which organizations, groups and speakers are considered valid partners in promoting civil and informed discourse on Israel.
Our guidelines state 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.” We firmly state, however, that “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 toward campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
These new restrictive guidelines will only further alienate an increasing number of young Jewish students from Hillels, especially those who passionately embrace the values of justice and equality. These students who join campus groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (which has many Jewish and Israeli members), are looking to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for concrete actions they can take to push Israel to be accountable to international law. When even Theodore Bikel and Stephen Sondheim are advocating settlement boycott, it’s simply absurd to demand that politically active young Jews categorically refuse such tactics, and by extension, turn their backs on their Palestinian and Muslim friends and allies.
These students are also being asked to swear allegiance to an idea- a Jewish AND democratic state-which is increasingly being understood by more and more Jews as an aspiration but not a reality.
As Jeremiah Haber said in his extensive post on the guidelines,
After all, I don’t look forward to the day when a thousand Jewish JVPers dress up as Barukh Spinoza and picket Hillels on campuses throughout the countries. What I would rather see, as a college educator, former board member, and current supporter of my local Hillel, would be for local Hillel directors to engage JVP student groups….Engage, not boycott – isn’t that the message Hillel wants to get to the Jewish students?
Firestone’s newly announced guidelines, which will undoubtedly cause some pushback at individual Hillels where directors feel job security and tend to work more independently, are a sign of the times. They symbolize the fear of a juggernaut that cannot be stopped. He makes no attempt, by the way, to draw lines on the right.
As Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb points out, this Hillel policing behavior is not new:
As a target of Hillel’s effort to silence dissent before selective divestment and BDS arose on the horizon as a tactic to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and as someone who remembers when speaking to Palestinians was considered heresy, when supporting a two state solution was heresy, when protesting settlement expansion was heresy, when supporting Goldstone’s call for an investigation of Operation Cast Lead was considered heresy, it seems as if Hillel, once again, is failing to understand the positive contribution of nonviolent dissent to militarism and occupation to rabbinic and Jewish life.By silencing dissent in broad and highly idiosyncratic language, Hillel is exiling thousands of young Jewish activists to life outside our own community. As for boycott, it has an honored place in Jewish life, especially when it is used to express non-cooperation with actions that are harmful to the public.“Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is held responsible and liable for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of the entire world. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b) R. Zera said to R. Simon: Did you rebuke those of the Exilarch’s house? He replied: they will not take it from me. R. Zera said: Even so, you should rebuke them. (Shabbat 55a and cf. Tanhuma Tazria parag. 9).It has been further been taught: “It is forbidden to sell them weapons or accessories to weapons, nor should one sharpen weapons for them. One may not sell them blocks or neck-ands placed on prisoners or ropes or iron chains-neither to idolators (Romans) nor to Cuthites (a sect of Judaism). R. Nahman said in the name of Rabbah b. Avuha: Just as they ruled that it forbidden to sell (these items) to an idolator so is it forbidden to them to an Israelite who is suspected of selling them to an idolator (Roman). The rabbis taught: It is forbidden to sell them shields, but others say that shields may be sold to them. (They were used for decorative purposes) Said R. Nahman in the name of Rabba b. Avuha: The law agrees with the others. Yerushalmi 15b-16aThe text describes a form of boycott in order to avoid cooperating with Roman military rule, even if one is making a profit. Noncooperation withacts that violate human rights in an ancient and honored form of religious action.Finally, the Jewish American community supported the farmer workers’ boycott of grapes and the boycott of Nestle products because they believed in the universal principle of human rights which both boycotts supported. Why is selective divestment or other forms of consumer boycott different because it is directed at Israeli violations of human rights in the form of illegal land seizure?Especially when these violations are being committed in our name? Rather than a form of delegitimization of Israel, the very act of protest by supporting selective divestment and public protest in the media and on the street is upholding the democracy that those who love Israel claim to cherish and promote.