An Open Letter to Open Hillel, Part I

[In the days just before the Messiah] a man's enemies will be the members of his household .... --Talmud Tractate Sotah 49b (quoting Micah 7.6)

At a recent panel discussion, I mentioned the passage above in response to a question about how American Zionist Jews might engage with those American Jews who are perhaps more comfortable calling themselves anti-Zionists. Apparently I struck a nerve, because after the panel an audience member stormed up to me and shouted angrily, "I am a proud anti-Zionist Jew, and you call me an enemy! How dare you!" I thought he was about to hit me before others pulled him away.

For the record, I do not consider anti-Zionist (or just very Israel-critical) American Jews my "enemies." Such Jews rightly have their place inside my personal tent, as I would hope that I have my place in theirs, and I look forward to many vigorous conversations under the big top. That said, I am deeply worried that many of the positions such Jews defend seem indistinguishable from those of Israel's enemies, who seek Israel's destruction. That they would further promote these positions at a time when Arabs are attacking Jews every day all over the region only strikes me as legitimizing those attacks, rather than condemning them.

Which brings me to the Open Hillel movement, and its newly-formed Academic Council. Here is what these academics, now numbering over 80, affirm:

"As an academic, I support Open Hillel's efforts to restore the values of critical inquiry, inclusivity, and disputation to Jewish campus communities. Hillel International's Standards of Partnership narrowly circumscribe discourse about Israel-Palestine and only serve to foster estrangement from the organized Jewish community. Regardless of my own political beliefs, I reject any attempts to stifle conversation about Israel-Palestine, ostracize student or faculty activists, or monitor the speech of students or intellectuals inside Hillel and the campus ¬at large. Just as our classrooms must be spaces that embrace diversity of experience and opinion, so must Hillel. By joining Open Hillel's academic council, I affirm my commitment to bringing these values to life both in my classroom and in my community."

[Note: To see SPME's statement opposing Open Hillel, with currently has over 430 signatories, click here.]

As is often the case, the abstract language helps make the views more palatable, or even seem irrefutable. Who could be against "critical inquiry," "inclusivity," and "disputation," after all? These academics affirm that their position is independent of their political beliefs, but instead comes from their support of free speech in general. And we all value free speech, don't we?

But in practical terms, it is quite clear what they are seeking. Hillel already accommodates anyone who is supportive of Israel, even by critical discourse (Hillel's "Israel Policy" and "Vision for Israel" may be seen here). To demand that Hillel become more "open" is de facto to demand that Hillel open itself to those whose intentions are something less than supporting, promoting, and defending Israel. It is de facto to aim to dilute the already limited resources that are spent toward supporting Israel on campus and channel them instead toward attacking Israel. That many of the Academic Council members openly support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement (BDS) tells you about their real motives: for at the same time as they clamor for Hillel to embrace the noble values of openness and inclusivity and disputation, they are clamoring to close off and exclude the very Israelis who might dispute them. One can't but wonder if it is really their commitment to openness and free speech that is driving them.

As for those Academic Council members who claim that they are supportive of Israel: the de facto outcome above is the clearly foreseeable outcome of the Open Hillel movement. It's hard to understand how you call yourself supportive of Israel when your actions only empower those who seek to damage and destroy the Jewish State.

And there are many who seek that end.

It's no secret that American campuses are becoming extremely hostile to Israel. The growth of Students for Justice in Palestine, BDS proposals, Apartheid Weeks, and so on, mean that all the anti-Israel discourse anyone could want is freely available. That so many Jewish professors and students want to promote that discourse, fine: there is no lack of opportunity or resources for them to do so. They can even do so "as Jews," if that matters to them, by joining up with organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and J-Street. Nor is there any danger that pro-Israel students who participate in occasional Hillel programs will somehow be isolated from all these wonderfully critical ideas freely floating around them.

So be critical of Israel all you like. Bring your criticisms to Hillel events, as an individual, if you must. But for the sake of those many Jewish students whose identity is closely related to Israel; who believe that Jews have the same right to self-determination that other peoples have; who understand that Zionism is the civil rights movement for the Jewish people and a moral necessity in our dangerous world; and who are already inundated with the Israel hatred that is rolling over campuses--just leave Hillel the institution as it is.

It's the decent thing to do.

A longer version of this article appears here.