An Open Letter to Open Hillel, Part II

In Part I of this letter, I criticized the Open Hillel movement for claiming they are motivated by grandiose principles of "free speech," "critical inquiry," and "inclusivity," when it's plain that their proposal (to "open" campus Hillels to supporting the delegitimization and destruction of Israel) would only empower those who seek to damage Israel and alienate those Jewish students who actually feel Zionism is worth supporting. Anti-Israel activists already have plenty of campus resources at their disposal, and it's simply offensive to insist that Hillels become yet another source of such activism.

But leaving Hillel alone is not enough for the newly formed Academic Council of Open Hillel. These academics complain that Hillel's Standards of Partnership "narrowly circumscribe discourse about Israel-Palestine."

But Hillel's standards are hardly "narrow." They offer no restrictions whatsoever on individuals. The most ardently Israel-critical Jewish students and professors are welcome to participate in Hillel events, attend programs, and debate and defend their views to their hearts' contents. Hillel is inclusive of all Jewish students, as it should be.

What Hillel's standards do restrict are the group partnerships and speakers it will host. But even these restrictions are minimal and reasonable. Hillel does not limit the many criticisms of Israeli policies people may want to make, and is entirely open to those who genuinely seek to improve Israel's policies through constructive criticism. It is merely off limits to those who seek, ultimately, to damage the state and destroy it. Hillel aims to be inclusive of, and a home to, all Jewish students, after all, including those who believe that Jews have the same right to self-determination that other peoples have. It therefore refuses to be a home to those who seek to destroy the one Jewish state in the world.

But apparently this irks Academic Council members such as Hasia Diner (New York University) and Aaron Hughes (University of Rochester), who support Open Hillel in the name of "free speech." Diner (for example) writes, "Jewish life on university campuses must reflect the openness to ideas which defines the academy." Her confusion here is a straightforward example of the fallacy of division taught in first-year logic classes. Simply put, norms which do and ought to apply to the whole (of a community, say) need not, and often should not, apply to the component parts.

To see why, consider the values of "multiculturalism" and "diversity," much endorsed by the academy in recent years. In all the hoopla almost nobody has noticed a tension in the way these values are endorsed. In order to have multiculturalism, you need a multiplicity of cultures. In order to have diversity, you need a multiplicity of distinct identities. And in order to have these multiplicities in any meaningful way, you need to have cultures and individuals whose primary values are not multiculturalism and diversity.

Those who value multiplicity and diversity, therefore, must also value those who focus on developing the distinct modes of life and perspectives that constitute that multiplicity. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latin Americans, Muslims, gays, transgendered, women, you name it: all of these groups dedicate resources to development of their modes of life and perspectives, and more power to them.

Oh--and Jews too, of course.

Contra Diner, specifically Jewish life should not be governed by exactly the same values as academic life in general. You would never insist that the students in the African-American House on campus include white supremacist organizations amongst those with whom they partner, for the sake of "free speech." You would never insist that Muslim student groups embrace those who consider Islam to be the religion of terror, for the sake of "diversity." You would surely understand why many in the LGBQ center would resist an effort by religiously conservative gay students to bring in speakers who "correct" homosexuality through prayer, and you wouldn't insist they bring in these speakers for the sake of "inclusivity." The reason is that these "special interest" groups naturally and reasonably promote their unique or particular interests. The academy as a whole should have and support all these groups, for the sake of free speech and diversity, even the unpopular ones. But these groups, individually, have the right, and should have the right, to limit and define themselves as they see fit.

That is the essence of genuine free speech, critical inquiry, and inclusivity: the existence of many distinct voices and interests competing in the marketplace of ideas.

And what Israel-hostile campuses desperately need these days are more pro-Israel voices. If you want the academy to genuinely be a place of diversity and freedom of speech, a place where thoughtful and carefully conceived opinions battle in the marketplace of ideas, then you should want a place where pro-Israel voices can be nurtured. What Open Hillel seeks to do to the contrary is to dilute, weaken, and destroy one of the few natural places to cultivate the pro-Israel voice on campus. This will not increase genuine freedom of speech, which requires a multiplicity of voices, but suppress it. In the current campus atmosphere, it will drown out any contrary voice that resists the totalistic cry, "From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free."

To be clear, I am not endorsing isolating ourselves so that we never hear "the other side," and universities should be places where we hear from many sides. But pro-Israel students are already inundated with the "other side." Hence I think it imperative that Hillel remain an institution devoted, as its policies state, to "the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders" and "to provid[ing] every Jewish student with the opportunity to explore and build an enduring relationship with Israel." It is imperative for the sake of genuine free speech in the academy, and, contra Diner, for the genuine vitality of specifically Jewish life.

If you are an academic and you agree, please join over 450 others and add your signature to the statement here.