Swarthmore College and the Need for Jewish Unity

The Swarthmore College Hillel Board recently published an open letter in the publication I edit, The Beacon, where they declare their Hillel to be an Open Hillel, capable of inviting speakers and guests with any range of perspectives on Zionism. In response to that declaration, Hillel International's president wrote that Swarthmore could not associate with Hillel under certain circumstances, because "anti-Zionists" will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.

As an Orthodox Jew and as a Zionist, I too feel uncomfortable listening to many of the political positions espoused by leading members of the academic community when it comes to the topic of Israel. Many American Jews may be disturbed, as Hillel's president and I were, by the political opinions of public intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky or Judith Butler regarding Zionism. But the discomfort that many of us feel should not -- and cannot -- lead us to ostracize members of our own community. The American Jewish community is already shrinking at a rapid rate, and it is critical to ensure that all its members feel welcome, regardless of political orientation.

Hillel calls itself "the foundation for Jewish campus life," which perhaps accurately highlights its central place in the Jewish collegiate world. Hillel provides an integral service to younger Jews around the globe; its centers and resources benefit secular and religious students alike. That said, by denying the students of Swarthmore College the ability to identify with Hillel International, we are effectively isolating them from the American Jewish establishment. Recent studies show that caring about Israel is not an essential part of being Jewish to most American Jews. Freedom of speech, however, is an essential belief to most Americans, Jewish or not. The very thought of political censorship is enough to turn certain people away from Hillel -- and perhaps even from religion entirely.

Last year, a student-run journal at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law awarded President Jimmy Carter the International Advocate for Peace. Despite the massive opposition from both current students and alumni to the event because of Carter's criticism of Israel, YU's president (who is also the former president of Hillel International), Richard M. Joel, defended the doctrine of academic freedom. "Yeshiva University both celebrates and takes seriously its obligation as a university to thrive as a free marketplace of ideas, while remaining committed to its unique mission as a proud Jewish university," he wrote.

If Yeshiva University, the flagship of Modern Orthodox Judaism, can stand up for free speech in the Jewish community, then why can't Hillel?

Judaism has encouraged the practice of open dialogue dating back to the Talmud, as Rabbi Andy Bachman demonstrates in the Forward. Our leaders have understood that, to ban a topic from being discussed because it may call religious values into question, is to weaken religious values by not having enough faith in their ability to stand up to honest inquiry.

With the unsettling results of the Pew survey so fresh in our minds, is this really the time to begin excluding large segments of Jews because of their controversial views on Israel? The future of the American Jewish community will be determined by the next generation of Jewish leaders, who will undoubtedly face the obstacle of a divided community.

In anticipation of this crisis, the American Jewish establishment must provide a safe environment that fosters healthy debate -- an open platform to engage the tough issues. Because, without doing that, we are shamefully giving the cold shoulder to a population that is bound to carry resentment and enmity for Judaism as we know it.