On December 8, 2013, Swarthmore’s Hillel rejected the Guidelines of International Hillel, its parent body, and declared itself an “Open Hillel.” I disagree with their decision. In what follows I will try to give context to a disagreement which, on its face, seems to deny an obvious virtue as it is lived at Swarthmore
I think I’ve earned what lawyers call “standing,” the right to be heard. I doubt there is another Swarthmore graduate with similar experiences.
I am a second generation American Jew whose grandparents fled pogroms and conscription in Russia in the 1890s. They passed on to me and my parents, little Jewish learning but a certainty that we belonged to a people that mattered and were good for the world, and an unwavering love for the United States that had offered them refuge and opportunity.
In the summer of 1955, following my junior year at Swarthmore, I joined a student trip to the infant State of Israel. It was a struggling land. Only seven years earlier its people had withstood the attack by five Arab armies determined to prevent the creation of the only state committed to forever being a welcoming home for Jews. Poor as it was, Israel’s doors were open to the homeless remnants of the Holocaust and to hundreds of thousands Jews forced to flee their homes in Arab lands (a number equal to or exceeding that of Arabs who chose or were forced to leave Israel during the war that they initiated).
Eighteen years later, my husband and I brought our four young sons to spend a year living in Israel. Two months after we arrived, Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur. The Israeli army repelled the surprise invasion suffering huge losses. It gained control of high points on the Golan Heights overlooking Damascus and pushed back across the Suez Canal to surround the Egyptian Third army. The Israel Defense Forces withdrew from Egypt allowing Egyptians to tell their victorious version of the battle; Israel retained control of the Golan Heights from whose bunkers before the Six-Day War in 1967 Syrian soldiers had shot down on Israel’s villages near the Sea of Galilee.
The family’s intended year in Israel became four before we returned to the U.S., to Washington DC. There we worked, the boys finished high school and college and all of us considered where to spend our lives. One by one, at different stages of life, each of our sons returned to live in Israel, followed in 1998 by my husband Max and me.
Today, our family in Israel includes three daughters-in-law and 11 grandchildren. In a grave at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem lies our second son Alex, an Israel Defense Forces officer killed in battle in Lebanon on his 25th birthday in 1987 while protecting Israeli villages in the north from terrorists. (www.alexsinger.org)
Swarthmore’s was the first college Hillel to reject International Hillel’s Guidelines and declare itself an “Open Hillel”. “Open” seems welcoming; “Closed” or even “Limited,” seems controlling and fearful. And Open is in the Swarthmore spirit of churning ideas in all their diversity. But when speaking of Open or Closed in the Hillel context, the important consideration is whether the words apply to ideas or to partnerships with organizations that ascribe to particular ideologies.
Israel is an anomaly and so are Jews; recognizing that is critical for how we should think about the connotation of Open and Closed. Jews are a people; we have a 3,000-year attachment to a small homeland that we never entirely left and to which we returned as a sovereign nation under international law. We have preserved and renewed an ancient language in which we speak, pray and whose texts remain the foundation of today’s evolving Judaism. We have flourished, been persecuted, expelled, contributed greatly to world culture, provided an ethical system on which others have built and by which we ourselves aspire to live in the world and in the land that is ours. We fail, we succeed; we are honored and reviled; we disappear and we revive. We constantly struggle and argue among ourselves.
Israel is an irritation to today’s progressive culture. It is a determined nation in a world where post-nationalism is admired; most of its young men and women accept compulsory military or national service while their counterparts in other advanced countries are not required to serve; Israel is committed to being a Jewish state even though its people struggle to influence what that means; Israel is vibrantly multicultural–religiously and ethnically–although often accused, sometimes justifiably, of inequalities between Jews and Muslims and mistreating the other; while in most nations of the world–including Muslim majority nations –fertility is dropping precipitously, in Israel Jewish women—and not just the ultra-religious—choose to have more than 2 children so that population is growing, not falling; Israel is among the most liberal of nations with regard to gender issues while also displaying a deep attachment to tradition; it is democratic, committed to human rights and women’s rights and the rule of law for everyone—but often maligned as an abuser. Israel’s imperfections are vigorously monitored and exposed by its own press and NGOs.
On many, perhaps most, American campuses today, all views about Israel, no matter how critical or potentially destructive they may be, can find a sponsor and a venue. International Hillel’s website states, that “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: +Deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state within secure and recognized borders. +Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel. +Support Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel; +Exhibit patterns of disruptive behavior towards campus events or speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
It does not require courage today on college campuses for students to declare a commitment to hearing all views even while disregarding their context, the verifiability of their content, the ideology that supports them or the willingness of their advocates to listen to and evaluate opposing historical and moral understandings. This then is the challenge for Swarthmore’s Hillel. Open your minds wide—not your doors. Push yourselves to make the Jewish bookshelf accessible to everyone; to learn Jewish history from the Bible to the diaspora communities that flourished for centuries and contributed massively to their host countries and to Jewish thought; discover the debates among Jews from the birth and development of streams of Zionism; broaden your perspective about Palestinian history—both Jewish, Muslim and Christian–before 1948 and until today; consider the modern legal history of the State of Israel and look carefully at Israel’s record on human rights, the rule of law, military ethics and democracy as they are expressed in a flourishing country surrounded by a sea of turmoil.
There’s much work to do here protecting Israel and helping it continue moving toward greater peace, justice, freedom and prosperity for all its people. Three generations –19 members of my family– are part of that effort.
Suzanne Fried Singer