Against “Open Hillel”

The University of California, Berkeley, where I am a student, is often a noted front in the continuing range of issues facing the US Jewish student community.   The “Israel Apartheid Week” and the BDS movement on my campus have had their moments in the spotlight, and the Jewish Student Union here faced controversy over its (in my opinion, correct) decision to deny membership to a chapter of J-Street U.

Now, we appear to be on the verge of another conflict.   The “Open Hillel” movement, which asks Hillel chapters to renounce Hillel’s guidelines on discourse regarding Israel, has made landing at Berkeley.  A new letter, authored by various Berkeley alumni, and addressed to Berkeley Hillel Director Adam Naftalin-Kelman and  Berkeley Hillel Board President Rob Rudy, asks that Berkeley Hillel unilaterally declare itself an “Open Hillel”.

I will return to the issue in a moment, but first, it may be useful to see exactly what the apparently egregious Israel guidelines are. According to Hillel’s website:

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. 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 towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.

The letter writers “believe that Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership weaken the organization, alienate Jewish students, and reduce the vibrancy and diversity of the Hillel community.”  In fact, the opposite is true.

In nearly all cases, people who advocate for one of the first three banned policies are associated fundamentally with anti-Jewish sentiment.   With the exception of a few people who (somewhat naively) utterly reject any form of nationalism, anti-Zionism is fundamentally associated with anti-Semitism.  When examining the motivations of those who attempt to deny, delegitimize, or demonize Israel, I find myself hard pressed to discover a reason other than the Jewish character of Israel.

The letter writers claim that Avraham Burg and Yuli Edelstein would be excluded under Hillel guidelines for their left and right wing views, respectively.  This is ridiculous.  Burg’s call for the boycott of settlements is quite different from a boycott against the State of Israel.  While Harvard Hillel declined to host Burg, this was due to the fact that Burg’s talk on campus was being co-sponsored by a pro-Palestinian group associated with the BDS movement.  Similarly, Edelstein;s call for limited annexation of areas of the West Bank is quite different than denying Israel’s right to exist as  a Jewish and democratic state.

The guidelines make it possible for events at Hillel to embrace a wide variety of opinions. At the same time, as an organization designed to promote Jewish life on campus, Hillel is not a neutral organization.  For example, although Hillel is home to a pluralistic Jewish religious life, which welcomes all streams of Jewish worship, it also rejects those groups, which are antithetical to Jewish life. No Hillel chapter would welcome any of the so-called “Messianic Jewish” (in reality, simply Christian) organizations to speak there, because Hillel as a Jewish organization has a right to delineate guidelines for Jewish identity.

Zionism is by no means the same as Judaism, but for most Jews, Zionism is a central part of their Jewish identity.  At the same time, the analogy holds rather well.  Simply take the Open Hillel advocate’s claim that “stand for the freedom of all Jewish students to engage with Israel in any way they find meaningful”, and replace ‘Israel’ with ‘God’ to see my point.  The Hillel guidelines don’t restrict debate on Israel; instead they reject those ideas antithetical to Zionism for the same reason it rejects ideas antithetical to Judaism.

The writers express their concerns with alienation of “countless potential community members” because of the Israel guidelines.  I doubt the extent of their point, given that all students, regardless of their views on Zionism, are welcome at Berkeley Hillel events.  No one would be kicked out of Hillel simply because they said they were anti-Zionist.  At the same time, Berkeley Hillel’s name is associated with any organization or speaker it invites, and the organization has a right to be a proud voice for Zionism.

If, as the letter would imply, there are a plethora of anti-Zionist speakers that Jewish students are just chomping at the bit to invite, they have many fora for those potential events.  Not only is it shockingly easy to book space for an event at Berkeley, but there are also a variety of organizations that would be happy to sponsor them.

If the letter writers are concerned about alienation, they should consider how alienating it is when Jews are suddenly confronted with hurtful statements at Hillel.  At a Hillel sponsored event, held at a cooperative house in Berkeley, someone posted the sign pictured below (I’ve censored it for the sake of politeness):

An alienating sign found at a Hillel sponsored event.
An alienating sign found at a Hillel sponsored event.

Imagine how the students at Hillel were to feel if we were to encounter such sentiments in the Hillel building itself.  I cannot speak for others, but I know that if a pro-BDS event were held at Hillel, I would feel uncomfortable with attending Hillel events further in the future.  While support for Israel encompasses a broad variety of positions, BDS and the other sort of sentiments excluded by Hillel policy are narrowly centered on the desire for the elimination of Israel.  The type of discourse barred by the Hillel policy is the sort that makes it impossible to be comfortable as a Zionist.  It becomes impossible for Hillel to effectively promote, for instance, Taglit-Birthright trips, when it has the day before hosted a speaker claiming that Israel engages in apartheid.  Whereas Zionism is a movement that embraces Jews of all stripes, the BDS movement and its ilk rejects any possible dissent, and is founded on hatred.  Surely there is already enough hatred on our college campuses.

As of the time of publication, one hundred and seventeen Berkeley alumni had signed onto the letter.  I haven’t done the extrapolation of historical Jewish alumni totals, and have no idea if that is a large or small number of alumni.  Regardless, it doesn’t matter how many Berkeley alumni sign onto this petition.  It doesn’t even matter if students at Berkeley want an “Open Hillel” (and I should add, they have shown no sign of doing so).  Hillel is a Jewish organization, and as a Jewish organization, has a right to define its Jewish character in a way that both embraces Jewish diversity and sets clear boundaries on the sort of speech it will endorse.  This is not exclusionary.  This is not alienating.  It is simply common sense.


About the Author
Elijah Z. Granet is a student in the dual degree program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, studying political science and Jewish History. He is also a recipient of the 2013-2014 Anne and Benjamin Goor Prize in Jewish Studies.