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An open letter to Open Hillel

Opening Hillel to anti-Zionist groups will actually diminish thoughtful debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

An Open Letter on behalf of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and the Academic Council for Israel (ACFI)

[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. What I meant to emphasize in that passage was its latter half, namely that I consider all Jews to be “members of my household,” to reside under the same big tent, as it were, even those Jews whose political views might be very different from my own. But clearly others heard the emphasis differently, because after the panel an audience member stormed up to me and shouted angrily in my face, “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 to me indistinguishable from those of Israel’s enemies, and are positions that, if acted upon, would only empower those 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, with knives and cars and guns, only strikes me as legitimizing those attacks, rather than condemning them.

Which brings me to the Open Hillel movement, and the newly formed Academic Council that supports it. Here is the statement that 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 and to sign SPME’s statement opposing Open Hillel, with currently over 400 signatories, click here.]

As is often the case, positions and policies are framed in abstract language that make them seem more palatable, or even 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 academics all value free speech, don’t we?

But in practical terms, it is quite clear what these individuals are seeking. Hillel is already fully accommodating of anyone who is supportive of Israel. If your goal is to help, promote, or defend Israel by means of critical discourse, you will be warmly welcomed at Hillel (whose “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 a good many of the Academic Council members openly support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement (BDS) tells you quite a lot about their 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. Students can and will discuss and debate every matter and every perspective on Israel in numerous venues, in classrooms, in panel discussions, in lectures sponsored by all sorts of departments and organizations. 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.

But even this is apparently not enough for the Academic Council. These academics complain that Hillel’s Standards of Partnership “narrowly circumscribe discourse about Israel-Palestine.” Let’s have a look:

Standards of Partnership

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 …

This doesn’t look narrow to me at all. First of all, it offers no restrictions whatsoever on individuals. The most ardently Israel-critical Jewish students and professors are welcome to participate in Hillel events, attend their programs, and debate and defend their views to their hearts’ content. Hillel remains entirely “inclusive” of all Jewish students, regardless of their political beliefs, 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 individuals and speakers who genuinely seek to improve its 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 a home to all Jewish students, after all, including those who might call themselves Zionists. It therefore refuses to be a home to those who seek to damage and destroy the one Jewish state in the world.

I understand the desire of proponents of Open Hillel and of greater criticism of Israel to feel more welcome in Hillel. But is it perhaps too much to ask of them to allow Hillel to remain a place where the many Jewish students whose Jewish identity is closely related to their support of Israel might themselves feel welcome? Particularly when the surrounding campus environment grows increasingly hostile to Israel by the day, and offers all the Israel-critical resources anybody could want?

Apparently it is too much ask according to Hasia Diner, director of New York University’s Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History and a member of Open Hillel’s Academic Council:

Jewish life on university campuses must reflect the openness to ideas which defines the academy. Jewish life will be sapped of its vitality, and its broad appeal will narrow when Jewish students are told that their Jewish spaces cannot sustain the same kind of flurry of viewpoints that prevails on the campus at large.

As it is to Aaron Hughes, another Council member, who is Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester and Director for its Center of Jewish Studies:

“[T]hree words: “freedom of speech” … If universities cease to be bastions of free inquiry, of seeking answers to difficult questions, and of searching for truth, society fragments. When this happens, each special interest group possesses its own set of half-truths that, more often than not, fester in their own resentment.

‘Perhaps nowhere is this on clearer display than when it comes to campus discourses surrounding “Israel/Palestine.” In a democracy, one simply cannot control discourses on campus based on ideology … Students need to discuss Israel with one another and in a way that does not have “standing with” as its default position …”

At least Hughes is good enough to be explicit about what’s behind the Open Hillel movement (or at least is its clearly foreseeable outcome), that might be obscured by its grand language about “critical inquiry” and “free speech”: getting rid of “standing with [Israel]” as a default position for Jews. Points for honesty, to be sure.

More importantly, both Diner and Hughes seem to think that “Jewish life” and “freedom of speech” need each other in some deep way. Consider Diner’s sentence, “Jewish life on university campuses must reflect the openness to ideas which defines the academy.” Her serious confusion here is an 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.

Ze’ev Maghen nails this point beautifully in his magnificent book on Jewish identity, John Lennon and the Jews. He describes the block he grew up on as manifesting a vivacious multiculturalness, its houses inhabited by “the Ciartes, the Fitzgeralds, the Popowitches, the Hing-Yips, the Rosenbergs, the Sanchezes” (50), and he glories in the formative experiences he has visiting these houses. The point of course is that you cannot have this wonderful multiplicity (and all the good things that come from exposing yourself to this diversity) unless you have individuals relatively single-mindedly developing and pursuing their distinct interests and mores.

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.” Nor is anyone insisting that Students for Justice in Palestine become “Open” and host pro-Israel speakers, for that matter, for the sake of inclusiveness. The reason is that these “special interest” groups naturally and reasonably limit their scope so as to promote their unique or particular interest. The academy as a whole should have and support all these groups, for the sake of free speech and diversity. 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: the existence of distinct voices and interests competing in the marketplace of ideas.

And what campuses desperately need these days, far more than they need more anti-Israel voices, are places where pro-Israel voices can be cultivated. If you want the academy to genuinely be a place of freedom of speech, a place where thoughtful and well-articulated and carefully conceived opinions get to 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 take one of the few natural places to cultivate the pro-Israel voice on campus and dilute it, weaken it, diminish it, destroy it. They want Hillels to start looking more like J-Street and Jewish Voice for Peace—without of course demanding that J-Street and Jewish Voice for Peace start looking more like Hillel.

Merging these groups in this way will obviously not increase diversity and perspectives, but lessen them. This will not increase genuine freedom of speech, where a multiplicity of voices have a chance in the marketplace of ideas, 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.”

Along the way Open Hillel will make the very many Jewish students who want to support Israel feel profoundly unwelcome in their own home— as unwelcome as members of the LGBQ center would feel when some religiously conservative gay students demand to bring in a speaker who advocates correcting homosexuality through prayer.

If you really want to “open dialogue,” fine: just do it elsewhere. Start a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace on your campus if there isn’t one already. Follow Swarthmore’s lead and disassociate from Hillel, if you must. (I trust that their new Kehilah movement is an Open Kehilah movement, that devotes some of its limited dollars toward pro-Israel events as well.) Yes, Jewish unity is important, but unfortunately this is an issue that will indeed splinter us. Unfortunately it is an issue that is worth splintering over, in my opinion. If Hillels should become Open Hillels, then it’s only a matter of time before Zionist Jews will want to splinter off anyway.

My personal tent is big enough to include anti-Zionist American Jews. I enjoy the conversations and debates. I learn greatly from them. I am not endorsing isolating ourselves so that we never hear “the other side,” and universities should be and generally are places where we hear from many sides. But pro-Israel students are already inundated with the “other side.” Hillel students are in absolutely no danger of becoming isolated from the many anti-Israel voices around them. And so 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 that it continue to seek “to provide 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.

But leaving Hillel as it is isn’t merely imperative.

It’s also the decent thing to do.

If you are an academic and you agree, please consider adding your signature to the statement here.

About the Author
Andrew Pessin is Professor of Philosophy at Connecticut College, Campus Bureau Editor at The Algemeiner, and author most recently of the novel, "The Irrationalist," based on the difficult life and mysterious death of the famous philosopher, René Descartes. For more information, visit www.andrewpessin.com.
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