Hillel International vs. Open Hillel: Why Hillel’s guidelines are spot on

This article is written in response to the New York Times article, “Members of Jewish Student Group Test Permissible Discussion on Israel”, written by Lauren Goodstein (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/29/us/members-of-jewish-student-group-test-permissible-discussion-on-israel.html?hp&_r=1&). All quotes found in the following article are from Goodstein’s article

In the past few months, Hillel International has been criticized for its policies regarding what type of groups it’s chapters are allowed to partner with and what type of Israel related events that their chapters are allowed to have under their auspices. Hillel’s guidelines specifies that it will not allow any of it’s chapters to partner with a group on an event if the group denies Israel’s right to exist; “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel”; support the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement against Israel; or “foster an atmosphere of incivility.” Recently, Swarthmore College’s Hillel chapter challenged Hillel International’s guidelines by declaring it to be an “Open Hillel”. In other words, Swarthmore Hillel that in the future, they would decide for themselves what type of events they would hold or groups they would work with. In essence, this debate has two fundamental issues: The first issue is whether Hillel International’s guidelines are a violation of the first amendment. The second issue is whether Hillel’s guidelines are a violation of Hillel’s mission, which is “to keep the next generation of Jews in the fold.”

As we know, the first amendment protects any individual’s freedom of speech. It is important to note that the term “individual” in this case can also be used to mean a group as a single unit. However, in this issue, it is not a matter that has anything to do with the first amendment. As Alan Dershowitz said, “the who want divestment and boycotts have plenty of opportunity to speak on campus. The question is on branding.” In essence, we can view the relationship Hillel International has with each of its individual chapters as one a franchiser has with its franchisees. The Board of Swarthmore Hillel, the franchisee, issuing the “Open Hillel” statement can be seen as a violation of the contract it has with Hillel International, the franchiser. The contract in question is the same contract that Hillel International has with the rest of its franchisees: By the virtue of being a chapter of Hillel, you are agreeing to follow the guidelines established by Hillel International. Failure to comply with these guidelines would result in the closing of said chapter. Therefore, this issue is one of a contract and therefore the first amendment right of individual chapters of Hillel is not being violated.

The second issue is a little bit more challenging. Hillel’s mission is more than just “keeping the next generation of Jews in the fold.” On a college campus, Hillel is a safe haven for Jewish students. It is a place for Jews to learn about the different denominations of Judaism. Though these denominations are extremely different from one another, one theme that is central to most of them is our connection to the land of Israel. By looking at the “Open Hillel” debate from this viewpoint, we see a clear reason why Hillel International’s guidelines are so strict. If groups that delegitimize Israel were allowed to co-sponsor an event with or invited to speak at an event in any chapter of Hillel, it would violate Hillel International’s mission.

However, Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a Harvard student active in her school’s chapter of Hillel, claims that there is no pluralism in the “political realm” and that “students who have more dissident views on Israel are excluded in many ways.” I have this to say in response to Rachel’s claim: It is one thing to have a different (or what Rachel calls dissident) view on the Israel-Palestine conflict or on some of Israel’s policies and have events educating people about these perspectives. However, it is entirely another thing to have events cosponsored with groups or featuring groups that openly delegitimize and deny Israel’s right to exist. There are groups like J-Street, though I do not agree with their viewpoint, do offer a different perspective on the conflict without denying Israel’s right to exist. However, movements like BDS that hold Israel to a set of double standards instead of directing their advocacy against countries that actually ignore it’s citizens Human Rights and take advantage of their citizens.

Seriously, what other country in the world goes out of its way to warn people living in the Gaza Strip, who aren’t even Israeli citizens, that a specified area will be bombed in order to prevent collateral damage when the IDF is targeting known terrorist weapon stashes? What other country is attack by media outlets for retaliating after terrorists shot thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilian populations in southern Israel? You can have a different view on Israel; there is never anything wrong with that. However, don’t you are think that delegitimizing Israel counts as voicing “dissident” views on Israel. If you think that any Hillel chapter should be open to having these “dissident” views presented in their auspices, you are in for a rude awakening.

About the Author
Justin Goldstein is currently a second year MSW student at Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work.