Robbie Gringras
British-born Israeli writer, performer, and educator

5 thoughts on Hillel, open and closed

Mahatma Gandhi once famously said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

It would seem that the gusts of wind currently swirling through the Hillel environment are throwing up a similar assumption and a similar question. The assumption is that Hillel is someone’s home which visitors are welcome to enrich but not to change. And there is a hanging question as to what might knock us off our feet?

A fascinating and healthy discourse has emerged over National Hillel’s guidelines for Israel programming on campus. We at Makom have been following the discourse with great interest. As key advisors to the Hillel-Jewish Agency Israel Engaged Campus initiative, as seasoned practitioners of complex dialogue on Israel throughout the Jewish community, and as consultants to Jewish organizations around the world on exactly the same issue of guidelines and red lines – we’ve noticed a few anomalies and a few opportunities.

1. “No-platform” is not a ban.

“No-platform” is a strange term, coined on campus in the 80s, to stop racists from gaining publicity and implied support. The argument was that student organizations must guarantee everyone the right to free speech. But at the same time organizations have no obligation to give everyone a platform – ie a stage, microphone, elevated status, or implied acceptance. The difference between a ban and a no-platform has too often been blurred in the discourse. While Hillel guidelines would argue against giving an anti-Zionist a platform, they are fine with including this person in Hillel activities as a participant like any other.

2. Not everything has to happen inside the Hillel

The place of Israel in Jewish identity is so vibrant and complex that no programming can cover all its aspects. The list of things to celebrate and to bemoan about Israel is so long that one might fill every spare second of programming without ever talking about BDS. Rather than trying to house all issues under the Hillel roof, it may be that the place to debate with Palestinian activists or anti-Zionist Jews – a very important debate to be had – is in a more public space on campus.

3. National Hillel is not closed to everything, nor is Open Hillel open to everything

If we are reading the Open Hillel materials correctly, they understand that limitations are permitted, but disagree with the nature of the limitations. Those arguing for a wider debate, such as Yoav Shaefer, clearly acknowledge that “Not all debate about Israel needs to be allowed within Hillel’s walls.” It is also absolutely clear that Hillel President Eric Fingerhut is not arguing for closed-mindedness or unchallenging debate, irrespective of Hillel’s commitment to Israel in general or its relationship with AIPAC in particular. Indeed, those in the know are also aware that AIPAC’s training work with students is far more nuanced and challenging than one might expect – as the scholar-in-residence at their Advanced Advocacy Mission attested – one Ari Shavit…

4. Talking about Principles

How can we talk constructively about our principles and our values? It would seem that too often we find ourselves either backing out of the conversation altogether (“who am I to question your values?”), or at logger-heads (“who are you to question me?”).

Jonathan Haidt would recommend that we look to the sacred. In his excellent book “The Righteous Mind”, culled from years of cross-disciplinary research, Haidt draws attention to our inherent, instinctive “palates” of morality. He suggests that we are born with a gut appreciation of six palates of morality: Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. We all of us tend to act according to our personal balancing of these morals one in relation to the other. Clashes arise when all palates are not attended to.

The younger generation in the West tends to be practiced mainly in articulating the first three morals of caring, fairness, and liberty. While the older generation is suspected of valuing only loyalty, authority, and sanctity with little attention paid to liberty or fairness.

To the “limited platforms” camp, we recommend they talk up their understandings of care, fairness and liberty. To the “platforms for more” people, we encourage them to articulate their understandings of loyalty and authority in this context.

Haidt also points out that intractable clashes emerge when a particular value is treated as sacred, since the sacred cannot be compromised.

Thus if a group of students maintain that openness to all opinions is not one value to be negotiated among several, but an untouchable issue of sanctity to which all other values must bow down, then discourse disintegrates. Similarly if a Jew who calls for broad or limited boycott of Israeli-produced goods is seen not as mistaken, but as a blasphemer against in-group loyalty, then all dialogue is over.

Since the sacred is where the dialogue ends, we would recommend exploring each side’s understanding of sanctity, looking for the cracks and crevices of complexity through which a constructive dialogue might emerge.

For example, while openness and free platforms for all is presented as a sacred intractable value, very few of these openness worshipers would agree to give a platform to a homophobe, or to an advocate of slavery. Thus openness and fairness shift from immoveable credo to crucial value – open to be negotiated alongside other values.

Likewise the disgust with which some respond to Jews boycotting other Jews would suggest this attack on loyalty has touched a sacred nerve. Here again there may be constructive crevices to chip at. One might ask, for example, if one should refuse a platform to the writer David Grossman? This monumental novelist and polemicist, whose son was killed in the 2nd Lebanon War, has openly refused to appear at the Ariel Cultural Center in Samaria. He boycotts other Jews over the Green Line. Would any Jewish institution that sees itself as a place of inclusive community seriously contemplate refusing a platform to David Grossman? Here again might be where the absolute becomes conditional, and where dialogue might begin.

5. It’s all about the pedagogy

In light of the spectrum of beliefs and credos around Israel, how might our institutions program intelligently, maintain integrity, and reduce the need for the “nuclear option” of no-platform?

Our belief at Makom is that while no topic should ever be out of bounds, all topics should be addressed with appropriate pedagogy. Is the topic of Holocaust Denial out of bounds in a Jewish institution? Of course not. It’s just that we would probably invite Deborah Lipstadt to talk about it, and not David Irving. Should the rights and wrongs of BDS be addressed in a Jewish institution? Certainly. Vibrant and committed relationships with Israel are no longer inherited, they must be earned, experienced, and sometimes argued. The question is how to address issues that are inherently complex and often controversial.

We recommend the application of five approaches for Israel programming:

a. Start from the deep burning question in the heart of the student. Don’t marginalize the student by marginalizing what is important to him/her. At the same time, dig for the underlying issues and not only the presenting headline: What is a People? What does it mean for a nation to be connected to a particular area of land? What are the collective implications of freedom?, etc

b. Name and note local assumptions. Where we live, where we were brought up, what we experience, these foundations often lead us to assume our view on life is the only view possible. In the United States, separation of Religion and State is assumed to be essential for a healthy democracy. Yet many other countries in the world, not just Israel, do not share this assumption. Both for conversation on campus, and especially in trying to understand the Middle East, we need to acknowledge alternative assumptions as to the “good life”.

c. Make sure the issues are addressed in as multi-vocal or multi-faceted way as possible. Israel is not a binary issue, however much those of us on the right and on the left would argue it is. Don’t bring in two opposing voices, bring in at least three. Israel’s complicated – that’s what makes it so fascinating, so vibrant, and so energizing.

d. Make it a Jewish conversation. A Hillel or a JCC or a synagogue is not discussing Israel because it’s in the New York Times – we address Israel because the establishment of the State of Israel is one of the most significant events in the past two thousand years of Jewish history. Israel’s place in Jewish religion, Jewish culture, and in the world is always going to be a key issue: We should see what Hillel himself had to say as well as Gandhi…

e. Bring up options for bettering Israel, not only options for bettering Israel’s image on campus. Israel greatly benefits from Jewish students engaged in advocacy, but Israel could also do with being better – and young Jews can help. There are NGOs in Israel full of inspiring young Israelis sweating to improve Israel in any number of areas – by no means limited to the conflict. Jewish students can be enriched and empowered by learning about them and connecting with them.


In all these issues we will inevitably have to make compromises along the way. As Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit has it, “Compromise is a term of praise, but it is also a term that conveys betrayal. It is a boo-hurray concept.” Our truly sacred task would be to work hard and carefully to ensure our compromises draw more hurrays than boos.

Robbie is Director of Arts and Media for Makom – the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel. 

About the Author
Robbie Gringras is a British-born Israeli writer, performer, and educator. He lives on the top of a hill in the Galilee. He is co-director with Abi Dauber Sterne of For the Sake of Argument.