Yitzhak Santis

A broad tent is not an open tent

How open should campus Hillels be? This is not a trivial question, and should be treated seriously now that the Swarthmore Hillel student board, in line with a national group called “Open Hillel,” voted to defy Hillel International’s guidelines by opening their doors to anti-Israel speakers and groups.

A broad tent is not an open tent. Hillels, for instance, do not allow groups promoting the missionizing of Jews to speak and worship in their facilities. The reason is self-evident: just as missionaries seek the destruction of the Jewish religion, advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign seek the destruction of the Jewish state.

Hillel International’s guidelines are clear on its support for an “inclusive, pluralistic community” and “political pluralism” regarding Israel.  It takes no position on internal Israeli political matters, allowing for a broad spectrum of viewpoints – from left to right – to be expressed under Hillel’s roof.

Open Hillel, however, seeks to change these guidelines. It sees no reason to accept that Hillel chapters should honor the guidelines by refraining from “partnering with, housing or hosting organizations, groups, or speakers that deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders” or support BDS against Israel.

This is because Open Hillel has a hidden political agenda. In its campaign, it is a partner with the anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which seeks to gain entry into Hillels across the county to mainstream the BDS campaign against Israel. This partnership is obvious: Open Hillel’s “Testimonials” page is dominated by video endorsements by JVP leaders and JVP refers to “our friends at the Open Hillel campaign.”

And, the Swarthmore Hillel student board’s statement laments Hillel’s guidelines as having “resulted in Jewish Voice for Peace not being welcome under the Hillel umbrella.”

There are good reasons why JVP should not be hosted at Hillels. Last May, JVP’s executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson told an anti-Israel gathering at Stanford that her group is the “the Jewish wing of the [Palestinian solidarity] movement” and in that role “it is very important to think sort of how we plant a wedge” within Jewish community institutions regarding Israel.

JVP’s “wedge” is in line with what Arab-American activist Hany Khalil seeks. “For Americans to be persuaded [to support the Palestinian cause],” he said in 2004, “we have to build support across all sectors of the United States, and that will never happen without a significant and visible split within the Jewish community.”

Open Hillel is JVP’s and Khalil’s community-splitting wedge on campus.

The Swarthmore Hillel statement also decries how Hillel’s guidelines run “counter to the values espoused by our namesake, Rabbi Hillel, who was famed for encouraging debate in contrast with Rabbi Shammai.”   Their resolution further declares how “Hillel [International’s] statement that Israel is a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students does not allow space for others who perceive it as irrelevant to their Judaism.”

The irony of these two sentences is that Rabbi Hillel made “aliyah” from the Babylonian Diaspora to live in Jerusalem. He went specifically to live a rich Jewish life in Zion, learning and teaching Torah. The notion that Israel is “irrelevant” to Judaism would be utterly foreign to Rabbi Hillel.

For many within JVP this irrelevancy about Israel is likely why JVP is officially “agnostic” on Israel’s existence. JVP claims it pursues its mission based on “Jewish values.” But Judaism in no way sanctions Jews abandoning fellow Jews facing mortal danger. In the face of the annihilationist and overtly antisemitic ideologies of Hamas, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, this agnosticism coming from a Jewish group with respect to Israel’s existence – and thus the safety of millions of Israeli Jews – represents a gross moral failure and a betrayal of Jewish values.

It is in this light that the Swarthmore Hillel students’ decision should be seen. By embracing Open Hillel, they also hold close JVP and its lack of commitment to the Jewish people’s right to sovereign equality.  International Hillel’s decision warning the Swarthmore students that they may not use the Hillel name if they pursue their policy is a correct one.  Hillel appropriately will not become a party to the global delegitimization activists who seek Israel’s demise and put Jewish lives in peril.

About the Author
Yitzhak Santis resides in Ramat Yishai in northern Israel. He is studying for his MA in Holocaust Studies at the Weiss-Livnat International Program in Holocaust Studies at University of Haifa.
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