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Hillel Should Welcome Wider Debate on Israel—to Keep Moderate Young Jews Involved

Responding to pressure from the progressive ‘Open Hillel’ movement will engage those who want to hear a multiplicity of views

Yoav Schaefer
December 17, 2013
Table at the University of Texas at Austin, 2010.(monad68/Flickr)
Table at the University of Texas at Austin, 2010.(monad68/Flickr)

Last week, Swarthmore Hillel declared itself to be the first “Open Hillel”—that is, the first Hillel to reject the guidelines established by Hillel International concerning discussions about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These guidelines, students at Swarthmore asserted in a resolution passed Dec. 8, present a “monolithic face pertaining to Zionism” and stifle healthy debate around Israel.

On college campuses across North America, Hillel is the focal point of student Jewish life. According to its website, it is devoted to “enriching the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” Among its many responsibilities—providing kosher facilities, facilitating religious observance, offering opportunities for Jewish learning, volunteering, and inter-faith dialogue—Hillel is officially committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The current Hillel guidelines with regard to Israel state that Hillel will not partner with organizations or host programs that “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.”

In response to Swarthmore Hillel’s declaration, Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel International, published an open letter to the chapter leadership: “Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines.” The letter appeared to threaten Swarthmore Hillel with expulsion if its leaders chose to break those rules.

So the extreme poles of the debate have been set. At one end, Swarthmore Hillel wants to abandon any boundaries when it comes to debate on Israel, while at the other, the leadership of Hillel’s central body refuses to reconsider the existing parameters it sets for member chapters. But neither position is particularly constructive given the situation on many campuses today.

The “Open Hillel” movement actually began last year at Harvard, where I am a student. At issue were attempts by certain groups under the Hillel umbrella to co-sponsor events with the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, a campus organization that actively advocates for boycotts against Israel. In response, students at Harvard Hillel organized a series of constructive and substantive meetings in order to develop new parameters of partnership that reflect the diversity of viewpoints held by students but are also within the limits of Hillel International’s guidelines.

And yet, almost a year later, these conversations have produced no consensus. This is partly because some students refuse to compromise their zero-sum position rejecting all guidelines whatsoever. But it is also due to Hillel International’s own guidelines, which effectively prevent the campus Jewish community from engaging in meaningful and vital dialogue with pro-Palestinian students and organizations on campus.

Hillel, like every organization, has the right to set guidelines on what kinds of discourse it wants to sponsor and promote. Not all debate about Israel needs to be allowed within Hillel’s walls; Hillel should not condone speech that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist as both a Jewish and democratic state in theory or that actively seeks to undermine that right in practice. Certainly, many campus Hillels have taken important steps to incorporate campus J Street groups and other progressive Jewish voices in the name of creating a more nuanced and pluralistic campus discourse—a far cry from promoting a monolithic view of Zionism and Israeli politics.

But the Jewish community in general and Hillel International in particular need to recognize that the younger generation of Jews demands a new paradigm for engaging with Israel that reflects both their deep commitment to the Jewish state and their awareness—thanks both to the far greater accessibility to online news and, yes, to advocacy campaigns by left-leaning groups—of the very real problems of the ongoing occupation and settlement growth. These are policies that many young Jews see as both morally indefensible and inimical to Israel’s future.


As a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, I have often been disappointed by the one-dimensional discourse about Israel among my American peers—on both the right and the left. Many students on the right either ignore the occupation altogether or insist that the Palestinians are entirely to blame for their own plight. Meanwhile, students on the left frequently invert causation by arguing that the occupation is the cause of Arab aggression rather than the consequence of it; they place the onus for changing the status quo on Israel’s shoulders alone and ignore systemic obstacles to peace within Palestinian society. In short, both sides distort the reality in Israel today, something that is extremely frustrating for anybody who has lived and experienced the conflict firsthand.

The result, frequently, is a total absence of substantive discourse. Each side has its entrenched position, presented only in absolutes. If the Jewish community and Hillel do not promote a more sophisticated conversation about Israel they risk alienating a growing number of young Jews who want to be engaged but who are frustrated or simply turned off by the tenor of the existing debate. I’m not talking about unaffiliated Jews, whose disengagement from Israel is merely symptomatic of their distancing from Judaism or Jewishness more broadly. I mean those liberal-minded Jews for whom Israel is a complicating factor for their Jewish identity: children of the Oslo era who view as axiomatic the idea that a two-state solution will ensure Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state and who therefore find it impossible to ignore Israeli policies that threaten the viability of any future partition by further entrenching the occupation.

Jewish institutions like Hillel should be actively engaging with students trying to make sense of their commitment to Zionism rather than pushing them away. If it does not, Hillel will become irrelevant to the lives of a growing number of politically and socially progressive Jews. Right now, these students are asking the Jewish establishment to welcome them and make space for their critical engagement with the thorny realities of contemporary Israel—an expression of their dedication to the Jewish state. True, these young Jews might be a minority within the wider American Jewish community as a whole, but they are also its future. From their ranks will come the brightest, most engaged and thoughtful Jewish leaders, rabbis, educators, academics, and lay leaders. It is upon their continued involvement that the future of both Judaism in North America and Israel are contingent.

The Jewish community must recognize that being critical of the occupation is not tantamount to being anti-Israel. Much criticism of Israel comes from a deep commitment to Israel’s future, and there is often a double standard in the Jewish community when it comes to criticizing Israeli policies: To criticize from the right is acceptable, but from the left is seen as stabbing Israel in the back. So, guidelines like Hillel’s are frequently applied unilaterally to speakers from the left, while right-wing speakers who adamantly oppose a two-state solution – a position that implies little concern for Israel’s future as a democratic state – are welcomed.

At the same time, progressive Jews should do more to mitigate the legitimate concerns of the organized Jewish community and stand up to those who undermine the moral and political foundations of the Jewish state. The rejectionist ethos of much anti-Israel activism is a threat not only to Israel, but ultimately to the viability of peace in the region.

This demands a move toward moral complexity on the part of both Jewish institutions and progressive Jewish groups. It means, for example, differentiating between criticism of the state of Israel as such and criticism of the policies of this or that government. It also means judging student efforts to engage with Israel by the objectives to which they aspire.

Hillel should seek to foster in students a deep love for and commitment to the Jewish national project while simultaneously giving them the tools to engage critically with the multifaceted reality of life in Israel. For the state will endure—and remain relevant not just to Israelis but to Jews around the world—only if it can be defended not just militarily but also morally. Indeed, there is no inherent contradiction between the responsibility to defend Israel and the imperative to perfect it. The two are mutually reinforcing: Defending the state is a necessary condition for perfecting it, just as a more perfect Israel will be easier to defend.


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Yoav Schaefer, a former IDF soldier, is the director of the Avi Schaefer Fund and a student at Harvard University.

Yoav Schaefer, a former IDF soldier, is the director of the Avi Schaefer Fund and a student at Harvard University.

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