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Right to Debate: Hillel’s ‘Israel Guidelines’ Cause a Stir

Students and prominent academics are speaking out against Hillel International’s guidelines that police conversations about Israel on campus. Their concerns are legitimate, and Hillel should reformulate its divisive policies.

Daniel Treiman
January 26, 2016
Hillel International / Facebook
Students of the Boston University Hillel, October 23, 2015. Hillel International / Facebook
Hillel International / Facebook
Students of the Boston University Hillel, October 23, 2015. Hillel International / Facebook

Jewish students at many liberal colleges in the U.S. are questioning—and revolting against—Hillel International’s Israel guidelines. At Vassar, Swarthmore, and Guilford, the main Jewish student groups have openly rebelled against Hillel’s rules governing Israel-related activities at its campus chapters. At other elite schools, Jewish student leaders are protesting what they see as Hillel’s effort to police conversations about Israel on campus. Now, Open Hillel, “a student-run campaign to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels,” has lined up an impressively long list of left-leaning Jewish professors to endorse the accusation that Hillel International’s guidelines “narrowly circumscribe discourse about Israel-Palestine and only serve to foster estrangement from the organized Jewish community.”

So why should Hillel worry about what a bunch of academics say about the campus Israel debate? After all, anti-Israel academics—many of them Jewish—are not in short supply, and they love to sign petitions. But the 81 professors who have come together to form Open Hillel’s newly announced “Academic Council” should give Hillel pause because the signatories are not just the usual suspects. True, the council includes anti-Zionist Jewish scholars Judith Butler and Daniel Boyarin. But they are joined by liberal Zionists like Peter Beinart and left-wing critics of BDS like Tablet contributor Todd Gitlin, as well as leading Jewish studies scholars like David Biale, Hasia Diner, David Myers and Steven Zipperstein, all avowed opponents of academic boycotts that target Israel. In short, Hillel should not be sanguine about its estrangement from such a distinguished coterie of Jewish academics.

So why the dissension? Unfortunately, Hillel International’s clumsily conceived Israel Guidelines, adopted in 2010, have become a black eye for the Jewish community’s flagship campus organization. They prohibit local Hillels from partnering with groups or hosting speakers who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or who back boycott, divestment, and sanctions efforts.

Though some of its critics would disagree, Hillel does in fact have a legitimate interest in fostering solidarity with Israel on campus and in preventing its good name and facilities from being hijacked by anti-Zionist activists, an increasingly vocal minority on some campuses. Many Jews would rightly be troubled if local Hillels were turned into hotbeds of anti-Israel programming and pro-BDS activism. So Hillel opted to offer some explicit guidance to its campus chapters on what it considers to be unacceptable.

But the guidelines have proven counterproductive: Instead of strengthening the campus pro-Israel campus community, they’ve divided it. They have enabled some of Israel’s harshest campus critics to posture as victims of censorship and make common cause with pro-Israel liberals. Opposition to the guidelines has brought together student activists aligned with both the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace and the dovish pro-Israel group J Street U, who may have opposite views on anti-Israel boycotts but are united in their antipathy toward Hillel’s policies.

Hillel’s partnership and hosting bans apply to speakers and groups that deny Israel’s right to exist “as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders”; that “[d]elegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard” to Israel; that back boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel; or that disrupt events and “foster an atmosphere of incivility.” Hillel was careful to note its respect for a diversity of views on Israel and insisted that no students should be excluded from Hillel because of their beliefs.

At first glance, Hillel’s guidelines do not appear particularly draconian (most Jewish groups frown on demonizing and de-legitimizing Israel). Interpreted rigidly, however, they could be quite restrictive. For instance, could a Hillel host a dialogue or cross-cultural event with a black or Hispanic student group that has backed divestment? Would the late Martin Buber, a Zionist who favored a bi-national state over a Jewish one, have been allowed under the guidelines to deliver a theology lecture? What exactly counts as a “double standard” here?

A savvy local Hillel might not apply the guidelines too literally, but the optics don’t look good. Faraway elders telling college students they shouldn’t hear certain views or collaborate with particular people tends not to go over very well in an academic environment, to say the very least. (The ironic upshot of the policy is that supporters of an outfit like Jewish Voice for Peace, which enthusiastically backs academic boycotts, are now busy lecturing Hillel on the virtues of open discourse.)

If Hillel is losing this battle, perhaps it’s because it drew the wrong battle lines. Instead of announcing a hard-and-fast rule prohibiting certain categories of speakers and events, Hillel could have issued a more general statement of its values and entrusted local Hillel staff and student leaders with greater flexibility to apply its principles on their own campuses.

Hillel says that it “is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.” Hillel should simply state that it expects the overall programming at each local Hillel to broadly reflect this commitment, and that Israel-focused student groups sheltering directly under its umbrella cannot be antagonistic toward these principles.

A policy shift in this direction would go a long way toward addressing many of the legitimate concerns raised by Open Hillel’s supporters while staying true to Hillel’s pro-Israel identity. No category of speakers, collaborations, or events would be banned by diktat handed down from Hillel headquarters. Such a policy revision would help ameliorate the discontent fueling the ad hoc alliance between liberal Zionists who have principled concerns about the free exchange of ideas and anti-Zionists whose deeper objection is to Hillel’s pro-Israel stance.

Anti-Zionist Jewish students might still complain that they feel alienated. But Hillel’s commitment to Israel reflects a broad Jewish communal consensus. Hillel is under no obligation to be pareve on this issue. Demands that local Hillels should be neutral spaces for anti-Israel boycott campaigns are not going to capture the moral high ground. And Hillel has good reason to be wary of Jewish Voice for Peace, whose public pronouncements are invariably hostile toward Israel and reliably indifferent toward its security concerns.

Under such a reformulated policy, debates over what speakers local Hillels should host and what partnerships Jewish student groups should enter into would shift back to individual campuses where they belong. It’s healthy for students to be active participants in shaping these decisions. Students occasionally might be even more restrictive than their elders. For instance, Hillel does not see its standards as precluding partnerships with J Street, which is very critical of many Israeli policies but actively opposes BDS. Yet at the University of California, Berkeley, the student-run Jewish Student Union has repeatedly (and lamentably) opted to reject membership bids from J Street’s campus chapter.

It is doubtful that many local Hillels would stray so far from the broad pro-Israel consensus that Hillel International will be forced to intervene. There may be occasional instances of a local Hillel hosting a regrettable event, but such incidents are unlikely to do significant damage to Israel’s cause on campus. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Hillel’s current guidelines.

Daniel Treiman is a student at New York University School of Law. He is a former opinion editor of The Forward and a former managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.