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Hillel’s Crackdown on Open Debate is Bad News for American Jews

The ground is shifting under American Jewry and its support for Israel and the first tremors are surfacing among the young.

published by
New Republic
 on January 6, 2014

Source: New Republic

For almost a century, the Hillel Foundation has been the principal Jewish organization on the campuses of American universities. Hillel chapters, which now number over 550, are often housed in large modern buildings with space for offices, conferences, social events, and dining facilities. Recently, however, Hillel has been plunged into turmoil by its attempt to prevent local chapters from hosting events that include speakers or groups that the national organization deems to be anti-Israel, which is defined broadly enough to include groups that want to use boycotts against settlement goods to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank.

Late last year, students at Harvard organized an “Open Hillel” movement to protest Hillel’s attempt to police chapters. And this month, the Swarthmore chapter of Hillel announced that it would defy the national organization’s guidelines on speakers. Hillel International’s new president, former Cleveland congressman Eric Fingerhut, responded harshly by hinting that it would deny the Swarthmore chapter the use of the Hillel name. “Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines. No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise,” Fingerhut declared. Fingerhut’s threat may have little effect on the Swarthmore Hillel, which unlike other chapters, does not fund a professional staff, but it could intimidate larger chapters that depend on Hillel donors to back their staff and programs.

Turmoil is common in campus groups; those not in turmoil tend to be defunct. And Jewish groups are certainly no exception. But this conflict over Hillel’s policies may have broader significance. It suggests a growing rift among younger Jews over American policy toward Israel that anticipates divisions just appearing among Jewish adults. It augurs difficulty for Washington’s Israel lobby. The conflict over Hillel also touches on the question of what it means to be Jewish in America. It suggests that an ironclad identification between being Jewish and supporting Israel against its critics, which emerged with Israel’s founding, is weakening among the young.

Hillel was founded at the University of Illinois in 1923 by a local rabbi, and in 1925 became part of B’nai B’rith, which helped fund it over the next 65 years. Jews were believed at the time to be members of a religious denomination, and the Hillel Foundation on campus mimicked that of the Methodist Wesley Foundation or Catholic Newman Foundation. Like them, it held religious services and educational and social events. Hillel chapters were also a refuge from anti-Semitism, which prevailed on many campuses and would continue, in my experience, through at least the early ‘60s.

The Hillels did not have a political orientation. In 1944, when agitation in the United States for a Jewish state in Palestine was heating up, Harvard’s Hillel chapter announced that it would be “neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist.” After World War II, Hillel members, along with those from the other major Jewish organizations, backed the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine, but support for Israel did not become part of Hillel’s official credo.

Within Hillel, interest in Israel lagged in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, as it did in other Jewish organizations, but Hillel chapters applauded Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 and raised money for Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Over the next three decades, Hillel chapters and the national organization (which rapidly expanded and even established overseas branches) became increasingly focused on educating young Jews about Israel. Hillel helped originate the Birthright tours for young Jewish adults to Israel. In a 2002 retrospective, “The Road to Renaissance,” the national organization wrote that “Israel has always been at the heart of Hillel’s work.” That wasn’t true for Hillel’s first 50 years, but it does reflect what Hillel had become.

Even so, Hillel still had not taken an official position on Israel. Within the national organization, there were sharp differences of opinion. Rabbi Max Ticktin, who became the second in command at Hillel in 1970, was a founder of Breira, which in the ‘70s called for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. AIPAC’s chief lobbyist charged that it was “anti-Israel” and “undermined U.S. support of Israel.” Ticktin recalled that some B’nai B’rith officials wanted Hillel to take a “standard” position on Israel, but that the national organization resisted taking any position, leaving the choice of politics and speakers up to the local chapters. Nationally, it saw itself doing Israel “education” rather than “advocacy.” The organization was determined to remain “apolitical” and therefore open to Jewish students of any political bent.

Hillel’s stance toward Israel began to change in 2002 in response to donor generosity and the onset of the Second Intifada. That year, using a donation from the Schusterman Foundation, a significant funder of AIPAC and of the campus watchdog David Project, Hillel started the Israel on Campus Coalition. Its motto was “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.” In 2010, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, Wayne Firestone, a suburban D.C. lawyer, became the head of Hillel, and instituted explicit political guidelines for Hillel chapters to follow in sponsoring speakers and partnering with organizations, which included co-sponsoring events and allowing events to be held in Hillel buildings.

These guidelines represented a final step in transforming Hillel from an umbrella organization for Jews on campus to a member of a pro-Israel coalition that is based in Washington D.C. and that has generally taken the Israel government’s side in disputes with Obama administration over the conduct of the peace process. Hillel now became officially opposed not only to anti-Semitism, but also to what the David Project termed “anti-Israelism.” It took this final step largely because of the growth on campus of groups that were highly critical of the Israeli government. The guidelines were an attempt to steer the debate on campus and to inoculate Hillel from contamination.

There are two different kinds of groups, which are growing on campus, that focus on Israel and the Palestinians and that are highly critical of the Israeli government. The first consists of Jewish students that identify themselves as Zionist or “pro-Israel,” and favor a two-state solution, but take issue with Hillel and the AIPAC student groups for acquiescing in the occupation. In 2004, students founded the Union of Progressive Zionists. The group was formed “to fill a void that exists on North American college campuses today, where the only opinions that can be heard are either those of blind support for Israeli government policies or those who challenge Israel's right to exist.” When J Street was founded in 2009 to counter AIPAC’s obeisance to conservative Israeli governments and to American neo-conservatives, the Union of Progressive Zionists was folded into J Street U. The new organization has groups on about 50 campuses and was well represented at the J Street convention in Washington last fall.

The second kind of organization has favored a more aggressive campaign to force the Israelis to abandon the occupation. It includes urging Americans to boycott goods made in the settlements and universities to divest themselves of investments in businesses that subsidize the occupation. The campaign is called “BDS,” or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Some, but by no means all or most, students in these groups oppose not merely the occupation, but the existence of a Jewish state altogether. They favor a Palestinian version of a one-state solution—a secular democratic state in which Jews and Palestinians enjoyed equal rights, including over immigration policy. But the groups avoid advocating a one or two-state solution. Their focus is on ending the occupation.

Jewish Voice for Peace was founded in 1996, and now has 37 chapters nationally. Students for Justice in Palestine has more than 80 chapters, usually called Palestine Solidarity committees, and has attracted Arab and non-Jewish, as well as some Jewish students. (Brandeis has had a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.) These groups have worked together to promote resolutions at California state campuses calling for divestment. Hillel’s numbers dwarf those of these groups, but in campus politics, the universe of political activists is far smaller than that of members or supporters. As a result, the two groups have been very visible on campuses since 2005.

J Street U and other campus groups that identify themselves as pro-Israel have generally opposed the boycott and divestment campaigns, but they have staged forums and held debates with the BDS groups. Both kinds of groups have promoted organizations in Israel that oppose the occupation. Breaking the Silence is, perhaps, the best known. Founded in 2004, it consists of former Israeli soldiers who opposed the occupation and who, in their public presentations, recount their experiences in the occupied territories. Other groups include B’Tselem, which reports human rights violations in the occupied territories, and the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions.

Hillel chapters differ in their political views. So do donors and local directors. Some have hailed J Street U and the Israeli human rights organizations. Others were adamantly opposed. The guidelines were largely the product of Hillel directors and donors who wanted to draw a sharp line between the Hillel chapters and the positions taken by the BDS groups and the human rights organizations in Israel. That put them at odds with the progressive Zionist groups like J Street U that were unwilling to renounce any cooperation with the BDS groups and welcomed the Israeli human rights groups.

The first clash came in 2006, when several groups within Hillel’s Israel on Campus Coalition called for expelling the Union of Progressive Zionists because they had sponsored talks by Breaking the Silence. The coalition voted to retain the group, but the controversy did not abate. According to Alexander Rofes, who was student president of Hillel at Brown and served on Hillel’s board of directors, some coalition groups cut their ties with the Union of Progressive Zionists.

Clashes over speakers and relations to groups critical of the occupation continued after President Obama began pressing for a resumption of the peace process. Some of these clashes took place in the Philadelphia area, where a parent group, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, which includes prominent donors, oversees and raises money for the Hillels at locals campuses. In the fall of 2009, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia refused to allow Temple Hillel to host Jeff Halper from the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions.

Then in the winter of 2010, some board members objected to J Street U renting space at Penn Hillel’s building for a conference. “Although it is only rented space, and not a Hillel-sponsored event, I believe it will be known and remembered as the J Street event at Hillel and that is handing the keys to J Street into the mainstream Jewish organization club. And I don't think it's a mainstream Jewish organization,” one board member declared. The board eventually agreed to allow J Street to rent the space, but it began crafting guidelines for who could and couldn’t be associated with Hillel. This effort in turn led to Hillel’s headquarters in Washington drafting guidelines.

In December 2010, Firestone announced the new national guidelines specifying which speakers a Hillel could not host or co-host and which organizations it could not co-sponsor events with. It ruled out speakers and groups that “deny the right of Israel to exist … delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel ... support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.” In an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Simone Zimmerman from J Street U and Rofes complained that “in practice” the guidelines “often restrict meaningful discussion and send a strong signal to some Jewish students that they do not belong.”

Ambiguities abound. Is Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates a boycott of settler goods, boycotting “the state of Israel”? Does B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, or the Israel Committee against House Demolitions apply a “double standard” by harshly criticizing the Israelis, but not, say, the Saudis or Chinese for their various human rights violations? Is a group that sponsors Israel Apartheid Week “demonizing” the state of Israel even though in criticizing the occupation, many Israelis have made this same comparison? And ambiguities aside, what was wrong with Hillel sponsoring a debate between a J Street opponent of BDS and a Jewish Voice for Peace proponent?

A succession of incidents have borne out Zimmerman and Rofes’ skepticism about the guidelines. In October 2012, J Street U at the University of Pennsylvania began planning a forum with Breaking the Silence, which they hoped to hold in the Hillel building. But members of the same Greater Philadelphia Board that had earlier heard complaints about J Street accused Breaking the Silence of being “anti-Israel.” J Street U collected signatures from the Penn Hillel, including its current president and vice-president, favoring the forum. Months of negotiations ensued. Finally, the greater Philadelphia Board, dominated by donors, agreed that J Street could hold the talk if it were open only to Penn students, closed to the press, and was framed as “pro-Israel,” which would include not advocating boycotts.

According to Jacob Plitman, the president of the J Street U National Board, the same controversy erupted at the University of North Carolina. When the local J Street U chapter proposed hosting Breaking the Silence at Hillel, the Hillel director told them that they could only hold the event in the Hillel building if the presentation were preceded and followed by presentations from Hillel’s Israel fellows, who are brought to the United States in cooperation with Israel’s Jewish Agency. J Street U was required to provide the same kind of “counter-balance” when screening The Gatekeepers, a movie in which former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet express their disillusionment with the occupation. Open Hillel reports similar controversies at other campuses over showing the films Five Broken Cameras and Budrus.

Plitman and other critics of the Hillel guidelines do not blame these incidents on Hillel students, but on the directors and donors who are using the new guidelines to steer the conversation among Jewish students away from any critical stance toward the occupation. “Many Hillels across the country have their boundaries set by their donors' preferences, which don't necessarily match the needs of students,” says Plitman. Of course, some Hillel students have adhered to the guidelines. Students at Brandeis’s Hillel used the guidelines to deny affiliation to Jewish Voice for Peace. But in off-the-record interviews with students, directors, and donors, I’ve found what Plitman describes to be generally the case.

In November, 2012, Harvard’s Hillel refused to allow the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which is affiliated with it, to hold an event, titled Jewish Voices Against the Occupation, because it was co-sponsored with the Palestine Solidarity Committee. Members of the alliance were told that the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of the Greater Boston Jewish Federation had threatened to withhold their contributions to Hillel. In response to the event’s cancellation, alliance members organized the Open Hillel Movement. In its principles, it declared that “if Hillel can be religiously pluralistic, it can be politically pluralistic,” and that “dialogue and collaboration among Jewish and Palestinian groups will promote understanding and reduce hostile, polarized campus cultures.”

A year later, a similar event occurred. This time, the alliance, J Street U, Harvard Students for Israel, and the Palestine Solidarity Committee invited former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg to speak on campus. Harvard Hillel refused to have the event take place in its building because of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee’s role. The event had to take place at a dormitory. “It’s such a shame that Harvard Hillel wouldn’t allow an open discussion about Israel to take place within its walls,” senior Sandra Korn, who organized the event, complained. Several weeks later, Swarthmore Hillel announced that it was joining the Open Hillel movement and would defy the guidelines. After its announcement, attendance doubled at the weekly Shabbat dinner. Open Hillel’s membership is now over a thousand students, and the rebellion has been covered not only in the Jewish press, but also in the New York Times.

Hillel’s national leadership does not seem inclined to back down. In July, the organization’s national board chose Fingerhut, whose background is in politics rather than Jewish education, to succeed Firestone. In initial interviews, Fingerhut revealed that he made the organization’s focus on Israel a condition of taking the job. He also declared his support for the guidelines. Debate over Israel, he said, must take place “within the context of a love of Israel, an unequivocal support of Israel.” Then in November, he and Jonathan Kessler, AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director, announced that Hillel and AIPAC would work together on campus.

Fingerhut’s decision to ally with AIPAC on campus sent a clear message to J Street and other groups that have opposed AIPAC’s lock-step support for Israel’s stands on the occupation and negotiations with Iran. Fingerhut has put Hillel nationally and on campus on the side of AIPAC. That’s still another dramatic change in Hillel—not just away from its original apolitical stance, but even from its earlier less dogmatic support of Israel.

Hillel is, of course, a private organization and can adopt whatever rules it wants. But how Hillel conducts itself has a great deal of influence on how American Jews debate their country’s policy toward Israel. Hillel’s virtue was being an organization for all Jews, Republican or Democrat, Zionist or anti-Zionist, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, or secular. Under Firestone and now Fingerhut, it is becoming a politically factionalized organization that reinforces growing divisions among American Jews over American policy toward Israel.

The rift within Hillel also bears on what it means to be Jewish, In Hillel’s early years, American Jews of all religious or political persuasions were held together by the continued existence of anti-Semitism in America as well as Europe. That persisted in the United States well through the 1950s. For many Jews like myself, who grew up in secular circumstances, it was the encounter with what novelist Jerome Weidman in 1958 called “the enemy camp” that brought home the reality of being Jewish.

But by the early ‘70s, anti-Semitism had mostly disappeared from American public life and, to a great extent, from university campuses as well. As one contributor to a 1974 volume for Hillel’s fiftieth anniversary wrote, “We no longer have to struggle simply to have Jewish students accept their Jewishness without embarrassment or without feeling it is only a burden.” In the absence of public anti-Semitism, what increasingly became a source of unity among Jews was an identification with Israel. It was provoked partly by fear—dramatized by Israel’s near-defeat in 1973 and by the memories, which were revived in that era, of the Holocaust—but also by pride in Israel’s military and later industrial accomplishments. Synagogues began to fly the Israeli flag alongside the American flag, and support for Israel even became included in the liturgy of Reform Judaism, which of all the Jewish denominations, had been the most hostile to Zionism. Hillel’s growing identification with Israel after 1973 reflected this shift in what it meant to be Jewish.

This identification between being Jewish and supporting Israel is now beginning to fray—and that has created a near-panic among some Jewish leaders, including those at Hillel in Washington. In his controversial book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart cites a polling study by academics Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman. Cohen and Kelman describe young Jews “distancing” themselves from Israel. They argue that as memories of the Holocaust fade, and as Israel’s heroic victory in 1967 and near-defeat in 1973 is overshadowed by the invasion of Lebanon and two Intifadas, and as the Israeli government has become more conservative, young American Jews have become disenchanted with the Jewish state. “Warmth gives way to indifference, and indifference may even give way to downright alienation,” they write. As this distancing grows, Jews no longer define support for Israel as being an essential part of being Jewish. Subsequent polling data confirms their findings. In the recent Pew Poll of American Jews, 92 percent of American Jews between 18 and 29 say “a person can be Jewish if they are strongly critical of Israel.”

This distancing has taken two forms. For some, it has taken the form of indifference toward Israel, but for others it has taken the form of hostility to Israel’s government. That hostility has been attacked by panicked elders as “anti-Semitic” even though those who express it are often as passionately Jewish as their elders. The David Project has employed the term “anti-Israelism,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center uses the cryptic designation of “anti-Semitic/anti-Israel.” Commentary editor John Podhoretz branded Swarthmore Hillel as being “ultimately anti-Semitic” for being willing to host anti-Zionist speakers. As I have written, groups like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee were once inclined to charge gentiles who talked of Jews’ “dual loyalty” with being anti-Semitic; now they charge Jews who don’t display this dual loyalty with being anti-Semitic.

Hillel’s guidelines are part of this panic over Jewish identity. Hillel’s guidelines declare that “Hillel views Israel as a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students.” They want Hillel members to have “an enduring relationship to Israel.” In response to the guidelines, Jesse Bacon of Jewish Voice for Peace wrote:

Rather than include all Jewish groups that are motivated inter alia by ahavat Yisrael (the love of the Jewish people) Hillel has decided that the litmus test for sponsorship to be ahavat medinat yisrael (the love of the State of Israel) So a rightwing ultranationalist group like Zionist Freedom Alliance, which doesn't recognize the Palestinian people and asserts that the Jews have sovereign rights over every inch of the Land of Israel from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, is kosher; but Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports self-determination for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, is treif [non-kosher].

In the wake of the controversy, Hillel spokesmen have declared that J Street U is not “treif.” J Street U groups are welcome to affiliate and use Hillel facilities as long as they adhere to the guidelines. But the guidelines, and the policies that underlie them have opened a wide gulf between Hillel’s directors and J Street U and Open Hillel. Many members of these latter groups might profess to “love Israel,” but they would not demand it of other Jews and would not agree that those who do not love or support Israel should be ostracized from Hillel’s community.

In their statement of principles, Open Hillel says, “We recognize that there are many young Jews who believe that their Jewish values bring them to criticize Israeli policies, or find boycotts to be an effective non-violent tool for achieving social change, or believe that there should be no Jewish state until the messiah comes, or oppose the idea of ethnic nation-states altogether. Although some of these views may be non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, none of them are anti-Semitic, and Jewish students who want to discuss and hold events about these ideas in a Jewish context should be welcome to do so.” That’s not just a statement about how Hillel should conduct its business; it’s also a statement about what it means to be Jewish.

Many members of J Street U and of Open Hillel would also describe themselves as “pro-Israel,” but they would disagree with national Hillel or with AIPAC about what that means. Fingerhut’s call for an “unequivocal support of Israel” represent a narrow Jewish nationalism—one that, with some occasional exceptions, characterizes the outlook of AIPAC and other groups that describe themselves as “pro-Israel.” By contrast, J Street U and Open Hillel are gravitating toward a Jewish universalism, prevalent among late nineteenth century Reform Jews. It required Jews to be solicitous of the rights of all peoples, and not just Jews—in the current context, to be as concerned about a Palestinian family in Hebron or Gaza as a Jewish family in Sderot or Haifa.

J Street U and many of the students who back Open Hillel express their universalism through their focus on combatting human rights violations and ending the occupation. J Street U also does so in the way it publicly identifies its politics. While Hillel’s national leadership and AIPAC and its allies on Capitol Hill identify themselves, pure and simply, as “pro-Israel,” J Street U identifies itself as “pro-Israel,” “pro-human rights” and “pro-Palestinian. That’s simply an added phrase, but one that represents a significant departure from their elders’ nationalism. The ground is shifting under American Jewry and its support for Israel and the first tremors are surfacing among the young.

This article was originally published in the New Republic.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.