Hillel’s role in fighting BDS on campus

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Will students like me remember 2013 as a year when the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel made headlines with calls for academic boycotts? Will we remember it as a time when the American Jewish community debated how “open” our university campus Hillels should be?

As a graduate student at Harvard University, and a member of the local Harvard Hillel board, I have been disappointed to see many news outlets covering these respective, albeit related, news stories interview professors, administrators and university presidents, while leaving out an important voice: the very students these headlines effect.

In April, the Asian-American Studies Association became the first professional academic association in the United States to call for an academic boycott of Israel. In early December, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli universities and asked American scholars to sever ties with Israeli academic institutions. The Modern Language Association comprised of 30,000 members, opened its annual conference in early January with a panel on “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.”

Such boycott-resolutions are not only a clear violation of academic freedom but also part of a global campaign to undermine the moral and political foundations of the State of Israel. The BDS movement openly asserts its opposition to the existence of a Jewish State.

BDS activists have long relied on academic organizations and platforms to promote their cause. The college campus has become a hotbed for anti-Israel activity and while there are examples of students speaking out against student organized anti-Israel and BDS activities, in the classroom, it becomes more difficult. When a professor uses his classroom to espouse lies and hatred against Israel, many students do not speak up for fear of grade retribution.

With the rising surge of BDS on campus, it is becoming increasingly important that students have a safe haven to discuss, criticize and support Israel free from those whose seek its destruction. Campus Hillels are one place, an important place, where students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and viewpoints can and should be able to come together and find support to speak up against those who seek Israel’s demise.

Last year at Harvard, a group of students, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, requested to cosponsor an event at the Harvard Hillel entitled “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation” with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, a group that wholly endorses the BDS movement. Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, Harvard Hillel’s executive director, rejected the students’ request citing Hillel International’s standards of partnership, enforced at Harvard Hillel, that prohibit partnerships with or sponsorships of groups (Jewish or non-Jewish) that deny the right of Israel to exist. Subsequently, the student-organized event took place outside of Harvard Hillel, and the point was made that Harvard Hillel would not lend its name or resources to groups that support BDS.

Sadly, such is not the case at all Hillel Houses around the country. On December 8, the student board of Swarthmore College’s Hillel passed a resolution to defy Hillel’s national guidelines entirely. In rejecting Hillel’s guidelines for campus activities, Swarthmore’s chapter wrote “all are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.”

In response, Eric Fingerhut, the new President of Hillel International, stated in a letter to the Swarthmore Hillel student board that “Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to [its] guidelines…Anti-Zionists will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”

Since issuing this response, Fingerhut has received criticism from a variety of media sources decrying how Hillel International’s policy censors speech. But Hillel, like any private organization, has the right to refuse to underwrite, sponsor or endorse a speaker or event, particularly if the speaker or event discriminates against the Jewish people, and Hillel does not prevent such speakers from taking their message elsewhere.

Other outlets have acknowledged Hillel’s right to have guidelines, but have criticized the guidelines themselves, citing concern about the inability for Jewish students to engage in constructive dialogue with Palestinian students on campus.

Inside Hillel, as Fingerhut wrote in a post on Hillel’s website on December 29th, “Hillel welcomes all students, Jewish and non-Jewish, to discuss and debate topics.” There is a difference, however, between inviting individual students into the Hillel and hosting or providing a platform to a group that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State.

This past September, a diverse group of students gathered for lunch at the University of Southern California Hillel. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian students came together to listen, learn and initiate an interreligious dialogue about peace building in the Middle East. Guest speakers included Rabbi Ron Kronish, founder and director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and Qadi Iyad Zahalka, the judge of the Jerusalem Muslim Sharia Court of the State of Israel. According to Danielle Haberer, a Jewish student at USF who attended the event, “though sensitive, complex questions were asked, in the end, we left with more knowledge about one another than we had entered with and we left with the promise that dialogue would persist.” At the Drexel University Hillel, the pro-Israel student group, Dragons for Israel, recently cohosted a Middle East Peace Night with the Muslim Students Association.

The reason these events were possible? In each scenario, the Palestinian and Arab student groups and speakers did not endorse the BDS movement. Jewish and Muslim students were thus able to engage in constructive dialogue inside the Hillel House.

Hillel’s guidelines do not prevent students from engaging with Palestinian students on campus. Instead, the guidelines serve as a necessary signal to both Jewish and non-Jewish groups about the parameters that are necessary in order to achieve productive, peaceful and tolerant dialogue. Without Hillel’s guidelines, it is unlikely that students that support the BDS movement would ever come to realize the anti-Semitic, hate-filled nature of the movement and eventually, hopefully, withdraw their support.

Moreover, if Hillel were to abolish its guidelines and effectively provide a platform for speakers and groups that sought to destroy Israel, it would become much more difficult for students on campus to speak up and correct the misinformation and lies spewed by anti-Israel activists on campus. After all, if the Center for Jewish Life on campus is willing to host voices that seek to undermine the legitimacy of a Jewish State, how can I, as a student, credibly suggest (as I should) that such groups preach hate, not peace.

A community that stands for nothing but openness, stands for nothing. By taking a stand against groups that seek Israel’s destruction, Hillel serves to empower and encourage the next generation of American Jews to speak out and expose the anti-Semitic goals of the BDS movement. If not us, then who?

Hillel’s role in fighting BDS on campus

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