Perhaps it’s only fitting that we should end 2013 with the dumbest Jewish debate
of the year, namely whether Swarthmore College’s Hillel should be allowed to
have an open policy of bringing anti-Zionists and other Israel haters to lecture
under its banner.
Firstly, Swarthmore’s announcement of their “Open
Hillel” policy is wildly hypocritical. Really? You’re that open to free
speech? Then why only on Israel? Jesus is arguably the most famous Jew who ever
lived. Allow Christian evangelists to lecture to the Hillel students as well.
Not to mention anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists who espouse Jewish dominance of
the media and finance to advocate their positions. In fact, why have an “Open
Hillel” at all, which is far too limiting. Excise the word “Hillel” and just
make it “Open” – open to all ideas, all persuasions, all religions, all
philosophies. Why limit it to things Jewish at all, which is about the most
closed thing I’ve ever heard of? Asking Hillel to open itself to anti-Israel
advocates is like asking the Democratic National Convention to have Ted Cruise
take a night to speak about the virtues of the Republican party. There is
nothing inherently wrong with it, except that it contravenes the entire idea of
having a Democratic party in the first place.
So how could we have this
debate at all? Who would condemn Hillel – and its brave new chief executive,
Eric Fingerhut – for insisting on Hillel’s pro-Israel posture when no other
campus club dedicated to a specific proposition would be asked to shoot itself
in the foot by giving a platform to its most ardent detractors? No-one’s going
to ask the pro-Democracy club to give speaking slots to communists, or human
rights organizations to have North Korean representatives speak about the glory
of dictatorship. It’s rather a sign of how badly Israel is losing on
campus, and how delegitimized Israel has become in the halls of academia, that
this debate is happening at all.
Twenty-five years ago last Friday, the
Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me and my wife to the University of Oxford to promote
Judaism on campus. It was 1988 and Yasser Arafat had just proclaimed the
Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was interpreted as a kind of de
facto recognition the State of Israel, thereby grating him and the PLO
I was 22 years old when I founded the Oxford L’Chaim Society
and hadn’t anticipated an immediate and constant need to defend Israel from
vicious attacks. The tipping point for me occurred that first year when
members of the PLO appeared at the Oxford Union and had an open forum to spew
overtly inflammatory hate speech against Israel. Following that event I had to
immediately confront additional unexpected philosophical battles pertaining to
the Jewish state at every turn.
The model that I used to defend Israel
through the Oxford L’Chaim Society was to establish a middle ground between
allowing an open assault on Israel by its most ardent critics in my Jewish
student center, and outright banning them from our activities. We chose to
debate them instead. Not in our student facility – that was a place for teaching
people to love Israel – but in the leading halls of the university where
thousands of students who were not part of our organization gathered.
would engage our critics head-on and welcome organized, rules-based debates,
pitting two clearly defined sides on Israel against each other, in the
university’s main venues. We operated in the confidence that Israel’s cause was
just and that the Jewish state could win arguments in the marketplace of
We organized thousand-student debates on the justice of Israel’s
cause, its treatment of its Arab citizens and Palestinians, and Israel’s ongoing
fight for survival. We proved in open arguments that Israel had the most humane
rules of engagement of any country at war in the world. We proved that Israel’s
Arab citizens had more rights than citizens in any other country in the Middle
Which leads to my main question as it pertains to the news from
Swarthmore: Why isn’t Hillel doing the same? The problem with Hillel, of which I
am an ardent supporter, and other Jewish campus movements, like Chabad, of which
I am a part, is that rigorous debate of Judaism and Israel’s critics is not
central to their activities.
Too often intellectual exchange is
subordinated to social events. But a Hawaiian Shabbos, or a Jewish film
festival, is no replacement for the main purpose of students at a university,
which is to be immersed in an intellectual environment where ideas shape
character and identity.
At countless Jewish activities I witness on
campus it’s about this party or that party, this dating event or that movie
night. Such a watered-down format insults the intelligence of the students and
inhibits the potential for real intellectual activism.
Society model was based on engaging in political, religious and philosophical
discussions and, when it came to Israel’s critics, rules-based debates that
clearly identified two opposing sides that would battle it out. What we sought
to create above all else was a life of the mind that would inform and influence
a life of the spirit.
We, of course, had Purim and Hanukka parties,
Shabbat dinners, and Passover seders. But more than anything else we had a focus
on intellectual debate, which entailed bringing renowned speakers – Elie Wiesel,
Mikhail Gorbachev, Binyamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Shamir, Ariel
Sharon and Natan Sharansky – to campus to defend Israel and argue other
values-based issues that electrified the students.
It was the L’Chaim
Society that started the world-famous science versus religion debates that were
the very first that Richard Dawkins participated in, and that would later spill
over into the United States, Canada, Mexico and beyond.
But more than
anything else, we attacked Israel’s enemies head on. We would never think of
granting Hanan Ashrawi, for example, a platform to simply discuss, let alone,
attack, Israel under our banner. But we sure as heck sought to have speakers of
her caliber engage Israel’s eloquent defenders in organized, university-wide
debate in the belief that the Jewish state and its record of human rights would
When it comes to Jewish life on campus we always seem
to apply the notion that progress is being made by addressing soft issues,
largely of a social and politically correct manner, such as Judaism and gender,
Judaism and feminism, Judaism and egalitarianism, Judaism and homosexuality,
While these are important issues, they are a poor substitute for the
hard-edged debates that will shape the students political, cultural and
It was in these debates at Oxford that gifted
communicators like Ron Dermer, one of our student presidents, first cut his
chops in defending the Jewish state against attack. Today, he is Israel’s
ambassador to the United States. It was listening to debates like these that
Cory Booker, today our senator from New Jersey and another one of our student
presidents, heard the justice of Israel’s cause and became defenders of Jewish
Hillel should be sponsoring and funding a national effort
where, once a week, students are trained and groomed as defenders of Israel and
Judaism on campus.
The Oxford Union, where we held so many of our debates
– and where I will join Israel’s current and outstanding ambassador to the UK,
Daniel Taub, in a debate about Iran this March – is internationally recognized
as a beacon of intellectual exchange. It is an amazing thing to witness young
students achieve what they have always been capable of – riveting and
intelligent dialogue and debate – but just needed someone to give them a
proverbial nudge to discover said capability.
If Hillel and Chabad want
to have a true impact on Jewish students they should subordinate the social
events and the tired gender-homosexuality-egalitarian discussions to the
hard-nosed debates about Israel, the truth of Judaism, and the other great
challenges to Jewish identity.
There is a time for social gatherings. But
the focus must be on the intellectual aspect of Jewish life, the hardcore
meat-and-potatoes issues that face both Jews and the State of Israel. There is
no shortage of topics, nor of need to address them. All that is required is a
bit of inspiration and focus from the top.
The writer, whom The
Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” served as rabbi at
Oxford from 1988-1999. The international best-selling author of 30 books,
he will shortly publish Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer.