When Jewish isn't Jewish

The last lecture I attended in college was in a Modern Jewish Literature class. We discussed various types of works written by several Jewish authors ranging from secular to religious, originating from countryside shtetls to cosmopolitan European cities, from overtly Jewish in material to some that were completely devoid of any Jewish context.  As class came to a close, the professor asked:

“What makes a work “Jewish literature”? Does the author have to be Jewish? Does the novel or story need to focus on a Jewish issue? How do we define what falls under the category of “Jewish literature” and what does not?”

This was a very thought provoking question, and I started to think about it again as a similar, yet more complex issue has arisen within the Jewish world.

As colleges brought their fall semesters to a close before the cold and snowy winter gripped the United States, a very hot debate had started among Jewish campus groups. The recent disagreement has been over whether campus Hillels in colleges across the world should allow all Jewish organizations to get access to their space, or not. This has brought the question of Jewishness back to mind, but this time the debate surrounds Jewish identity, not literature.


The debate picked up steam when the president and CEO of Hillel, Wayne Firestone, wrote an op-ed in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency defending Hillel’s decision to forbid the group Jewish Voices for Peace from using Hillel space on campuses across America. JVP holds campaigns to “divest from companies that specifically profit from the occupation” [in Israel/the Palestinian territories] and has a history of disrupting pro-Israel speakers, including Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu recently in a November 2010 speech. The debate, however, is not over the credibility of their tactics. Rather, the issue is that since JVP is an organization headed by Jews that covers a very Jewish issue – Israel – should it be able to use the Hillel’s space and be included under the organization’s umbrella? Just because it doesn’t fit into the pro-Israel mold doesn’t mean they should be excluded, they argue. A valid argument and complex issue indeed.


I argue that the sole criteria for an organization to be Jewish isn’t that it is led by Jews, or that it focuses on Jewish issues. As for Jewish leadership, JVP has that element, but it cannot be considered a Jewish cause. In fact, it’s an anti-Jewish cause. A program dedicated to telling people not to buy products from Jews cannot be considered Jewish, even if they use the perverse argument that this will somehow, someday, benefit Israel.


Furthermore, the logic behind the argument that the Hillel must open its door to all things Jewish is flawed. I witnessed firsthand the tense relationship between various groups in the Hillel on my campus. On the religious level, Conservative, Reform and Orthodox communities shared a small space and the proximity sometimes caused feelings of frustration over events, scheduling conflicts, space and funds. But due to cool heads and good old-fashioned tolerance, things worked smoothly and everyone, regardless of their background or religious outlook, got along. There was a common goal shared by all the groups, that of strengthening Jewish identity and connection, regardless of the differing religious outlooks. And underneath any internal conflict Jews may have, Israel has always been a unifier. Allowing groups such as JVP into the Hillel would remove one of the most important glues that binds modern American Jewish students together, especially at a time when so many have so little that keeps them connected to their Jewish identity. The pro-Israel communities of the Hillel would feel threatened by sharing space or funding with a group such as JVP, and friction would surely ensue as there is no bond that connects the two groups and no shared goals. If Firestone allowed anti-Israel groups into the confines of the Hillel, he would have destroyed the vitality of the Hillel and everything that it stood for.


Ben Sales of New Voices Magazine has come out against Firestone, arguing that he “betrayed the organization’s mission.” This disregards the fact that one of Hillel’s tenets is to support Israel and therefore Firestone is not betraying any mission of the organization. But the idea that Hillel be a place for all Jewish programming regardless of the group’s message should not be used a recipe for organizational suicide.


It’s difficult to ascertain exactly what makes a work of literature “Jewish”. But it’s a lot easier to figure out if a group is Jewish, or just calls itself Jewish in order to advance their political cause, especially if their cause is anti-Jewish. Arguing that advocating for divestment from Israel and staging events that question the legitimacy of the state is a pro-Israel campaign and a “Jewish” cause is just a ploy. These are anti-Jewish campaigns dressed in Jewish clothes. The Hillel does not need to open its doors to groups that will weaken the fibers of Jewish identity and damage the foundation of the Hillel. Allowing those groups would not strengthen the unity of the Jewish community, as they claim, but rather tear it apart.

For more from this author, visit The Big Ben Theory.