Open Hillel is dangerous

Political pluralism is a laudable principle, but it’s no reason to acquiesce to the delegitimization of Israel.

Boycott Israel  (photo credit: GUSTAV NACARINO / REUTERS)
Boycott Israel
TO THE unsuspecting American Jewish college student, the allure of “Open Hillel,” a two-year-old student movement established as an alternative to Hillel International in order to foster inclusivity and open discourse on Israel, may be hard to resist. After all, the notion of “the bigger the tent, the better” fits in well with America’s pluralistic ethos.
And is there any more sacred a value on college campuses than open debate? Nevertheless, Open Hillel’s campaign to abolish Hillel International’s policy of prohibiting its campus branches from collaborating with groups seeking to delegitimize the Jewish state isn’t only deeply misguided – it’s dangerous.
Although only three Hillels – Swarthmore College, Wesleyan University and Vassar College – have thus far declared themselves “open,” meaning they won’t abide by Hillel International’s policy, the movement seems to be gaining some traction. An online petition in support of Swarthmore’s Open Hillel in December 2013 collected over 1,000 signatures in less than three days. This past October, the movement held its inaugural conference at Harvard, drawing over 350 people, most of them students from dozens of schools across the country.
The proponents of Open Hillel put forward several arguments for broadening the tent to include all voices, be they pro-Israel, Jewish anti-Zionist, or even Palestinian: • Adherence to the Hillel parameters infringes on intellectual freedom; • Hillel’s policy is exclusionary, making those who don’t define support for Israel as being an essential part of Jewish identity feel unwelcome; • The only opinions accepted at Hillel are those advocating “blind support” for Israeli government policies; • Collaboration among pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups would foster understanding and reduce tensions between “hostile campus cultures.”
Each one of these arguments is seriously flawed, however. For starters, to declare that this is about intellectual freedom is the height of hypocrisy. One of the primary drivers of Open Hillel is Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), which backs the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In other words, JVP believes Israeli universities should be boycotted, Israeli scholars should be barred from academic conferences, and Israeli research papers should be rejected by academic journals. Contrary to promoting academic freedom, then, Open Hillel gives voice to views that are antithetical to it.
It’s also hypocritical for JVP followers, who insist that anyone joining their ranks endorse BDS, to demand that Hillel allow them in even if they have no intention of adhering to Hillel’s anti-BDS policy. There should be little doubt about the true nature of JVP: an anti-Zionist Trojan horse that, once inside the tent, would ensure that no consensus to actively oppose BDS could ever emerge.
Of course, no student should be turned away from Hillel events because of personal ideology. Yet, the day our Jewish communal institutions no longer consider Zionism and ahavat yisrael (love of Israel) core elements of Jewish life is the day the Jewish future in America will be cast in doubt. Hillel thus has every right to refuse to collaborate with organizations whose actions are in direct conflict with its pro-Israel mission.
Years ago, Hillel adopted the motto – “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel” – and was criticized for ostensibly alienating Jewish students who disagreed with certain Israeli government policies, for example, settlement expansion. But I believe the criticism resulted from a misinterpretation of the slogan. It was never intended to mean that Hillel supports Israel right or wrong. Rather, it was a declaration that students engaged with Hillel, regardless of where they “stood” politically (including those expressing legitimate criticism of Israeli policies), agreed on the right of Israel to exist in peace and security as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Although this enables Hillel to sponsor speakers and programs reflecting a wide diversity of perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it still doesn’t go far enough for the proponents of Open Hillel, who insist that pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist voices be heard as well. Hence, not only did JVP have a strong showing at the inaugural Harvard conference, but its pro-BDS ally, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) had a table at the event.
It’s this sort of “collaboration” that Open Hillel naively claims will create a less polarized campus. But how could joining forces with radical groups, which aggressively intimidate pro-Israel students, compare Israeli actions to Nazi atrocities, and invite vehemently anti-Semitic speakers to campus, possibly promote a positive campus environment? Besides, JVP and SJP already frequently attend Hillel programs – to disrupt them.
Certainly, political pluralism is a laudable principle, but it’s no reason to acquiesce in the delegitimization of Israel. Hillel is right to stand its ground. 
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon