An open letter to Open Hillel

While you say that, “signing the petition shows your support for an inclusive, pluralistic Hillel that encourages free discourse and open debate,” I wonder just what this actually implies.

hillel baruch college (photo credit: Courtesy: Hillel)
hillel baruch college
(photo credit: Courtesy: Hillel)
Dear Open Hillel,
As a pro-Israel student at Brandeis University, I am curious about your movement’s demand to break from the National Hillel Israel Guidelines. On your website you have highlighted the following guidelines as particularly unbearable for Israel-related dialogue: “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: (1) Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders (2) Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; (3) Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; (4) Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
While you say that, “signing the petition shows your support for an inclusive, pluralistic Hillel that encourages free discourse and open debate,” I wonder just what this actually implies.
For example, in the name of free discourse, would the Open Hillel movement open Hillel’s doors to people who speak in favor of BDS and try to recruit Jewish students to their point of view? Suppose their speech is so persuasive that indeed some Jews join their side? Suppose then that some Jews start to actually raise funds for this new cause they’ve been won to by attending a talk at Hillel? I know that you write in opposition of anti-Semitism, but what if adopting the policies of Open Hillel actually winds up strengthening a movement that declares that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist?
I also wonder why you have not paired the demand for an “open” Hillel with a parallel demand on anti-Israel groups that they also be “open” – because they are not. The BDS message is that Israel acts badly. But to be open about it, there is plenty of poor conduct in Arab and Muslim societies – a topic that truly needs the attention of those concerned with human rights in general, but a topic that has been made taboo, for reasons of “sensitivity.” Are you only for breaking what you say are taboos in Jewish society?
A truly “open” campus dialogue would have anti-Zionists welcomed at Hillel houses to list all the poor conduct with which they want to charge Israel (and then hopefully be answered by pro-Israel students) – but also to have students be welcomed into leftist, Muslim and Arab student groups who wish to detail the horrors of Syrian mass killings, honor killings in Palestinian territories, the treatment of gays and women in the Muslim world, and the fact that Arabs in Sudan have black slaves still today, and – not the least important to Jews – the rampant racist anti-Semitism pervading the Arab/Muslim world.
The Open Hillel movement states: “Hillel International’s current standards are counterproductive to creating real conversations about Israel on campus.” In your view, it seems that just because people want to talk to a collection of Jewish youth, they must be accepted, even if they want to destroy the Jewish state. The promotion of destruction “by speech” is surely an essential part of a strategy of destruction. Speech, as we learned in the past century, can lead to action. It is meant to.
If Open Hillel welcomes those who plan to destroy the right of self-rule of Jews, would it welcome speakers who wanted to harm other peoples? Would David Duke be welcomed just because he wants to “talk” and have dialogue about the dangers of black freedom and independence in America?
On the broader point, if protesting Israeli policies by embracing BDS is really just about human rights and not about denying one people, the Jews, their right to have a homeland, then why is only Israel singled out by people who claim to be concerned about “human rights?” Where are the protests and the boycotts against Saudi Arabia or Sudan or Syria, where human horrors are perpetuated at exponentially greater levels than whatever may be the case in Israel?
Singling out Jews for behaviors that are common to practically every other people is the classic definition of anti-Semitism, is it not? In your open dialogues with anti-Zionists, which you want to bring into Hillel, do you ever bring up the denial of Jewish rights to live safely and with equal rights under Arab sovereignty? Or do you only sit there and absorb the assaults on Israeli behavior? And do you think this will make them hate Jews less?
The Open Hillel movement writes that the current guidelines “prevent campus Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, as almost all Palestinian campus groups support the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel.” I believe that all Hillel-ers and all Jews should speak with individual Palestinians, even if they believe in BDS – so that they can make the case that BDS is racist, anti-Semitic and will not lead to peace between our two peoples. But individual dialogue is quite different than having a political movement – which will not be dissuaded by your kindnesses – come inside your tent to tell us how the end of Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland is the only solution.
There is a further danger here. Who will you open up Hillel to? You may know that Richard Silverstein, a likely candidate for an Open Hillel event, recently wrote, in reference to a published work of Chloe Valdary, an African- American Zionist, a “negro” an “Uncle Tom” and a “house slave.” What would be your policy about Silverstein? If “openness” is your first principle, one that trumps loyalty to truth and to the Jewish people, then you are obligated in principle to let anyone speak. If Open Hillel succeeds, then Hillel, the center of Jewish life on campus, needs to welcome into our tent those who call for the murder our people and the destruction of the Jewish state – because you think “talking” leads to reconciliation.
A nice theory. It would be nice to see the proof points.
When I asked Swarthmore Hillel via Twitter if they would sponsor Israeli Apartheid Week, they responded, “If a Hillel student wanted that sponsorship, we would probably hold a community discussion and a board meeting to vote.”
I am not sure why this would require a vote. If the Open Hillel movement is truly open to all perspectives this should be accepted, no questions asked.
For the J Street U students involved with Open Hillel – I fear that you oppose the BDS movement in name only. While your organization supposedly opposes the BDS movement and Israel Apartheid Week, championing support for Open Hillel obligates your Hillel chapters to sponsor speakers who call for Israel’s destruction. How do you reconcile this inconsistency? How does sponsoring anti-Semitic and or anti-Zionist speakers help you take action against this bigotry?
The Open Hillel movement states that the existing guidelines “[are] detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace” with the implication being that everyone needs to be allowed to speak and be funded by Hillel donors. I think it’s essential that your movement clarify this point, and its policy toward Israeli Apartheid Week. The future of Jewish life on campus may depend on it.
Daniel Mael
The author is a junior at Brandeis University and co-founder of Safe Hillel.