Hillel International on Jewish Identity – and Israel

I’m here because my political views have left me without a Jewish community, yet I’ve never felt more Jewish.  I hope older Jews will listen.

Student postcard response at Open Hillel Conference

I know. I was supposed to write about our “Yavneh” rabbis and their hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities of their time.

I got sidetracked by today’s Jewish leadership and its hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities.

Just as we exaggerate the tolerance for diversity among our Talmudic sages in regards to points of law, so we downplay our leaders’ intolerance for diversity of political opinions on Israel.

Last October, I traveled to Boston for the first Open Hillel Conference, “If Not Now, When?” About 350 people – mostly college students, but also middle aged and senior folk – attended the three-day conference.

Background material: Around two years ago, Hillel students in various college campuses began to protest the organization’s recently adopted “Standards of Partnership” rules. Those rules state, among other things, that campus Hillel groups may not collaborate with people or groups that “delegitimize Israel” or support the Palestinian call for political pressure on Israel through boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

Almost a year ago, Swarthmore College Hillel became the first Open Hillel, stating: “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” Other Hillels have joined them in making such statements, including Vassar College and Wesleyan University.

I wrote about the conference for The Charlotte Observer.

I joked about this piece with close relatives. I claimed that I had taken the great step forward and “come out” on the topic in order to say, “hey, can we tolerate having a conversation with people who might seriously disagree with us?”  To whit:

I went to this conference because I am – as both a teacher and a rabbi – deeply interested in understanding where the younger Jewish generation is when it comes to defining their Jewish identity. I learned this: They want to be included in Jewish communities, synagogues, and institutions.

These students ask that all Jews be encouraged to come to the table to express their hopes and dreams for themselves, for Israel, and for peace in this world. They want older Jews to understand that they may feel differently than we do, and that they hold a wide range of opinions and positions. They ask that we assure them that no Jew is censored, rejected, or denied a hearing.

It’s an important message. Open conversation is not naïve; it is a basic necessity – for a democracy, for a healthy community, for a nation, and for the world.

Pretty rad, I know. And that is what makes the situation so sad.

Questioning my bona fides on Israel has been part and parcel of recent response to my editorial. Just wondering: Is it likely that someone who teaches course after course on the history of antisemitism (yes, that’s me!) would feel that it’s important to think about how to secure the survival of Jews and Judaism? It is. I do.

But here’s the ethical issue that concerns me: Both the “Standards for Partnership” and Hillel International’s explanation of its vision on Israel link what is appropriately Jewish to the question of whether one supports Israel’s right to exist.

From the website: “Hillel desires that students are able to articulate why Israel plays an important role in their personal Jewish identities…Hillel views Israel as a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students.”

Hillel’s policy, despite disclaimers that assert that the organization includes “diverse opinions” on Israel, excludes Jews for whom the state of Israel is not a defining element in their Jewish identity.

Those that Hillel International expects to fall outside their definition and vision of Jewish identity are not only to be found on the left of the political spectrum. There are those on the Jewish right who unequivocally deny today’s Israel a right to exist.

See, for example, the website of Neturei Karta, a Haredi group that strenuously objects to Zionism and calls for a peaceful dismantling of the State of Israel. For such Jews, no state of Israel can be permitted until the coming of the Messiah.

If just such an ultra-Orthodox Jewish student walks into any Hillel on any campus seeking, perhaps, a place to davenn with others, to learn about Talmud, or to attend any of a thousand possible programs Hillel students and their advisors might be supporting and arranging, that particular Jew cannot be welcomed and given a place at Hillel’s table.  That student utterly and unequivocally rejects the state of Israel’s right to exist.

Hillel’s vision of Jewish identity will inevitably exclude some Jewish students, in clear contradistinction to the organization’s claim that it “welcomes Jewish students of all backgrounds.”

I used to think of college Hillel’s as another (lovely) form of Jewish community, a place for college-aged Jews to explore their Jewishness. I assumed Hillel leaders knew that “Jewish identity” has an extraordinary and very wide bandwidth in practice, in ritual, in belief, and in political expression. Not all Jewish college students see their Jewish identity as related to the state of Israel. Must they do so, in order to participate in Hillel International?

As a rabbi, I do not apply a political litmus test to my congregants. Our membership forms don’t ask people to state their political views before we will allow them to participate in Jewish communal life.

We all want Jews and Judaism to survive – healthy, independent, and strong. On ethical grounds alone we should not insist that Jews who want the right to belong to Jewish community first pass a political litmus test on Israel.

4 thoughts on “Hillel International on Jewish Identity – and Israel

  1. “We all want Jews and Judaism to survive – healthy, independent, and strong. On ethical grounds alone we should not insist that Jews who want the right to belong to Jewish community first pass a political litmus test on Israel.”

    Very courageous, absolutely true and you would think – obvious.

    I remember how you told me once how you really valued your experience with Hillel when you were younger and as I read about what Hillel International has become today, I always thought of you and wondered if you ever gave it thought. Now I know.

    I think it takes great courage, both internal and external, to do what you’ve done, let alone write about your experience and thoughts. Bravo.

    All the best.

    • I did value that experience with Hillel; I still hope that Hillel International can reconsider. Here is a nice quote for the day (from 1974, shortly before my college years and involvement as a grad student with Hillel:
      “The one place I know where Jews of diverse backgrounds, interests, commitments, and Jewish lifestyles manage to live together in a serious way, pursuing their own concerns yet often pulling together as a whole, is the Hillel Foundation. This is Hillel’s important and precious achievement. We must not treat it casually because Hillel is forming, or has the possibility of forming, a model of what genuine Jewish community can be – a community in which no one is required to yield or even to compromise what is most precious to him as a Jew, while at the same time living without rejecting and, in fact, actively joining, his fellow Jews regardless of their differences.” Marvin Fox, “The Furure of Hillel from the perspective of the University” (1974)

  2. Well, there is just a blueprint for how these things turn out, isn’t there? I saw the tail-end of a C-Span interview with Nonie Dawish, founder of Arabs for Israel and Former Muslims United. Her analysis is that Islam is demanding the same adherence to a strict line of fealty, a mantra from childhood enforced by Shari’a. Opposition or disavowal is fatal. It is killing Islam.

    Does Judaism really want to walk on that same road? (Hmm, though maybe if those factions are walking side by side, maybe they will talk …)

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