Support Religious Pluralism In Israel? First, Take A Stand For Pluralism At Home
For the first time in recent memory, the mainstream Jewish community is outraged at the Israeli government. After reaching an agreement with Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements to establish a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, the government reneged on its promise and suspended its plan. At the same time, an Israeli government committee advanced a bill that would deny recognition of conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. Major Jewish organizations — including the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reconstructionist Movement, the Conservative/Masorti Movement, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, a number of Jewish Federations; and Hillel International — have decried these decisions as an attack on religious pluralism.
Indeed, pluralism has long been a core value and a core strength of the American Jewish community. By and large, broad-based Jewish institutions such as the Jewish Federations, Hillel International and Jewish community centers have respected and upheld this commitment to religious pluralism.
For nearly five years, I have worked with Open Hillel, a movement of students and community members working to promote pluralism and open discourse in Jewish communities on campus and beyond. Throughout that time, we have argued that Hillel International’s 2010 Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities, which state that “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice” delegitimize Israel, are inconsistent with Hillel’s stated commitments to pluralism. After all, if Hillel welcomes individuals and organizations with a range of views on God, on Halacha (Jewish law), and on religious denomination and practice, then why can’t it welcome people and groups of all perspectives on Israel-Palestine?
In August 2016, Hillel International: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, took a major step away from its nearly 100-year-old commitment to religious pluralism. Hillel entered into a two-year, $22 million partnership with Mosaic United, an initiative founded and led by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education and Diaspora affairs. Billed as a “Jewish identity-building” project, Mosaic aims to combat “critical discourse on Israel” and to promote “the Jewish foundations of the family unit” on college campuses in the Jewish Diaspora through grants to Hillel, Chabad and Olami (two Orthodox outreach organizations).
A cursory review of Bennett’s tenure in Israeli politics shows that he and his political allies have consistently worked to undermine religious pluralism and promote an exclusionary, Orthodox-only vision Jewish identity. As minister of education, Bennett halted government funding to pluralistic Jewish organizations in Israel and directed 15 million shekels ($4.28 million) to inserting Orthodox religious programming into non-Orthodox public schools. He also banned a book portraying an interfaith relationship from the Israeli school system, out of fear that it would promote “miscegenation.” Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi support state-enforced Orthodox marriage laws, which prevent women from initiating a divorce and preclude same-sex marriage. Bennett’s deputy, Ayelet Shaked, called the Reform movement’s call for egalitarian prayer spaces “nonsense” and said that under no circumstances would non-Orthodox rabbis be admitted to the Israeli Rabbinate. These actions, taken together, paint a picture of an individual and political party working actively to oppose religious pluralism.
Hillel’s partnership with Mosaic and Bennett casts doubt on its ethical commitment to pluralism; this partnership is also self-defeating for an organization dedicated to serving (primarily U.S.-based) Jewish college students. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Study of Jewish Americans, just 11% of American Jews ages 18-29 identify as Orthodox. The vast majority of American Jews of all ages support same-sex marriage. Most American Jews who have gotten married in the past 20 years have married non-Jewish partners. And according to a 2016 conducted by the American Jewish Committee, substantial majorities of American Jews want to end the Orthodox Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on weddings, divorces and conversions.
Naftali Bennett may want to impose his exclusionary vision of Jewish identity on American Jewish college students through Mosaic, but it is clear that most American Jews don’t share his vision. As Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, noted, Mosaic “continues the Orthodox monopoly in Israel and extends it to the Diaspora. This is unacceptable.” We — the American Jewish community — must not allow Bennett to stamp out Jewish pluralism on campus.
In November 2016, Open Hillel launched a campaign calling on Hillel International to cut ties with Mosaic, something that Hillel has so far refused to do. Now, Hillel International has condemned the Kotel decision and declared the establishment of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall to be a “critical issue for the worldwide Jewish community.” If Hillel truly wants to promote religious pluralism, it must start at home and end its partnership with Bennett and Mosaic. Similarly, the various organizations calling on the Israeli government to stand up for religious pluralism should expect Hillel International, the umbrella organization for Jewish college students, to do the same.
Hillel International does not have jurisdiction over the Western Wall. But it does have jurisdiction over much of Jewish life on campuses across the country and around the world. As such, it has a responsibility to foster open, inclusive and truly pluralistic Jewish communities that welcome students of all backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.