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Only One Way To Change Hillel: Leave

This just keeps happening.

Institution after institution cancels, boycotts, bans, and otherwise excludes speakers who don’t toe the right line on Israel. Hillel International is beginning to recognize that it cannot both engage all Jewish students and inculcate a politically defined love of the state of Israel — and is choosing the latter. The Ramaz School has vetoed a student political organization’s choice to hear what an anti-Israel speaker has to say — as if even listening to opposing views risks the corruption of the innocent.

Even the Jewish Museum has canceled an appearance by Judith Butler, one of the premier literary theorists of our time, though she was not set to speak on Israeli politics (on which she takes a stridently left-wing view) but on Franz Kafka. Apparently only Zionists know about modernism.

Predictably, and laudably, there has been outrage in progressive quarters: op-eds, blog posts, petitions. There is even a nascent Open Hillel movement that is laudably trying to defy Hillel International’s gag rules. But all of these efforts rest on a false premise: that Jewish organizations are accountable to their constituencies. They are not.

They are, ultimately, accountable to donors — particularly a small cadre of mega-donors who range in Israeli political conservatism from the outrageous (Sheldon Adelson) to the merely right-wing (Lynn Schusterman).

Frankly, my dear outraged college students, they don’t give a damn what you say: the arguments you marshal, the pleas you make, the petitions you sign. It matters what these donors, their foundations, and the federations they support say. Those are the people your Hillel directors’ bosses have to please. Because if they don’t please them, they lose their jobs.

Remember back in 2009, when the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco issued one of the first gag rules regarding Israel-Palestine? Why do you think they did that? Because they felt like it? No, because two major California-based foundations said that if one dime of their money went to support or endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, however indirectly — a film at a film festival, a speaker on a panel, anything — they would pull all their money. That’s why the policy was put in place, and that’s why it was mimicked around the country.

This is not to say, dear Hillel students, that you shouldn’t be outraged. On the contrary: you should be more outraged. The community institutions which pretend to involve your participation are a sham. Your Hillel “officers” are like student government: They can make petty decisions, but when the rubber hits the road, money talks and they walk.

So direct your outrage in a meaningful way: leave.

The only way these institutions will listen to you is if they begin to fail at their core mission. Their donors will then have to choose between their support of that mission, and their desire to maintain a particular kind of political purity. There is no point in arguing with your Hillel director, or Eric Fingerhut, Hillel’s president and CEO, or the Jewish Museum’s staff. You are clearly right. But if they listen to you, they will lose their jobs.

In the case of Hillel specifically, the organization’s mission itself reflects that tension. Like the instructions given to HAL in the movie 2001, it demands two opposed actions: engage students and support Israel. As I first wrote about in these pages back in 2010, those sometimes align, and sometimes do not align. If the priority is engagement, then all Jews should be welcome not only to attend Hillel but to find a safe space for an open discussion of Jewish issues, including Israel.

If, however, the priority is support for Israel, defined in a very particular way, then, logically, not all Jews should be welcome, and not all issues should be discussed from all sides. There are parameters, limits, “guidelines.” This is the current policy.

The tension is implicit in many organizations, but it is right at the heart of the mission of Hillel. It’s fine for Hillel staff members to say “give us time — we’ll figure it out,” but you can’t make a circle square. To me, the next best thing would be to say “support for, and love of, Israel takes many forms. To some, this means opposing Israeli policies, even to the extent of a boycott. We do not agree, but we make space for these views to be heard, because they are part of the important conversation regarding what ‘support for Israel’ means.”

But Hillel can’t actually say that, because certain Hillel donors have made the same pledge as the San Francisco Federation’s: give a platform to the BDS folks, and I walk.

Now, maybe federations, Hillels, schools, and museums can try to reason with their donors. It’s usually a bad idea to try (and I say this as a former foundation professional) but if the disruption becomes severe enough, who knows. Maybe Jewish philanthropists will come around to Voltaire’s sentiment that even if we disagree with a view (as I disagree with BDS), we should defend its right to be discussed.

Or maybe they’d rather their institutions serve a much smaller, ideologically purer, population that shares certain political views. In which case, won’t you be glad you left?

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.


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