US Hillel regards Jewish Voice for Peace as beyond the pale

December 15, 2010
Richard Kuper


Hillels Should Engage, Not Boycott, Jewish Voice for Peace

Jeremiah Haber, 15 December 2010

In an op-ed on the JTA website Wayne Firestone, President and CEO of the Hillel, has articulated guidelines for local Hillels’ sponsorship of students groups. (“Sponsorship” includes allowing student groups to use Hillel facilities.) The need for these guidelines is apparent: chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace have been sprouting on campuses like mushrooms after the rain, and some of the Jewish activists in these groups are involved Jewishly and at Hillel. Apparently, there have been incidents where local Hillels have allowed JVP to use their facilities, and this has annoyed parents, donors, and the national office. Rather than include all Jewish groups that are motivated inter alia by ahavat Yisrael (the love of the Jewish people) Hillel has decided that the litmus test for sponsorship to be ahavat medinat yisrael (the love of the State of Israel) So a rightwing ultranationalist group like Zionist Freedom Alliance, which doesn’t recognize the Palestinian people and asserts that the Jews have sovereign rights over every inch of the Land of Israel from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, is kosher; but Jewish Voices for Peace, which supports self-determination for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, is treif:

Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

* Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders;

* Delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel;

* Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;

* Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior toward campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.

Note that ideological sins are coupled with sins of civility; one wonders whether Hillels have banned rightwing Jewish student groups after heckling pro-Palestinian speakers.

Note also that excluding the groups that “deligitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel” is a very broad category. Groups on the right have criticized NIF, J Street, and Israeli human rights groups for that. Last spring, parents of Penn students tried to have J Street banned from using the Penn Hillel facilities.

Why is all this mistaken from Hillel’s standpoint? Well, according to its website, “Hillel’s mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” One needn’t be a Peter Beinart to realize that many Jewish students on campus support justice for the Palestinians, and many are increasingly getting involved in the BDS movement – and that includes liberal Zionists who think that partial divestment, like a boycott of settler products, is an effective way to draw attention to the horrors of the Occupation. Heck, even J-Street has said:

We note positively that some promoting BDS tactics are trying to narrow the scope of boycotts or divestment initiatives to oppose simply the occupation and not Israel itself.  The Palestinian Authority, for instance, calls not for a boycott of Israel itself or Israeli goods, but of settlement products, unlike the all-encompassing boycott of Israel promoted by the global BDS Movement.  J Street, however, will not participate in targeted boycott or divestment initiatives.

This is clearly a reference to JVP’s campaign and is hardly a call for boycotting the boycotters.

Hillel has every right to promote a pro-State of Israel and pro-Zionist agenda. But making adherence to Zionism a litmus test for participation at Hillel, of all places, is counterproductive. Hillel should be inclusive of all Jewish groups and all Jewish ideologies, Zionist, non-Zionist, anti-Zionist. I can understand it not wishing to sponsor non-Jewish groups like SJP (Students for Justice for Palestine); its “mission” is towards Jews on campus. But groups like JVP often attract Jews who are not that connected to Hillel. Why won’t Hillel reach out to those groups?

Fortunately, Hillels are run locally and not by a national office. I am personal friends with some Hillel directors who feel secure enough in their position and their identity to formulate their own guidelines. I trust their judgment and their knowledge of the campus scene to guide them to do the right thing and engage JVP.

After all, I don’t look forward to the day when a thousand Jewish JVPers dress up as Barukh Spinoza and picket Hillels on campuses throughout the countries. What I would rather see, as a college educator, former board member, and current supporter of my local Hillel, would be for local Hillel directors to engage JVP student groups.

Why not start by having a Hillel-sponsored event that explores the limits of Hillel’s policy of exclusiveness – inviting JVP and other groups to discuss the question civilly?

Engage, not boycott – isn’t that the message Hillel wants to get to the Jewish students?

h/t to Rob Browne

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