Winston Churchill could have been observing the sorry state of academic free speech today when he observed that “Everyone is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people's idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.” As if to confirm Churchill’s prescience, this month a cabal of 55 high-minded but morally incoherent American and Canadian professors formed Open Hillel’s Academic Council, a group comprised of well-known Israel-haters who condemned “Hillel International's Standards of Partnership [which] narrowly circumscribe discourse about Israel-Palestine” and which, in its view, “only serve to foster estrangement from the organized Jewish community.”
This group of academics and intellectuals, who almost, to a person, promote a one-sided, anti-Israel view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and whose teaching and so-called scholarship perpetuates a historically false and factually defective narrative in which Israel is the world’s greatest manifestation of malevolence and the Palestinian Arabs are innocent victims of colonial oppression, feel very free to tell Hillel how to achieve its mission: “Hillel’s recent aggressive attempts to police discourse about Israel place it in direct conflict with the spirit of the academy,” the Council bloviated, adding that “Just as our classrooms must be spaces that embrace diversity of experience and opinion, so must Hillel.”
This sentiment is not surprising from these particular academics, given the ideological composition of a group that includes: Peter Beinart, associate professor at the City University of New York, who justifies the BDS campaign because “its recruits are progressives, and that what tips them toward BDS is despair that there seems no other way to end Israel’s immoral, undemocratic control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip;” Berkeley’s feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, who notoriously and who almost surreally commented that it is important to view “Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left;” Stanford’s Joel Beinin, a self-proclaimed Marxist and rabid anti-Zionist who singles out Israel for criticism of its varied and frequent transgressions, all the while excusing the social and political defects of the neighboring Arab states who surround it and blaming the pathologies of the Middle East on Western imperialism and the continuing colonial impact of the U.S.'s proxy in the Levant, Israel; and UC Irvine’s Mark LeVine, associate professor of history, who claims that Israel, like America, essentially receives what it deserves, contending that, “In Israel the violence and terrorism of the latest intifada cannot be understood except as emerging out of decades of occupation, discrimination and dispossession.”
Open Hillel, founded in 2013 by “progressive” (read: anti-Zionist) Jewish students at Swarthmore College, was an attempt to challenge Hillel International’s guidelines which seek to preserve Hillel’s primary desire “to enrich the lives of Jewish students so they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” Part of that enrichment is helping Jewish students to connect and form an enduring relationship with Israel, and so a positive view of the Jewish state is generally fostered and embraced within Hillel chapter walls.
Open Hillel, however, is not satisfied with that approach to forming a Jewish identity; instead, it seeks to invite anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, anti-Zionist voices into Hillel, purportedly to bring a diversity of views into discussions about Israel and the Palestinians, but, as is obvious from the unseemly group behind the movement, to actually bring anti-Israel activism right into the otherwise “safe” space that Hillel provides Jewish students who are forming their own spiritual identities and attitudes about the Jewish state.
The idea that Hillel International has very clear guidelines about which type of groups may, and may not, appear at Hillel events was, apparently, too much for these anti-Israel ideologues, who are not content with flooding the rest of campuses with virulent pro-Palestinian activism that incessantly demonizes, libels, and demeans Israel and its supporters; these activists also want to force this tsunami of anti-Israel hatred, often anti-Semitic in nature, right into Hillel’s door—using the disingenuous claim that it is done in the name of academic free speech and diversity of ideas. “Hillel’s recent aggressive attempts to police discourse about Israel place it in direct conflict with the spirit of the academy . . . [by] forcing an unnecessary and destructive choice between academic freedom and membership in the Jewish community.”
What are the “aggressive attempts” by Hillel “to police discourse about Israel”? In fact, Hillel’s guidelines are designed, not to eliminate any discussion about Israel, but only to prevent self-identified enemies of Israel to participate in Hillel events—those groups such as the virulent Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Muslim Student Association (MSA), who lead in on-campus agitation against Israel and Jews who support it, and toxic fringe groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Breaking the Silence, which use the cover of having Jewish members themselves to openly, and vigorously, seek to weaken and destroy the Jewish state. Hillel’s Standards of Partnership state clearly that “Hillel will not partner with . . . organizations, groups, or speakers that . . . Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state . . . Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel . . ; Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel . . ; [or] Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus”—exactly the speech and behavior characteristic of both the activist groups mentioned above and virtually all of the members of the Open Hillel Academic Council.
Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, the campus group currently leading the campaign to delegitimize and demonize Israel, has absolutely no interest in joining Hillel in robust, honest debates about a future Palestinian state or, as the wishful thinking goes, creating two states that will live side by side in peace. SJP has a long history, since its founding in 1993, of bringing vitriolic anti-Israel speakers to their respective campuses, and for sponsoring Israeli Apartheid Weeks, building mock “apartheid walls,” and sending mock eviction notices to students in their dorms to help them empathize with Palestinians.
SJP may wish to enter Hillel’s tent to spew their venom, and clearly this is the intention of Open Hillel’s Academic Council, but not so they can engage in actual dialogue with pro-Israel Jewish students. The whole idea of even legitimizing a pro-Israel view is anathematic to SJP and their fellow-travelers in their never-ending bash-Israel campaign.
In fact, a leaked memorandum from the Binghamton University SJP chapter revealed that its members would be required to never even engage in dialogue with pro-Israel groups on their campus, and they would be prohibited from “engaging in any form of official collaboration, cooperation, or event co-sponsorship with [pro-Israel] student organizations and groups, due to their unyielding support for the Apartheid State of Israel.” What is more, the memo read, SJP members “shall in no manner engage in any form of official collaboration with any student group which actively opposes the cause of Palestinian liberation nor with groups which have aided and abetted Zionist student organizations in the interest of undermining or denigrating the work of Students for Justice in Palestine,” meaning, of course, that the so-called intellectual debate that academics pretend to promote will never take place when SJP is involved.
Why, then, would Hillel ever want to allow SJP, or groups countenancing similar attitudes, to discuss anything about Israel, Zionism, or Judaism inside its walls? Obviously, it would not, which is precisely the reason that Open Hillel wants so badly to force these openly anti-Israel, often anti-Semitic views into a Jewish communal space where an honest discussion of Israel’s politics and relationship to its Arab neighbors is productive, but not a negative, one-sided dialogue with Israel as the sole villain and the Palestinians as entirely blameless victims.
If the august and self-important Open Hillel Academic Council actually wishes to support campus “spaces that embrace diversity of experience and opinion,” why is it not demanding that Students for Justice in Palestine, the Muslim Student Association, or other groups central to the Israeli/Palestinian debate embrace the views of pro-Israel students, as they are asking Jews to do with their ideological enemies, and insist that Hillel members and others be invited to participate in pro-Palestinian demonstrations, rallies, conferences, and campaigns to promote “the principle of open discourse” they seem so intent to foist on Hillel alone?
The renowned religious leader Hillel the Elder, for whom Hillel itself was named, once famously asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” For Hillel International, that means that as Jewish students forge a relationship to Judaism and Israel, they have to act with some self-interest to insure that others, who do not have their best interest at heart, cannot do them harm by defaming, libeling, and assaulting their moral and religious identities—exactly what the poisonous ideology of the Open Hillel academic council seems intent on achieving.