Hillel, the world's largest campus organization for Jewish students, has become embroiled in a row over its guidelines for debate and discussion about Israel. It began with the decision by the Harvard University Hillel not to host a lecture by Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, because of the cosponsorship of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, a group explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel as an independent state. This resulted in a flurry of condemnation among Jewish liberals—one commentator, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, went so far as to accuse Hillel of violating the second commandment by encouraging "idolatry of the State." Then, most dramatically, a group of Jewish students at Swarthmore seceded from Hillel in a gesture of protest, relaunching themselves as an "Open Hillel."
It is unusual for national newspapers to provide detailed coverage of political disputes among students. But if the students are Jewish, and if the topic of their quarrel is the Palestinian conflict with Israel's legitimacy, then—at least as far as the New York Times is concerned—an exception will readily be made.
As Times correspondent Laurie Goodstein related the Swarthmore saga, Jewish leftists on campus were being willfully prevented from holding an honest exchange of views on Israel by an establishment terrified of criticism in any form. Pride of place in Goodstein's account was given to the clarion call in the Swarthmore "Open Hillel" manifesto: "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."
Since an integral part of Hillel's mission is to encourage the identification of Jewish students with Israel, it would seem understandable that its gently restrictive guidelines might forbid collaboration with those, like the Palestine Solidarity Committee, who enthusiastically subscribe to the holy trinity of contemporary anti-Zionism. This involves, first, the portrayal of Zionism as a form of racism, along with its corollary, that Israel is an apartheid state. Second, it mandates support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that depicts Israel as the most capricious and repressive of all 193 member states of the United Nations. Third, it backs the elimination of Jewish sovereignty in the name of a single state, Palestine, in which Jews would, at best, become a subjugated minority.
Yet, as Swarthmore's Hillel rebels would have it, positions such as these should be welcomed with open arms by Jewish institutions on campus. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, one of the Hillel critics at Swarthmore, Joshua Wolfsun, was careful to paint the dispute as being between young, restless minds on the one side and paranoid, dogmatic adults on the other.
Hillel's role, Wolfsun said, should be to allow "students of different perspectives [to] come together and talk about things"—even if those "things" include giving serious consideration to a "solution" to the conflict that the vast majority of Israelis regard as a warrant for their annihilation. In the name of free speech, the "Open Hillel" proponents believe it is perfectly acceptable to usher into Hillel's meeting rooms organizations such as the Palestine Solidarity Committee, whose website includes a "salute" to the BDS strategy by Richard Falk, an anti-Semitic UN rapporteur who has dabbled in 9/11 conspiracy theories, and Jewish Voice for Peace, a tiny anti-Zionist group whose offerings include special prayers for the Palestinians to be recited on Tisha B'Av—one of the most solemn fast days in the Jewish calendar, which mourns, ironically enough, the destruction of Jewish sovereignty by the Babylonian and Roman conquerors in ancient times.
As a consequence of this frenetic activity, the stage was set for yet another blazing fight about political tolerance in the American Jewish community. Moreover, with one set of protagonists cleverly staking an immediate advantage by declaring themselves to be "open," in the expectation that their adversaries would henceforth be reviled as "closed," opponents of the anti-Zionist onslaught found themselves playing a defensive game from the outset.
The left's stress on openness did not begin with the present quarrel over Hillel's guidelines. For decades, American Jewish opponents of Israel have bemoaned what they regard as the indisputable fact that their views are deliberately marginalized. The most obvious and innocuous explanation for this state of affairs (that these detractors are, in numerical terms, a tiny minority within a Jewish majority that both supports Israel's actions and sympathizes with its strategic predicament) is cast aside in favor of something more sinister: the accusation that American Jewish organizations engage in a kind of ideological gerrymandering that muzzles non-conformist voices.