Hillel Must Put Students First

Hillel exists to foster Jewish life, not to defend Israel

While in college, I invested a great deal of time and energy in Hillel because I experienced it as a place that welcomed all Jewish students. Hillel has always prided itself on its pluralism, and the organization aspires to create a space where all Jewish students can feel comfortable.

 

In light of those ideals, Hillel President Wayne Firestone has betrayed the organization’s mission by forbidding Jewish Voice for Peace—a national Jewish student organization—from using Hillel space nationwide. JVP advocates for divestment from companies that benefit from the Israeli occupation. Last year, the group was at the forefront of the campaign to boycott, divest and sanction such companies and it has opened several new campus branches this year.

 

But Hillel should not exist to defend Israel. Rather, it should exist to facilitate Jewish programming, to connect Jewish students and to give them a space to voice their concerns. If Hillel decides to exclude any group it deems bothersome, it should no longer call itself “The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life” or market itself as an umbrella Jewish organization. It should instead present itself as another Washington, DC institution that urges students to support a specific political ideology—like AIPAC and J Street do now.

 

I do not support JVP; I think its methods are misguided. I do, however, support the idea that a Jewish campus community should welcome every Jewish student on her own terms. As long as discourse remains civil, no perspectives should be off the table. And if Hillel means to be the facilitator of Jewish life on campus, and not just another advocacy organization with a political platform, then it must accept every Jewish student group. This means that Hillel must welcome JVP—no matter its stance on Israeli policy.

 

Firestone writes in the JTA, “We reject efforts that may divide the Jewish community on campus over the potentially rich debate and discussion that occurs about Israel.” But there is nothing that divides the Jewish community more than excluding a Jewish student group from the supposed campus center of Jewish life. This places an institutional barrier between some Jewish students and others, and tells certain Jewish students that their views and values are not welcome in the Jewish community.

 

Hillel has the right and the responsibility to ban hateful or intolerant groups from its premises. JVP, however, is neither hateful nor intolerant. In its mission statement, JVP even says that it “opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression.” But instead of keeping intolerant groups out, Hillel is pursuing an intolerant policy by banning JVP.

 

As Firestone notes, Hillel’s guidelines state that “Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”  This should still not lead to JVP’s exclusion. While JVP does criticize and oppose Israeli policy in the West Bank, it has not staked out a position on Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and does nothing to hurt Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. Therefore, Hillel has no right to oppose JVP as part of a mission to promote Jewish life.

 

Hillel must advocate for Israel only insofar as it strengthens the Jewish campus community. As soon as that advocacy starts dividing the Jewish community—and alienating Jewish students—Hillel has a duty to remember its mission and put students first.

15 Older Responses to “Hillel Must Put Students First”

  1. David Olesker
    December 20, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    Is Ben being serious when he makes a blanket assertion that, “If Hillel decides to exclude any group it deems bothersome, it should no longer call itself ‘The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life’ or market itself as an umbrella Jewish organization.”?
    “Any Group”? is there no redline for Ben? What about Jews for Jesus? What about groups that explicitly deny the Jews the right to national self determination in their own homeland?
    Ben implicitly admits that there have to be redlines. He asserts that they must be limited to “hateful or intolerant groups” as though it is axiomatic that these (and only these) are the ones that should be excluded. But by merely asserting his set of guidelines rather than attempting to justify them, he’s doing the same thing he accuses Wayne Firestone of; arrogating to himself the decision as to what is a legitimate Jewish student group and what isn’t.
    Once you admit to the possibility of redlines, then you have no option but to justify what they should be.

  2. David Zarmi
    December 20, 2010 at 1:47 pm #

    While I understand your points and that this article is critical of a Hillel policy, it is important o choose one’s language carefully. You write that “Hille has no right…” Well of course it has a right. It is controlled by a Board (and each individual Hillel has its own leadership) and they have the right to do with their buildings whatever they wish – when people give them money they entrust their money to those decisionmakers. Please recognize the distinction between disagreeing with their position and our “rights.” not doing so is the first step to fascism.

  3. Anonymous
    December 20, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

    They also try to ban, or not welcome Chabad on campus in many places as well.

  4. Elle Weiss
    December 20, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    The question is, will Jewish Voice for Peace make the group a less “safe” space for Zionist students? On campuses hostile to Israel, the Hillel is the only place Jewish students can discuss Zionism without hostility. JVP can congregate with many other groups, such as the Palestinian club, the anti-war club, but where will Zionist students go? JVP is allowed to participate in Jewish services, they just can’t politically work with Hillel.
    And yes. Must Hillel work with any group? Jews for Jesus?

  5. howiej
    December 20, 2010 at 6:57 pm #

    Mr. Firestone is to be congratulated for advocating not permitting JVP to bed down in Hillel’s space. Any group advocating BDS is working toward the destruction of Israel. Just because one puts the words, “Jewish, Pro-Israel or Pro-peace,” in one’s Mission Statement does not make one either genuinely pro-Israel or truly pro-peace. We have enough Jewish individuals working to destroy Israel without giving them a nest to work out of.

  6. Judah
    December 20, 2010 at 8:46 pm #

    So I think you should read more closely before you raise criticisms, David.
    Of course Hillel has a legal right to ban whoever they want. Ben’s point, though, is that they have no right to ban people, if they want to be an umbrella organization. if they just want to be another group, they can do what they want. but to be pluralistic is a different story.
    Also, let’s not just throw around the word “fascism.” You are very very close to breaking Godwin’s Law.
    Finally, Ben does not implicitly state that there are red lines, he EXplicitly states that there are red lines when he says, “Hillel has the right and the responsibility to ban hateful or intolerant groups from its premises.” And then he explains how JVP does not go against this idea.
    So, to quote The Dude, “What the fuck are you talking about?”

  7. Uri
    December 20, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    i drastically cut back my participation in hillel after the second intifada broke out because it became such a hostile place for jews who supported palestinian rights. at one point i helped to organize an event with four jewish members of the international solidarity movement, one of whom had been the student president of his hillel chapter, and i asked hillel to cosponsor. not only did they decline, they organized a group of people to attend the talk and apparently to harass the speakers.

  8. dave
    December 21, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    Ben, wake up. your political correctness is blinding you to the truth. you probably dont believe in racial profiling either. grow up.

  9. Jen
    December 21, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.
    JVP can use cynical, Orwellian language and try to fool people into believing it is pro-Israel…but that doesn’t make it so.
    Let the BDS campaign against JVP begin – Boyocott, Divest and Sanction anything to do with JVP.
    I’m glad to be part of the peaceful resistance movement against JVP and I believe dissent against JVP is patriotic.
    Now that I see Hillel has grown a backbone vis a vis JVP, I may actually start to attend Hillel events and encourage all my friends to do so.
    Jen
    University of Michigan

  10. allen kropf
    December 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    One must be quite naive not to understand that an organization that supports the BDS program does not support the continued existence of Israel as a state whose majority has voted to maintain a Jewish, democratic state. Hillel, it seems to me, an Israeli citizen and former US college professor, is quite right in not welcoming into its midst an organization which wants to override the will of the Israeli citizenry and ultimately change its very nature as the state of the Jewish people.

  11. Arie Chark
    December 21, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    The Jewish left has never lost credibility in Canada, unlike in the USA, and thus most American Jews simply lack perspective on how divisive Jewish leftists can be. We are not speaking about social democrats or even socialists — we are speaking of individual Jews on the far left who identify politically when they identify at all and appropriate “Jewish” only as a marketing brand, with no intent to really affiliate with, or be heard in, the larger Jewish community.
    It is short-sighted to ban JVP; rather, I think, Hillel should find ways to educate. JVP wants to use Hillel space? Fine. When JVP departs, provide an alternative voice from the left — not all leftists agree with JVP. And anyone with a shred of marketing experience thinks BDS is moronic.
    The Sages, in Mishna Eduyot, deliberately construct a governance model that encourages dissent. I once had a rabbi tell me that Israel is a democracy but the Jewish community isn’t. It is time for the J comm to evolve.

  12. David Vener
    December 21, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    First off, National Hillel does not represent all Hillels. Each location makes its own guidelines for the campuses they serve. National Hillel can offer suggestions but has no enforcement mechanism per se. Secondly, having said that, most Hillels view the BDS movement as inherently anti-Israel and closely allied with avowedly anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, and frequently anti-Semitic, parties.
    Most of Hillel’s financial support comes from people who would be profoundly upset to see this “red line” crossed. As it is, National Hillel cannot even come up with a coherent statement about J-Street, an organization which clearly supports the idea of Israel as a Jewish state and homeland. Make no mistake, the BDS movement is at the very heart of the effort to deligitimize Israel. I say this as both a member of the board of the local Hillel and as someone firmly committed to a 2 state solution and to Palestinian self-determination in a meaningful way.

  13. Amir
    December 21, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

    Hillel is not thereto defend israel, but hillel belives that Israel is a very big and MAJOR part of being Jewish, for thosands of years the jewish ppl has live on and off in the land of israel. all the prayers, rituals and more are talking about the land of israel and Jerusalem. Hillel suports an open daialog as long as the participants recognizing the basic right of the jewish ppl for a home in the land of israel. the BDS movement target is to delegitimaize the state of israel and to destroy it. just check the ppl who started it

  14. Yakov Wolf
    December 22, 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    Thank you for this, Ben.
    I agree that Hillel needs to keep JVP in perspective. If the Jewish establishment can’t compose it self to handle Jstreet, much less JVP, then it’s going to be losing young Jews faster and faster. I know a few people who say that JVP saved their Zionism, and allowed them a space to believe in a Jewish State that is a true Democracy, that rejects Hafradah, and that can be firmly criticized out of a deep sense of love.
    I’m also glad to see that some Hillels are recognizing this; my own campus’ Hillel realizes that Jew’s opinions can range from anti-zionist to exclusionary right-wing zionism, and such diversity should be explored. It has recognized that Hillel’s party line should be Two Jews, Three Opinions…with a commitment to give all three a soapbox.
    Thanks again.

  15. Menachem Mendel
    December 28, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    As a former Hillel director, there can be no doubt that the national Hillel organization places Israel as the center of Jewish identity. During the spate of suicide bombings taking place in Tel Aviv a number of years back, a number of Hillel directors were having a conference call with then Hillel president, Richard Joel. I suggested putting the Birthright trips on hold owing to the possible dangers. I suggested creating a new type of experiential program for college students to travel to Spain, Eastern and Central Europe and explore another kind of Jewish identity. When I finished my question/suggestion, Joel paused for a bit, a discernable sigh could be heard. He said that Israel was of primary importance and the trips would continue.
    I suspect Hillel would not know what to do with itself without the cause of Israel.
    Should any one question Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians or a lack of Jewish pluralism, the Hillel professional or student finds himself persona non grata.

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