Yes to Debate on Israel, No to Open Hillel

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I am livid. I am enraged with the Open Hillel campaign and its disagreement with Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. The audacity of Open Hillel to think that Hillel International will sanction the use of its resources for programming that aims to boycott or delegitimize Israel is outrageous. Such behavior would be contradictory to a fundamental value Hillel International holds, a value clearly stated by Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, in his response to the Swarthmore resolution: “We encourage debate and dissent, but we draw the line at hosting groups who would deny the right of the State of Israel to exist. We will stand with Israel, the democratic, open, pluralistic home of the Jewish people.”

Alan Dershowitz beat me to articulating my own opinion in his quote in The New York Times regarding Open Hillel: “I don’t think this is a free-speech issue. The people who want divestment and boycotts have plenty of opportunity to speak on campus. The question is a branding one. You can see why Hillel does not want its brand to be diluted.”

Hillel brands itself in two lights:  One, Hillel welcomes students of all denominations of Judaism, and two, Hillel acts as a platform for students to learn about and express support for the State of Israel. This brand that Hillel has so plainly displayed for so long needs no changes.

Hillel International is taking a stance on Israel. As I see it, their stance is not one of approval or disapproval for Israel’s policies, rather, it merely makes the point that Hillel will not program those who advocate for boycotting or eliminating Israel. I cannot fathom why anyone would expect otherwise of Hillel. How could Hillel promote students to go on Birthright trips, study abroad in Israel, take a summer internship in Israel, etc. on one hand, then on the other sponsor programs where speakers are advocating a boycott of Israel? Hillel will not effectively be able to promote support for Israel if its programming includes pushing the narrative that Israel should be boycotted.
On January 13th an opinion article titled “I Violate Hillel’s Israel Guidelines: A Non-Apology” was published in New Voices. Unjustifiably claiming the need to write under anonymity, the article lashed out against the Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut and the Standards of Partnership. This writer, cowardly hiding behind his or her strongly displayed opinions, could not have stated more inaccurate points.

The two-state-solution is not “inherently flawed” – Israel is simply dealing with unreasonable partners. Hamas openly and entirely denies Israel’s right to exist, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently declared that the P.A. will not accept or recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The two-state solution is not “dangerously outdated,” it is a work in process that should not be given up.

The anonymous writer responds to President Fingerhut saying, “He’s entitled to hold right-wing opinions, of course, but to denigrate his ideological opposition reveals a stark truth about his organizational agenda.” Every organization has an agenda, including Hillel International. Anonymous writer, your belief that Hillel should program with the Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is wrong. Hillel is the venue on college campuses where students can oppose those programs. The expectation that Hillel will greet your desire to host BDS advocates at Hillel is misguided.

There is a point everyone else seems to be missing: Hillel student board members do not have carte blanche over their programming. There are boundaries that they must follow. The Standards of Partnership outline these boundaries:

“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. 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 towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

The notion that Hillel International should alter these standards to allow programming with aims detailed within is ludicrous.

Given all this, I feel I must now play devil’s advocate . I was an engaged student with the Hillel in Pittsburgh, the Hillel Jewish University Center (JUC), in both my personal time and in my role as a member of PIPAC, the campus AIPAC cadre. In the recent uproar over Open Hillel, I looked at the mission and vision statements of Hillel for the first time. My experiences at Hillel JUC match the ideal held in these statements– they promoted any student’s attitudes and beliefs of Judaism and encouraged a deep connection to Israel. In doing so, Hillel JUC supported all programming in agreement with the Hillel Israel Guidelines. Further, I was consistently given the impression that being critical of Israel was not only acceptable, but also encouraged, though I never would have expected Hillel JUC to house a speaker denouncing Israel’s right to exist or support an event for the BDS movement. On this I agree with Hillel JUC 100%. Hillel is not the platform for the BDS movement or similar programs. It is in this logic that I find Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership to be sound.

On the University of Pittsburgh’s campus in the 2012-2013 academic year, PIPAC, Panthers 4 Israel, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Session: Middle East all met together to plan a debate. Each organization was eager to work together, to express the situation and struggle seen by Israelis and Palestinians to the Pitt student body in a polite and collaborative way. But after months of planning and many meetings, the plans sadly fell through.

I could write a whole article on this alone, but for conciseness I will focus on the opinion of this debate by Hillel JUC. They hated it. The staff of Hillel JUC at that time felt threatened, and feared that its students were exposed and ready to be set up in an open forum. Maybe that would have occurred. Regardless, this is the type of programming Hillel needs to be open for involvement in. Speaking for PIPAC and Panthers 4 Israel, we wanted to show to the University of Pittsburgh student body what problems are being faced between Israelis and Palestinians and why there is such difficulty in reaching a solution. Programs that are critical of the actions taken by Israel need a warmer level of support by Hillel.

For his views on the BDS movement, David Harris-Gershon was recently denied a speaking engagement at the Santa Barbara Hillel. He intended to speak about his experience as a victim of a terrorist attack, and the book he wrote about his attempts at reconsiliation afterward. Not of BDS, not of Israel. After learning of this, I became even more sympathetic to events such as his. Although I have never seen him speak, these types of events can still promote support for Israel, despite what some Hillels think. They show how there is reason to be critical of Israel, as there is reason to be critical of every country in the world. These events indicate how the situations and problems Israel lies in are so complex, and how finding solutions are so difficult. While I believe that Hillel’s Israel Guidelines are legitimate, I nonetheless think that if Hillel continues to discard speakers who have excellent narratives and points to make simply because they might support boycotts of Israel, Hillel will discredit itself as a reliable source of information on Israel. Harris-Gershon, despite his recent experience with Santa Barbara, said that he has “been contacted by other Hillel centers which would like to host me.” It is delightful to hear that there are Hillels which understand the difference between hosting a BDS event, and hosting a speaker who supports boycotts as a non-violent form of protest.

Battling “international delegitimization of Israel,” as put by the anonymous writer, will not be achieved through the demands of Open Hillel. On college campuses, supporting Israel’s triumphs and being critical of its faults will encourage international support. If the center of Judaism on college campuses is associated with boycotts and sanctions of Israel, why should any college student support Israel?


Sam Hantverk is a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh.

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