One of my favorite professors recently told me a story about her second-grade son. Asher* and his classmate were carpooling to school when the other eight-year-old began to lecture him about “correct” religious observance. My professor, who has raised Asher in a deeply Jewish, mixed-denomination home, was proud to hear her son reply with the keen wisdom of an elementary schooler, “Every family has its own traditions.”
There is more than one “right” way to be Jewish. At the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, Duke’s campus Hillel, my friends and community are living the many different ways of being Jewish. We are Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and non-denominational; many of us are part of interfaith and interracial families. We hold a wide range of political views, and we are constantly learning from one another. Pluralism and openness are integral to our campus Jewish community.Therefore, my peers and I were distressed to hear that Hillel International has accepted millions of dollars from Mosaic United, an initiative by leaders who aim to, as they wrote in internal Diaspora ministry documents, stifle “critical discourse” on Israel and combat the supposed “undermining of the Jewish foundations of the family unit.” Mosaic is led by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs, who has a long record of censoring those who disagree with him and attempting to impose a singular, exclusionary vision of Judaism on the Israeli public.
Mosaic and its leadership do not reflect the values that students try to enact every day in our campus Hillels. At the Freeman Center, I’ve always felt welcomed and loved as a queer woman. In contrast, Bennett’s vision of Judaism is blatantly homophobic. Last year, he said, “Judaism doesn’t recognize gay marriage, just as we don’t recognize milk and meat together as kosher.” While my Jewish community at Duke is egalitarian and welcomes Jewish students from all denominations, Bennett’s party, HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home), has upheld a singular view of Judaism that denies rights to women and at times delegitimizes Reform, Conservative, and other non-Orthodox Jews. While our Hillel welcomes students from interfaith families and routinely hosts events with other faith groups on campus, Naftali Bennett espouses an exclusionary view of Judaism that views interfaith partnerships as “miscegenation” and a “threat” to the Jewish people.
At our Hillel, I’ve met students from across the political spectrum. In its official Israel guidelines, Hillel International, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, aspires to welcome “students of all backgrounds” to foster “an inclusive, pluralistic community” and to “encourage students’ inquiry” about Israel. Hillel International strayed from these values in 2010 by enacting the Standards of Partnership, which limit discourse by barring people and groups deemed too critical of Israeli policy from Hillel. Partnering with Bennett and Mosaic United further betrays Hillel International’s stated values of diversity and free inquiry. Time after time, Bennett has used his position to suppress dissent. He banned a novel on Jewish-Arab romance from Israeli schools and barred the Israeli human rights organization Breaking the Silence from the Israeli educational system. These activities contradict the values of pluralism, inclusivity, inquiry, and discourse that Hillel claims to promote.
In order to keep Jewish students in Hillel, our Jewish community should affirm these values and reject Mosaic’s censorship and exclusion. This week, Open Hillel – a movement of students across the country working to promote pluralism in the Jewish community on campus – launched a campaign calling on Hillel International to reject all funds from Mosaic United. I love my Jewish community at Duke and, like students around the country, I am proud to be fighting for the rights of all Jewish students to feel welcome at Hillel.
As long as Hillel International continues to partner with Mosaic, Hillel will risk losing young Jewish people like me, who do not fit into Bennett’s singular view of Judaism. Our Jewish community is better than pushing out Jewish students from Hillel because they are LGBT+ or come from interfaith families. We’re better than creating a political litmus test for being Jewish. There are many ways to be Jewish, and Hillel must welcome them all. I hope you will join me and Open Hillel in calling for Hillel to end its partnership with Mosaic and stand for a truly inclusive Jewish community.
*Not his real name
Lara Haft is a senior at Duke University and an organizer with Open Hillel and Duke Students and Workers in Solidarity.