Ohio State University Hillel cut ties last week with an LGBTQ Jewish student organization, and possible homophobia is just the beginning of why it’s a problem.To recap, the split occurred after the group, B’nai Keshet, hosted an event to help queer refugees. They co-sponsored the event with Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish group on campus that promotes boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). OSU’s Hillel defended itself against accusations of homophobia by claiming it defunded B’nai Keshet because of a Hillel International policy that Hillel groups cannot affiliate with pro-BDS organizations.
Whether or not OSU Hillel’s decision was homophobic is worthy of examination and debate. But if we end the conversation there, we ignore the broader issue – that Hillel International’s Israel policy offends and excludes many Jewish students.
This OSU situation is not an isolated incident. Time and time again, Hillel has shown how intolerant it is towards students who don’t share its views on Israel. At the J Street National Conference in February, I heard stories from students treated as outsiders at their Hillels because of their participation in J Street U, a student activist organization that supports a two-state solution but not BDS. I was deeply disturbed by their accounts, and having heard them, I wasn’t entirely surprised by what happened at OSU.
Still, I was hurt that Hillel, an organization intended to help students, justified turning its back on queer members, which disqualified them from Hillel benefits like subsidized kosher food and counseling. It is especially striking to me that this rift occurred over the co-sponsorship of an event to help refugees, a cause many Jews claim to support.
But, as is often the case, Jewish support for social justice causes stops where an unconditional support for Israel starts.
Hillel’s conservative stance on Israel drives away young Jews with more progressive positions and leaves students like me conflicted about participating. And there lies the problem. On many campuses, Hillel is a Jewish student’s only option if they want access to a Jewish community. This effectively forces Jewish students to turn a blind eye to policies that they find offensive or uncomfortable in order to have a Jewish space away from home. Having a Jewish community in college is incredibly important to me, as it is for many students, but I should not have to hide my opinions about Israel to feel like I belong.
Luckily, at Middlebury, where I am a student and Hillel board member, our Hillel is untraditional. Because our college does not allow outside organizations to hire employees working on campus, our Hillel is a student club without a Hillel International employee, though we do sign an affiliation agreement with Hillel International every year. In my experience, we can run our programs without violating Hillel policy. Still, because we are an affiliated college club and not a Hillel foundation, we have been able to craft a Jewish community that makes sense for our student body.
To be fair, not all traditional Hillels take such a conservative stance on Israel, and many have taken steps toward being more accepting of multiple views. But at schools where that is not the case, some students have successfully advocated to make their Jewish communities more open. Open Hillel, for example, is a student movement that aims to create Jewish communities on campus without strict policies on Israel. According to Open Hillel’s website, they hope to promote “pluralism and open discourse on Israel-Palestine in Jewish communities on campus and beyond” and “eliminate Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities, which exclude individuals and groups from the Jewish community on campus on the basis of their views on Israel.”
Hillel International often presents itself – and its way of organizing Jewish campus life – as the only legitimate option for Jewish students, which perpetuates the myth that the only way to be Jewish is to support Israel unconditionally. But movements like Open Hillel suggest otherwise. As I become more informed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and fill in some of the huge gaps in my childhood Israel education, I see that some of Hillel’s policies directly contradict my Jewish values. In order to “support Israel,” Hillel has thrown out timeless Jewish traditions like debate, discussion, and asking questions.
At OSU, Hillel squashed the possibility of Jewish students associating with people who support BDS in any official capacity, showing Hillel ultimately upholds policies that limit our ability to interact with people we disagree with – and threatens us with the loss of our Jewish community if we do. By doing this, Hillel prevents us from having the powerful, often painful conversations some of us want to have with the other side (or sides) of the Israel debate. And what about the value of acceptance and open-mindedness? Jewish students who support BDS or want to interact with students who support BDS deserve a Jewish community just as much as anyone else.
I know a lot of Jewish students on my campus and nationwide ultimately agree with Hillel’s Israel policy. But Jewish communities on campus should strive to be welcoming spaces for all Jewish students, regardless of their positions on Israel or the organizations they choose to associate with. And if Hillel International will not work toward creating a welcoming environment, then it might be time to turn to Open Hillel or others who will.
Sarah Asch is a Middlebury College student graduating in 2019 with a major in English and creative writing and a minor in Spanish.