At one time, campus Hillels were home to college students exploring their Jewish identity in all its diversity. There were Orthodox Jews, atheists, socialist, Bundists, Zionists–and everything in between. Hillel was a welcoming place, a big tent for Jewish inquiry. They were intellectually engaging, full of spiritual inquiry, and encouraging passion in seeking Jewish meaning. Hillel rabbis were looming figures on campus. They were beloved by students, full of charisma, generous of their time and support in all causes Jewish (and some not).
I had personally wonderful experiences at the UC Berkeley and UCLA Hillels. Their leaders were exemplars of Jews leading lives of deep meaning and value. But those were the 60s, 70s and even 80s. In those days, Jews explored their history and traditions. And they didn’t restrict their inquiry ideologically or spiritually. Jewish life was open, it was free. This is what lead me to five mostly glorious years working as western regional director for New Jewish Agenda in the early 1980s.
But somewhere along the way, this openness and diversity died. Now Hillels are a shell of their former selves. They’ve imposed censorship and restricted speech ostensibly based around a set of pro-Israel principles. Essentially, the rules state that all activities in Hillel facilities must be pro-Israel. BDS is designated, for this purpose, as anti-Israel and no programs about BDS are permitted.
Many young Jews objected to these draconian rules and founded a breakaway group, Open Hillel. There are now Open Hillels in five U.S. campuses.
But a recent development has exposed the hypocrisy that is at the root of the Hillel rules. Last year, a new Israeli initiative, Mosaic, founded by pro-settler minister and Netanyahu political rival, Naftali Bennett, offered $66-million to three Jewish groups including Chabad and Hillel. Despite its name’s connotations, Mosaic was meant to combat what the Israeli far-right views as anti-Israel discourse on campus. Hillel received $22-million of the overall grant. As a result, the organization’s priorities have become even closer aligned with Israeli super-nationalists than they were before.
An example of this is the annual speaking tour organized by the anti-Occupation Israeli NGO, Breaking the Silence. After visiting campuses (and Hillels) freely in recent years, suddenly the doors were shut in the group’s face. J Street U, a liberal Zionist, pro-Israel student group sought to host events at Washington University and Princeton University Hillels. They were rejected. Not just rejected. J Street U was told if it hosted such events it would be barred entirely from Hillel.
This demonization of Breaking the Silence is part of a far-right campaign inside Israel, which blames the IDF veterans who report on potential war crimes committed in the Territories, for giving Israel a black eye in the international community. Campaigns by activists to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court have been linked to BtS, even though the group takes no position on this broader issue. The NGO’s members are accused of being traitors. Its members are physically assaulted, and it has been sued in court for allegedly defaming individual soldiers.
Let’s clarify a few things about BtS related to Hillel. The group does not violate any of the rules of discourse Hillel initiated. It is not anti-Israel. Though I don’t believe it takes any position on the two state solution (another prerequisite for Hillel coöperation), it certainly doesn’t support a one-state solution. BtS is by no means among the more radical of Israeli NGOs. Nor does it take any position on BDS. If it did, it would probably oppose it as it is a patriotic, liberal group–not extreme in any sense of the word.
The irony here is that not only is BtS a relatively mild critic of Israeli Occupation, J Street U is strictly liberal Zionist and pro-Israel. Imagine if these fairly innocuous groups can’t participate in the mainstream Jewish community, what that means for the rest of us whose views are farther to the left. And make no mistake about who and how many we are. The vast majority of American Jews support the mission of groups like BtS, J Street U, and Open Hillel. So when you shut doors in their faces you’re shutting out a huge chunk of of our community. That may leave CEO Eric Fingerhut with a circle of ultra-Zionist true believers. But it excludes far more Jews than it includes.
The fact that Fingerhut deems BtS treif for Hillel means his discourse rules are a ruse. What really talks regarding the Jewish student group is money. Right now, the far right (pro-Israel foundations like Shusterman, Koret and others; and the Israeli government) has the cash. And as they say, money talks–loudly.
Hillel is perfect exemplar of the gradual suffocation and eventual death of American Jewish life. Young Jews on campus have always been smart and hip and seeking The New. Decades ago this meant havurot, the Jewish Catalogue, Response Magazine, Lehrhaus Judaica, the klezmer revival, Jewish mysticism, etc. But today, these same Jews know they won’t find it any longer at Hillel, no matter how much money Naftali Bennett throws at it. These young Jews will not beat down the door demanding to be let in. They will migrate elsewhere. Perhaps to something Jewish, more likely toward something entirely secular. In this way, we will eventually lose this generation. Not, of course this year or even this decade. But as I wrote in my chapter from the book, Israel and Palestine: Alternative Perspectives on Statehood, I predict a growing desertification of American Jewish life. It is caused by the increasing fear and intellectual sclerosis affecting our institutions.
If you oppose Hillel’s dangerous liaison with Mosaic, consider signing this petition.