Hillel fails to represent all Jewish students

By Joshua Strassman

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In a recent article in Tikkun, Michael Kaplan and Jack Ross lay out the history of the Jewish Newsletter, a now-defunct Jewish publication, which was a hotbed for dissenting, left wing Jewish voices. It rose to prominence in the 1940s and 50s as Zionist fervor was spreading and becoming the dominant ideology in the Jewish world. Its contributors were forceful in their opposition to this new trend. Significantly, Hillel chapters at colleges all over the country distributed this magazine to students. It seems there was a time where vibrant, open debate was strongly encouraged at Hillel.

Not anymore.

A few weeks ago, as part of a national speaking tour sponsored by Open Hillel, three Jewish civil rights veterans came to speak at UMass. All three of them worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 60s. They were part of the large Jewish presence in the movement for black civil rights. The lessons they learned from the struggle in the South are extremely relevant today, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. I recall my skin turning cold as many of their stories of police violence mirrored almost precisely some of the tragedies of the past year.

It would seem UMass Hillel would welcome these speakers, and that they would be excited to host such inspiring leaders. Here’s the problem: all three speakers are fierce advocates for Palestinian rights, and harsh critics of the Israeli Occupation. They made connections from their work in the Jim Crow South to the movement for Palestinian human rights today. This has provoked fierce opposition from Hillel International, which has resulted in Hillel chapters refusing to sponsor the speakers. UMass Hillel claimed that because the event coincided with Israeli Apartheid Week, they could not support it.

None of this is meant to be an attack on individual Hillel chapters, at UMass or elsewhere. Campus Hillel directors have their hands tied by Hillel International, which enforces their Standards of Partnership on Israel-related speakers. These standards, in effect, end up silencing progressive and left wing Jews.

The provocations from Hillel International have gone too far. In a recent Times of Israel piece, Hillel International chief administrative officer David Eden attacked the speakers, claiming that they are being “manipulated by this small band of student activists.” Quite offensively, Eden seems to think these three lifelong activists are simply ignorant and don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. He certainly is not listening to what they’re actually saying; all three have made strong comments in support of Open Hillel.

Swarthmore College’s Hillel is even facing legal action from Hillel International for choosing to host these speakers. In a direct attack against open discourse, Hillel demanded that Swarthmore’s Jewish students not use the Hillel brand to promote their event. Bravely, Swarthmore Hillel’s board stood up to this attack, and voted to disaffiliate with Hillel International.

J Street, a moderate Zionist organization which pushes for a two-state solution, has also faced bullying and attacks from Hillel. Last week, J Street had their annual national conference, which around 1,000 Jewish students attended. Incredibly, Hillel International Director Eric Fingerhut pulled out of the conference because of the presence of Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat – a slap in the face to the dedicated students in attendance.

It is becoming increasingly clear the Standards of Partnership need to go. They restrict free speech and contribute to an often toxic culture and discourse among Jewish students surrounding Israel/Palestine. They force individual Hillel directors – who typically strive to include all students – to kowtow to an official line that is exclusionary and divisive. Luckily, the tide is turning quickly – the recent provocations from Hillel International have led to an explosion of resistance on campuses across the country.

Ironically, as these events have been unfolding, I have found myself increasingly drawn to the writings of Hillel the Elder, after whom the Jewish organization is named. Hillel famously asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I had never internalized the importance of this question until now. I’m now realizing that if I stay silent, there are a myriad of reactionaries who will claim to be speaking for me. Jewish students from all over the country are taking Hillel’s teaching to heart – we will not be silent anymore.

Joshua Strassman is a Collegian contributer and can be reached at [email protected]