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Hillel Is Urged to Promote Free and Open Debate About Issues Relating to Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
August 2013

Two students active in Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, call upon the organization to promote free and open debate about issues relating to Israel, something which, they argue, does not exist at the present time.  
Lex Rofes, a senior at Brown University and a student representative on the board of Hillel, and Simone Zimmerman, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley and. president of the J Street U National Student Board, note that, “Throughout our four years in college, Hillel has been our home on campus. We have been involved extensively, with one of us serving as president on campus and on the Hillel Inter¬national Board.”  
In an article written for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and published in Jewish newspapers across the country, the authors write that, “While we both found in Hillel a supportive community, when it came to our relationship with Israel, Hillel was not always so welcoming. One of us often avoided expressing political views in Hillel board meetings for fear of losing credibility. The other openly expressed her political views, which was met at times with harsh criticism.”  
While Hillel strives to ensure religious pluralism, they point out, “on Israel, the same pluralism is lacking. Students who express ambivalence toward Zionism, or support boycotts of Israeli products often feel they are not welcome in their campus Jewish community. Hillel International’s Israel guidelines contribute to the problem. … While the guidelines appear reasonable on paper, in practice they often restrict meaningful discussion and send a strong signal to some Jewish students that they do not belong.”  
While the guidelines state that Hillel will not host programs that deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure borders, Rofes and Zimmerman report that, “Some Hillels have hosted speakers that reject the possibility of compromise with the Palestin¬ians, rendering that future unfeasible. Meanwhile, proposed events with former Israeli combatants critical of their service are often met with requests to keep the event ‘private,’ requirements that a less critical voice ‘balance’ the presentation or outright refusals to host the discussion. Such requests are rarely made of more right-leaning speakers.  
Beyond this, they write, “… the guidelines prohibit co-sponsorship with groups that delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel — terms that are highly subjective. For instance, does B’Tselem’s documentation of human rights abuses in the territories constitute a ‘double standard’ against Israel? Do the soldiers of Breaking the Silence, in describing their service in the West Bank, ‘demonize’ Israel? Such terms are used frequently to slander both organiz¬ations. The wide room for interpretation is evidenced by the fact that while some Hillel directors welcome those groups, others cite the guidelines in denying those same voices a platform.”  
While the authors have both campaigned actively against divestment efforts on their campuses, they believe that, “… restrictions on events with any groups supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement … prohibit much-needed discussions. Though Hillel professes support for dialogue, the guidelines effectively eliminate any possibility of co-sponsorship with Palestinian student organizations … Our community cannot champion intellectual rigor and inclusivity while avoiding public conversations with those with whom we disagree.”  
The authors conclude: “Too many of our friends left Hillel because they felt alienated and stifled in raising questions or voicing their views on Israel. Too many have opted to disengage entirely rather than conforming to a community that tells them they do not fully belong. … If Hillel fails to make political pluralism a priority, we fear the ominous vision some have about the Jewish community’s future will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Those alienated will choose to build their families and communities outside of what they see as outmoded instit¬utions or, worse, simply check out of Judaism entirely. This is not a price anyone who cares about Hillel and Jewish life on campus should be willing to pay.” (Washington Jewish Week, May 30, 2013).  
Earlier this year, the Progress¬ive Student Alliance at Harvard University launched an effort, Open Hillel, to challenge Hillel’s guidelines. Its petition was signed by 800 Jewish students from diverse perspectives and was presented at a recent Hillel International board meeting. •

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