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A Real Right to Debate (or Just Listen)

On Tuesday, Tablet Magazine published Daniel Treiman’s op-ed, “Right to Debate: Hillel’s ‘Israel Guidelines’ Cause a Stir.” I expected this rights-centered title to precede a discussion of steps for securing the right, perhaps by opening up communal Jewish spaces to diverse ideological perspectives. It did not.
Instead, it advocates Hillel International passing on the tricky questions, retaining broad though firmly “pro-Israel” Standards of Partnership. “Faraway elders telling college students they shouldn’t hear certain views or collaborate with particular people tends not to go over very well in an academic environment, to say the very least,” Treiman writes. I agree. Without a doubt, Treiman adds a critical voice to the growing movement against Hillel’s policies. Yet his proposal still endorses a ban on groups that are “antagonistic” toward Hillel’s “pro-Israel” identity. Instead of spending time debating whether more or less federalism will practically empower local Hillels at all, it is worth probing his assumptions that a) a “pro-Israel” policy is internally consistent, b) the costs of a pro-Israel policy outweigh its benefits, and c) the principal beneficiaries of a more open Hillel will be already radicalized leftists.
Insistence on the clunky pro-Israel label without defining it opens up an array of questions. Who is pro-Israel? Based on what metric do we evaluate the “pro”? By intention or by impact? I would imagine Treiman rejecting the former: besides the empirical impossibility of determining the intentionality behind one’s Israel politics, even if we could determine that someone who criticized Israel was genuinely intending to “strengthen” it, any BDS activist who declared that they ultimately intended to strengthen Israel—by BDSing it into compliance with international law, for example—would be welcome into Hillel’s tent. I can’t see Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut approving of this result.
Yet if we declare “pro-Israel” an impact-oriented standard, where one can only earn the “pro-Israel” label if the impact of one’s actions is deemed good for Israel, we run into innumerable standards of judging what is good. Does “good” mean unwavering support to the government of Israel, whose ability to govern and protect transcends secondary questions of its ideological orientation, and whose choices we distant observers are unwise to question? No, another might say, supporting this government is verifiably bad for the security of Israel and bad for its reputation as a pluralist society. OK. Well does “good” mean supporting Israel’s critics, whose ultimate impact will be to bolster Israel’s democratic character? No, one might say, this cannot be—the immediate and more important impact of left wing politics will be to lend credence to anti-Zionist activists who appropriate any critique of Israel for their anti-Zionist purposes.
But, an exasperated third might say, even if we can’t identify exactly what “pro”-Israel means, we can clearly identify what it means to be anti-Israel (i.e. any tactic/position based on a denial of Israel’s right to exist). But this standard for being “pro-Israel,” by trying to define itself by what it is not, forfeits the claim to impact-orientation—it labels anti-Israel only those groups that declare their anti-Zionists intentions and deny Israel’s right to exist. Such a definition would fail to exclude groups that advocate BDS but acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, for example; as Harvard Professor Steve Levitsky and others have argued, BDS may be the most effective way to strengthen a lasting Zionism. Other than its ability to eschew admitted objectors to Zionism, a pro-Israel policy internally flounders.
And even if Hillel retained a pro-Israel identity, internal inconsistencies notwithstanding, I struggle to see how an institution supportive of one position necessarily suffers from the presence of dissenting others. The benefits of such a policy do not so obviously outweigh the costs. What of the argument that a durable, defensible position not only can withstand attack but becomes stronger upon negating this attack? And that a failure to engage at all is a serious cost in itself? A Hillel that precludes JVP from entering its tent to debate with Stand With Us may float a justification of the We-don’t-negotiate-with-terrorists ilk: “We won’t dignify racist anti-Zionism with debate or response.” To be fair, I find this proposition somewhat logically sound. Welcoming an anti-Zionist organization into one’s tent does intrinsically represent some form of legitimization. It means conceding that such views are not necessarily incitements to racist violence. For we would not invite such self-confessed provocateurs to racist violence into our tent—such principles are written into the fabric of Hillel and Open Hillel alike.
But this concession, this cost, is ultimately trivial compared to what ardent supporters of Israel stand to gain from a widening of Hillel’s tent. After acknowledging that one’s interlocutors are not necessarily genocidal bigots—indeed a concession, though small—one both signals a confidence in one’s beliefs and one may proceed to expose every last racist supposition, every last ill-conceived plan, every last flawed historiography, and every last dime of Hezbollah funding on which one’s anti-Israel interlocutor might supposedly rely. If, as Treiman says, the pro-Israel identity holds the moral high ground, what is Hillel afraid of?
But let’s say you reject the arguments made thus far. Perhaps you believe the danger of Hillel becoming a stomping ground for anti-Zionists and the implied legitimization of these leftist strands outweighs any potential benefit of bolstering the integrity and durability of Zionism, as I’ve argued it might. Perhaps you believe in freedom of speech—just not in Hillel, which has a legal right to restrict what voices are heard. After all, why does Hillel need to be the place to air these views? Connecticut College Professor Andrew Pessin wrote recently, “If you really want to “open dialogue,” fine: just do it elsewhere. Start a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace on your campus if there isn’t one already.” Engage in dialogue, we are instructed, because there’s nothing wrong with the dialogue itself—just do it with people who already agree with you. This proposal, besides advocating groupthink on its face, reveals a deeper flaw in the thinking of Open Hillel’s critics: it presumes a pre-existing political ideology in Open Hillel advocates, and devalues ideologically curious members of Jewish communities.
In my view, the most basic reason for a radically inclusive Jewish community is not some complex disquisition on free speech that conveniently comport with my progressive politics, or my belief that anti-Zionist Jews deserve a place at the table. Instead, the reason is uncertainty.
Something we don’t talk about much in the world of Israel/Palestine dialogue, a world where everyone, across the ideological spectrum, seems to know what is right and what is wrong, are those among us who are, frankly, kind of confused. Take the Hillel context. Quietly seated in their college dorm rooms are the Jewish students who are intimidated by the assumption that, at 18 years old, they must take a position on Israel/Palestine. Without question, an Open Hillel success would mean allowing the ideological left a similar opportunity for speech as the ideological right already possesses.
But more fundamentally, it would affirm that Jewish communal spaces are not just for those who foam at the mouth when given the opportunity to declare and defend their views. These spaces are also for those of us who are curious, who are confused, who are still forming opinions and would prefer doing so without intellectual limitation. These spaces are for those Jews from Jew-scarce cities whose first semester on campus is their first-ever opportunity to learn about Israel and Palestine from gifted scholars, to think critically about one or two or even three states, to actually feel themselves forming opinions after listening to a panoply of opinions. And for all others who seek a non-partisan Jewish space to learn about an issue central to Jewish identity.
Thus, the alienation of Jewish students who conscientiously object to Zionism, or who object to certain strands of Zionism (Treiman’s reference to a likely-banned Buber event is well-taken), is only half the story. The other half is the alienation of inquisitive Jewish students who are unable to make balanced learning about Israel and Palestine a part of their Jewishness. What message does the Jewish community writ large send to Jewish students who have even the slightest skepticism about Zionism, when The college institution for Jews prohibits these groups? That Hillel includes a provision objecting to the exclusion of “any students for their beliefs” is hardly a serious attempt to cure the policy of its exclusionary ethos. The anti-Zionist Jew can stay, but when ten anti-Zionist Jews get together and call themselves a group, they cannot? The rising, documented alienation of young Jews from communal Jewish spaces may derive in part from institutions like this one, where one is informed at the door what intellectual spaces are in practice forbidden.
A policy that requires a general commitment to Hillel’s pro-Israel identity and no more not only maintains a monolithic pro-Israel label but irresponsibly ducks the question of inclusivity by giving local Hillels the chance to enact the same, unjustifiable bans that Hillel International currently holds. A policy that truly defended the right to debate, or even just to listen curiously as others debate, would not require every local Hillel across the country to welcome Jewish Voices for Peace every time its name appeared on a proposed event. The requirement would be inverse: local Hillels could not automatically forbid Jewish Voices for Peace, or other Israel or Palestine-focused groups, from its programming based on their politics. Whether Hillel International should forbid hosting or sponsoring an organization whose stated intention is to dehumanize and to commit genocide, or should leave these decisions to local Hillels, is a fascinating but separate topic from this discussion (though my comments above on racist incitements to violence should indicate which way I lean). At present, what’s needed is an unambiguous message from the top: groups may not be turned away because of their Israel politics. Such a policy still gives local Hillels ample experimental room to work out the mechanisms by which they will welcome diverse groups into their spaces.
We often remark, or even boast: Two Jews, three opinions. Those three opinions can fit inside one Hillel.

7 thoughts on “A Real Right to Debate (or Just Listen)

  1. Bravo. Very well stated and well reasoned. As Martin Luther King said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Opening the tent and broadening the discussion will not re-bend that arc. The dangers of silence and groupspeak are infinitely greater than the danger of debate.

  2. Well said Jacob Hutt, and unlike current Hillel International policies, it honors those who serve Hillel and Jewish students of the past, including Danny Leifer Z”L and Max Ticktin, who was vilified but stood his ground back in the day.

  3. To the contrary, I find the reasoning in this piece absurd (which won’t surprise you). There’s an awful lot of airy abstraction, but we really could cut to the chase. Campuses today are leaning ever more strongly toward anti-Zionism, as the academy in general has been for some decades. There is no shortage of anti-Zionist “discussion,” ranging from the vitriolic Jew-hating sort to the airy abstractions that sound very polite and resemble reasoned discourse at least in tone. There is no danger of students who attend a few Hillel-sponsored events each year not being exposed to “the other side.” What IS needed, to the contrary, is a space to develop and articulate a pro-Israel voice, however fuzzy that notion might be. The comment that Jacob quotes from me (a bit out of context, but that’s okay) was responding to a very specific argument for Open Hillel relying on free speech: “free speech is good so we should have it in Hillel too.” My limited point there was “yes free speech is good but that doesn’t mean every organization on campus should demand to sponsor all viewpoints,” for that is ridiculous. A campus is a place where groups with diverse opinions and perspectives nurture and support those perspectives, which then compete in the marketplace of ideas. Apart from abstraction, de facto, what Open Hillel aims to do is dilute the resources available to promote the pro-Israel side — which involves learning the history and the arguments and of COURSE the other side’s views, so as to be able to respond to them appropriately. You can raise all sorts of other lovely arguments about free speech and inclusivity etc., but that is what Open Hillel will do: dilute the pro-Israel resources and add ever more timber to the fire of anti-Zionism burning across the academy. You care about the “confused” undergrad, who doesn’t know what to think? Well, good. Let him attend some Hillel events, where he might hear people who genuinely believe that Jews have rights in this region, even in the West Bank, that Palestinians occasionally do wrong things too — and let him hear these things so when he walks past the Apartheid Wall on campus he’ll know enough to realize what a gross mischaracterization and slander that is. And by the way, a group of ten anti-Zionist Jews is perfectly welcome to hang out at Hillel events and debate all they want. They just won’t be permitted to use Hillel’s limited funds to sponsor seriously anti-Israel events — you know, the kind that delegitimize and demonize the Jewish state. They can walk across the student union to SJP, or JVP, or the J-Street office and request some of their money for those events. If you care about students really hearing all sides — hearing not emotional screaming, but actually learning facts, studying arguments, encountering objections — then the best way to do that is to have different groups on campuses focusing their energies on rational development of their perspectives. If you follow the logic of Open Hillel, if you really believe that “inclusivity” and “Free speech” are universal norms, then you should simultaneously be demanding of every student/campus group that they sponsor every position and its opposite. If you really enforced that, if you really had an Open Hillel and an Open SJP and an Open JVP etc., then every group dealing with Israel would be sponsoring every position. But that is absurd. The groups would become identical to each other. Interestingly, I see not one of the Open HIllel people demanding SJP become Open. The couple I’ve queried offer stunningly lame excuses for not making that demand. Could it be — really, this is a serious question — that despite all the lovely abstract arguments made in pieces like Jacob’s, that what’s really motivating the proponents of Open Hillel is — not free speech, diversity, inclusivity, etc. — but that they want to empower anti-Zionism? It’s hard to avoid that conclusion. But really, you folks ought to at least be honest. “I hate Israel, or I hate Israel’s policies, so I want Hillel to spend money to get more fellow Jews to feel the same.” I’m pretty sure that’s whats driving you, and what you are obscuring beneath the abstractions. So just come out and say it. You want to dilute the resources that might empower those who disagree with you.

  4. Jewish Voice for Peace does in fact consist of genocidal bigots and ardent racists intent on eliminating Israel and its Jewish citizens to replace it with another Judenrein Islamic state that kills gays, oppresses women and persecutes minorities (if they exist at all). Hillel should not be open to the self righteous racists that compose Jewish Voice for Peace.

  5. I don’t need to invite enemies into my own house, even if they claim they’re just selling cookies. they’re trying to poison me, and I’m not going to help them. Thank you, Andrew Pessin, for continuing to state the truth.

  6. Open Hillel is filed with antisemites and antizionists (read: “progressives”). I’m not surprised that this fringe, far-left, antizionist publication would support such a cause.

  7. There is a difference between in group dialogue and external debate. Hillel is a Jewish organization. It takes as a given that Judaism is a valid religion, the Jewish people are a people and not demons in human form, that Israel is a country that should exist… Now believing those things does not mean that one can’t study their opposites but it does mean that those opposite positions are not considered internal debates but external debates.
    Christian churches can study the doctrine that Jesus is the human messiah of Islam while at the same time asserting the internal truth that he is the part of the triune deity. Hillel can study Hinduism’s belief that that God is both inside us and external to us, while fully appreciating that the Jewish position is an external deity who acts on us but is not acted upon by us. Similarly excommunicating JVP for essentially treason does not mean that one cannot understand their views it just means that those views are not internal to the Hillel community.
    And quite simply subjecting a people to: regime change, ethnic cleansing and a massive influx of a hostile population on their land and territory is an obviously hostile policy. No one tries to claim that what the USA did to the Iraqi Sunnis was to their benefit. Bush-41 and Bush-43 were enemies of the Iraqi Sunnis. It is simply ridiculous to treat them as friends of the Iraqi Sunnis. If JVP were part of the Jewish community their policy would be through friendship and discussion to convince Israelis to change the policy of their government of the error of their ways, not through the use of force make them unable to resist the policies that JVP wishes to impose. One is war one the other is internal politics.

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