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.