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My Disillusionment with Hillel: Feeling censored and unwelcomed in the Jewish community

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When I was a freshman at UC San Diego, I sought to find a home away from home. Naturally, I was drawn to Hillel; its mission of providing a community for Jewish students to embrace their cultural and religious identities made me feel like it would be a natural fit. I became involved extensively—I participated in Shabbat services, served as a delegate on a service project trip with American Jewish World Service, and took Hebrew lessons.  However, it wasn’t until I co-founded an organization called Jewish Students Taking Action for Peace (JSTAP), a forum for students to engage in critical discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict, that I felt how unwelcoming Hillel could be when it came to those who were critical of Israel.

UCSDHillelAlthough I remained committed for some time to work through Hillel, there were far too many obstacles. Because JSTAP encouraged dialogue on BDS, partnered with a variety of organizations, such as Breaking the Silence and Jewish Voice for Peace, we were finally given an ultimatum: abide my Hillel’s guidelines or remove yourself and operate as a separate entity.

By giving me an ultimatum I felt as if I was being censored and unwelcomed in the Jewish community. I was being told indirectly that while I could hold my own individual views, I would be denied a public platform to speak while others were given the opportunity.

So for me the choice was simple: I removed myself completely. For the remainder of my years at UC San Diego, I disassociated myself from the Jewish community and Hillel altogether.

I wish that didn’t have to be the case.

The problem stems from Hillel’s International Guidelines. The guidelines stipulate that: “Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community” and that they “object to excluding any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof” but their “Standards of Partnership” clause denies the right of student organizations who are affiliated with Hillel to partner with or host organizations, groups or speakers that “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders, delegitimizes, demonizes, or applies a double standard to Israel, or supports boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel”.

This is problematic. If Hillel bills itself as the “Foundation for Jewish Campus Life” then their guidelines must reflect and include all views on Israel. These guidelines discourage students from engaging in critical discussions. Furthermore, the debate over what is and isn’t “allowable” to say in Hillel raises questions of free speech and pluralism of thought.

Hillel International’s prohibitions allow only one type of political thought in regard to Israel, thereby excluding other views. By refraining from allowing nuanced discussions with a variety of people, it is in fact debilitating and stifling pluralism in the Jewish community. Consequently, similar to what I experienced, those who do not share the same political ideology as what Hillel preaches feel unwelcome.

The question isn’t whether Hillel International has the right to impose restrictions; it is true that as an institution it is free to regulate and prohibit speech. But the more important question is whether Hillel’s current guidelines embraces diverse view points and allows for critical thought to form. The answer to this is simple: no.

Hillel International’s current guidelines implies that they are seeking to maintain a unified voice, rather than embracing diversity and allowing voices of dissent. However, silencing particular voices is damaging to both the Jewish community and signals that they threatened by voices who are critical of Israel.

Furthermore, by advocating a particular political agenda while simultaneously claiming to be the focal point of Jewish life on campus, they are in turn politicizing Jewish traditions and defining what it means to be truly “Jewish.” This is detrimental to the Jewish community because students who fall outside of Hillel’s political beliefs will be further isolated. For example I’ve been told: None of my friends attend “anti-Israel campaigns and go to Shabbat and Hillel…I think you are a hypocrite “

Also, adhering to a unified voice on Israel, rather than allowing voices of dissent does not make Israel safer. It does the contrary. Because without engaging in difficult conversations and taking a step back and validating different narratives, the occupation will never end. And how does this help Palestinians and Jews hear each other?

Hillel’s exclusionary acts work against fostering a diverse community. By excluding certain groups and allowing others, Hillel is suggesting that they are not serious about real dialogue. While Hillel favors one political viewpoint and openly rejects another, it stifles critical discourse and in turn prohibits nuanced discussions on Israel’s policies. No group should be excluded from speaking at Hillel.

For example, even though I disagree with AIPAC, I believe that their inclusion in Hillel is vital in producing an open debate. But to that same accord, Hillel must be willing to allow “the other” side. By not allowing them, they are signaling that they are threatened by ideas that are critical of Israel.

But I’m not the only Jewish student who has become disillusioned with Hillel. The “Open Hillel” movement is a student-run campaign that seeks to embrace inclusivity and pluralistic views of thought in Hillel. Many members are also trying to change the “standards of Partnership” clause in Hillel’s International Guidelines on what type of Israel programs may and may not be hosted. And just this month Jewish students at Swarthmore College declared themselves as the first “Open Hillel,”—an organization that supports Jewish life on campus in all forms. In their statement they declared that “all are welcome to walk through [their] doors and speak with [their] name and under [their] roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.”

Examples of Jewish students, such as those at Swarthmore College, illustrate that as more Jewish students wrestle with their relationship with Israel, the more they are seeking to engage in diverse conversations. If Hillel does not widen their “tent” and embrace pluralism, then more students will simply step away.

Hillel should allow all views regarding Israel to be expressed because organizations that seek to allow free speech and pluralism of thought, in turn strengthen values of freedom, democracy, and inclusion. Pluralism of thought is a far greater gift than limiting ideas in a community.

Melissa Etehad
About Melissa Etehad

Melissa Etehad is a first generation Jewish Iranian-American and recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego. She holds a B.A. in International Studies and Religion. Follow her on Twitter @melissaetehad.

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18 Responses

  1. annie
    annie
    January 8, 2014, 1:08 pm

    thank you melissa. hillel is not telling the truth when they claim to “object to excluding any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof”

    someone should be blunt and call them out as liars. their alleged self description is just pandering to a pc image, it obviously doesn’t represent who they are.

    • bilal a
      bilal a
      January 9, 2014, 9:46 am

      I cannot imagine a one state solution in Palestine which would NOT be worse than what the Black Africans have now in South Africa, or in Tel Aviv (democratic Israel), or in post Bloomberg New York. Merely a facade of democratic rights to free speech and self determination, just look at Hillel or Jewish voice for peace, etc, etc. , ethno centric segregation , defamation, takeover, cloaked in the words of human rights.

      This is a transnational problem.

      • annie
        annie
        January 9, 2014, 11:02 am

        just look at Hillel or Jewish voice for peace, etc, etc. , ethno centric segregation , defamation, takeover, cloaked in the words of human rights.

        jvp? i’m a member of jvp. jvp is one of the most wonderful orgs ever, i love jvp and what they do. they are one of the orgs hillel will not allow to sponsor events. why would anyone lump hillel and jvp together. have you ever checked out their homepage or visited their site?

        http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/

  2. hophmi
    hophmi
    January 8, 2014, 2:20 pm

    “By giving me an ultimatum I felt as if I was being censored and unwelcomed in the Jewish community. I was being told indirectly that while I could hold my own individual views, I would be denied a public platform to speak while others were given the opportunity.”

    Did they tell you to close down your organization? No. Did they tell you that you were not allow to use the word “Jewish”? No. Did they tell you that you were not free to hold whatever lectures you wanted? No. Did they tell you that if you did hold these events, that you would not be permitted to attend Hillel events? No. Did they tell you that you would be excluded from participating in other Hillel events if you ran this organization? No. All they said was that you could not do stuff like this with their name and their money. That’s not censorship.

    “I removed myself completely. For the remainder of my years at UC San Diego, I disassociated myself from the Jewish community and Hillel altogether.”

    So you chose not to associate. That’s your right. But don’t act like Hillel forced you to make that choice.

    “This is problematic. If Hillel bills itself as the ‘Foundation for Jewish Campus Life’ then their guidelines must reflect and include all views on Israel.”

    Says who? Does the Catholic student org on campus reflect all views on the issue of abortion? How many pro-choice activists have spoken under the Catholic student banner?

    “Hillel International’s prohibitions allow only one type of political thought in regard to Israel, thereby excluding other views.”

    No Melissa, there are lot of different “types of political thought” in regard to Israel that are not BDS. They include harshly critical views of Israeli society offered by groups like B’Tselem and the New Israel Fund.

    “By refraining from allowing nuanced discussions with a variety of people, it is in fact debilitating and stifling pluralism in the Jewish community.”

    I don’t see how. Alex Kane showed up to a major Park Slope synagogue last Purim for the Megillah reading. I saw him there. I didn’t see anyone throw him out or tell him to keep his mouth shut. I hope he comes back.

    There is a big difference between excluding people with certain points of view and with denying them an institutional platform from which to promote their point of view. And college students are always in a weak position here, because they tend to defend freedom of speech only when the speech is from a point of view that they agree with. I don’t see you standing up against censorship if the Hillel guidelines were to exclude right-wing settlers from speaking. On this blog, many argued that Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador until last year, had no right to speak (nor any right to be heard) at UC Irvine.

    • Hostage
      Hostage
      January 9, 2014, 4:10 am

      On this blog, many argued that Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador until last year, had no right to speak (nor any right to be heard) at UC Irvine.

      You are mixing apples and oranges. Many Campus Hillel chapters are individual 501(c)3 tax exempt organizations that are supported by private donations they collect on their own behalf. If you check their websites or donation pages, you’ll find that they do not disclose this anti-BDS policy. In any event, they are only legally required to abide by their own individual constitutions or bylaws.

      I was not arguing against Oren’s right to speak in a privately funded 501(c) 3 venue. I argued that it was improper to use a California State Public Meeting Law in Oren’s case. The prohibition against the government conducting war propaganda or promulgating ideas of racial superiority are contained in Article 20 of the ICCPR and Article 4 of the ICERD. They have been codified in enabling legislation which prohibits the use of any federal appropriated funds for State-sponsored publicity or propaganda campaigns.

      Aliens have no inherent right to a US taxpayer-subsidized forum to promulgate war propaganda against Iran on behalf of the State of Israel or deliver subtle sermons about the Christian duty to help the Jews redeem their ancient homeland from the Palestinians. The omnibus appropriations bill passed by Congress every year says: “No part of any appropriation . . . shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by the Congress.” http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/publicity_or_propaganda

      I think it’s especially important that individuals, like Oren, not be given a state-sponsored platform. The first amendment protects private speech, but it does not protect state-sponsored speech that violates our government’s own treaty obligations.

      Oren has written OpEds, given interviews, and written open letters that reserve the State of Israel’s right to commit acts of aggression, including deliberate war crimes, against persons of Palestinian national origin and against international peace activists as part of an official State-sponsored criminal colonial enterprise and the illegal siege against the population of Gaza. The fact is that those are “true threats”, because Israel has, and is, carrying them out though the use of armed force and violence.
      * Stop scapegoating Israeli settlements http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/stop-scapegoating-israeli-settlements-article-1.1217232He also has written
      * Israeli Ambassador: Soldiers Had ‘No Choice But to Defend Themselves’
      http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/jan-june10/gaza3_05-31.html

      He has also written a steady stream of OpEds and letters that are part of a war propaganda campaign to involve the USA in acts against Iran that would violate our UN Charter and other treaty obligations. He incorrectly frames the issue at Irvine as one about free speech:
      Ambassador Oren’s Letter
      http://www.newuniversity.org/2010/03/opinion/ambassador-oren%E2%80%99s-letter/

      Policy guidance from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission about the responsibility of Educators under Title VI clearly outlines an obligation to avoid situations on campus that expose students in federally subsidized institutions to intimidation or discrimination on the bases of their national origin, ethnicity, or ancestry. Title VI Legal Manual
      http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/cor/coord/vimanual.php

      It is perfectly proper for Palestinian Americans and Solidarity activists to speak out against the inclusion of foreign citizens from engaging in certain activities, including participating or running any State public meeting, that is an integral part of democratic self-government in the United States. The Courts have held that foreign citizens may be barred from: voting, serving as jurors, working as police or probation officers and teaching at public schools. See, e.g., Cabell v. Chavez-Salido, 454 U.S. 432 (1982); Ambach v. Norwick, 441 U.S. 68 (1979); Foley v. Connelie, 435 U.S. 291 (1978).

      In Blumen v FEC the Courts ruled that:

      “It is fundamental to the definition of our national political community that foreign citizens do not have a constitutional right to participate in, and thus may be excluded from, activities of democratic self-government.”

      http://www.fec.gov/law/litigation/bluman.shtml

      The use of a State Public Meeting statute against the demonstrators at UC Irvine obviously presents justiciable differences that simply do not apply to the case of the Campus Hillel mentioned in the article above.

      • Xpat
        Xpat
        January 9, 2014, 9:55 am

        Thanks, Hostage. That’s a keeper.

      • hophmi
        hophmi
        January 9, 2014, 11:12 am

        “You are mixing apples and oranges.”

        Your anti-free speech argument, which you have made here many times, remains wholly meritless, but people here don’t bother to check on your sources, so I will put this one to bed again.

        “Aliens have no inherent right to a US taxpayer-subsidized forum to promulgate war propaganda against Iran on behalf of the State of Israel or deliver subtle sermons about the Christian duty to help the Jews redeem their ancient homeland from the Palestinians.”

        You’re made this ridiculous argument many times here, and each time, you’ve been willfully disingenuous with your source. The definition of “publicity” and “propaganda” that you provide essentially says three things:

        1. There is no definition of “publicity or propaganda” in the legislative history of that statute.

        2. The Government Accountability Office takes a flexible, deferential approach to adjudicating suspected violations.

        3. The law addresses speeches by bureaucrats associated with US Government agencies, not ambassadors from foreign countries.

        “I think it’s especially important that individuals, like Oren, not be given a state-sponsored platform.”

        You’ve established that you either do not believe in the First Amendment or that you do not understand it very well.

        Foreign nationals have long had First Amendment rights, and it was the Framers’ intent to provide them with First Amendment rights. http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1302&context=facpub

        You can start reading at 376.

        UC Irvine also has a First Amendment right to present whomever they want as a public speaker, and the students at UC Irvine have a right to hear those speakers.

        There is zero authority – none – suggesting that a speech by a Israeli foreign national, including an Israeli ambassador to the United States, exposes students to unlawful discrimination or intimidation. That’s just your political blather masquerading as law. Maybe you wish this were the case. As I have said so many times now, there is a very easy way to test this theory. FILE A COMPLAINT.

        Your argument that Oren’s advocacy of a hard line on Iran, and a view that Israeli settlements are not the main problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both are defensible applications of his right to free speech and the newspaper’s right to free expression.

        Blumen v. FEC has nothing whatsoever to do with First Amendment rights. The Blumen case was about the right of foreign nationals to make campaign contributions in American elections. The decision is in keeping with long-standing precedents that non-citizens cannot vote, and cannot run for elected office. It certainly does not support a finding that foreign nationals do not have First Amendment rights.

        Most of the time, campaigns to restrict the free speech rights of non-citizens or foreign nationals is simply demagogic racism. Your campaign is no different.

      • Hostage
        Hostage
        January 10, 2014, 8:56 am

        The definition of “publicity” and “propaganda” that you provide essentially says three things: . . . 3. The law addresses speeches by bureaucrats associated with US Government agencies, not ambassadors from foreign countries.

        When you say “essentially” you aren’t actually quoting The Cornell Legal Information Institute page or the Omnibus Appropriations act regarding “ambassadors from foreign countries”. They are not specially excluded from the appropriations prohibition at all. The Supreme Court has long since upheld the definition of “political propaganda” contained in the Foreign Agents Registration Act, as “any communication intended to influence the United States’ foreign policies”. See Meese v. Keene, 481 U.S. 465 (1987) Diplomats that present their credentials to the US government do not have to register, but that does not entitle them to use appropriated funds or alter the fact that their communications can be considered political propaganda. Even that doesn’t apply to members of the IDF speaking at FSU who damn sure are required to register before engaging in propaganda campaigns.

        In any event, this was a case of a US government bureaucrat who provided a federally subsidized venue and employed the State Public meeting law to promote some Israeli propaganda.

        Blumen v. FEC has nothing whatsoever to do with First Amendment rights. The Blumen case was about the right of foreign nationals to make campaign contributions in American elections. . . . It certainly does not support a finding that foreign nationals do not have First Amendment rights.

        That’s an example of just how dishonest or clueless you are. The Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v FEC that making campaign contributions or funding campaign ads was protected 1st amendment speech. The petition to the Supreme Court in Bluman cited Citizens v United and claimed that the foreign citizen’s 1st Amendment rights had been violated:

        On January 9, 2012, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Blumen v. FEC. The question in this case was whether a federal statute that prohibits foreign nationals, who in this case were present in the United States on temporary work visas, from making contributions to candidates or to political parties, or from making express advocacy expenditures with respect to U.S. elections, violated these persons’ First Amendment rights. A three-judge panel in the lower court rejected the foreign nationals’ claim that their rights had been violated. In a one-sentence order, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

        http://www.fed-soc.org/publications/detail/bluman-v-fec-post-decision-scotuscast

        So it was only a 1st amendment case and it specifically upheld a long line of decisions which say that foreign aliens, other than resident or immigrant aliens, have no 1st amendment rights. Full stop. There have even been cases where resident aliens have been excluded from engaging in teaching and educational activities.

      • Hostage
        Hostage
        January 10, 2014, 9:14 am

        Most of the time, campaigns to restrict the free speech rights of non-citizens or foreign nationals is simply demagogic racism. Your campaign is no different.

        I have no objection to Oren engaging in racist demagoguery about the Christian duty to help Jews reclaim the Holy Land from the Palestinians or engaging in war propaganda against Iran on his own dime.

        I object when a public official gives him the imprimatur of a State Public meeting to engage in those activities, because that violates our government’s laws and treaty obligations against state-sponsored war propaganda or hate speech. Your inability to grasp the difference just shows how stunningly clueless you are. I don’t object to someone praying to the guy in the sky everyday, but I would object to that same person doing that in the classroom everyday and having anyone who objects hauled-off by the police.

  3. Ellen
    Ellen
    January 8, 2014, 4:21 pm

    Melissa, you are the future.

    If Hillel has the mission of ” providing a community for Jewish students to embrace their cultural and religious identities” they are failing by loosing you.

  4. just
    just
    January 8, 2014, 4:46 pm

    Thank you Melissa. I wish you great success. Your mind is open and vibrant, and your voice is an important one.

    It is Hillel’s loss. I hope that they change course.

  5. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    January 8, 2014, 5:28 pm

    By saying you cannot work with groups that support BDS, Hillel anathematized them. by dialoging and co-hosting with them, you are not following their anathema.

    So, you must ask yourself, do you agree with the anathema?

    If not, then you must disassociate your group in order to avoid enforcing the anathema. And your group would be disagreeing with the anathema.

    For example, even though I disagree with AIPAC, I believe that their inclusion in Hillel is vital in producing an open debate.

    This analogy does not go all the way. Hillel did not just ban BDS groups from belonging to Hillel, it even banned groups that cohost with BDS groups.

    To follow the analogy fully would mean to not just allow the pro-State AIPAC to join, but to ban even organizations that cohosted with AIPAC. If you allow AIPAC, would you allow a group that is not just pro-BDS, but dedicated equally to “anti-Statism”? I ask this to complete the analogy.

    Perhaps one idea could be just to separate from politics if one is a religious group, while allow one to cohost with other groups regardless of views?

    • hophmi
      hophmi
      January 9, 2014, 11:19 am

      “This analogy does not go all the way. Hillel did not just ban BDS groups from belonging to Hillel, it even banned groups that cohost with BDS groups.”

      I don’t believe so. It banned Hillel from sponsoring events that involve BDS groups. But it would not ban the groups themselves unless they specifically promoted BDS. J Street members are welcome at Hillel, and J Street campus orgs associate with Hillel. But if J Street wants to host an event with JVP, they can’t do it under Hillel’s banner.

      I really don’t understand why people here get so worked up about stuff like this. The campus Muslim organizations are not hosting Zionist speakers. I’m betting campus wings of CAIR aren’t going to endorse groups that bring right-wing Islamophobes to campus. I’ve always believed that if you don’t like the direction of an organization, you have two choices. You can either remain involved and try to change it from within, or you can leave and start your own organization. This is no different. Nobody is losing the right to speak here. Melissa decided to leave, and I celebrate her choice, even if I do not agree with her politics.

  6. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    January 8, 2014, 10:29 pm

    I meant to say: “To follow the analogy fully would mean to not just ban the pro-State AIPAC, but to ban even organizations that cohosted with AIPAC.”

    OR:

    “To follow the analogy fully would mean to not just allow the pro-State AIPAC to join, but to allow even organizations that cohosted with AIPAC.”

  7. jayn0t
    jayn0t
    January 9, 2014, 2:18 am

    “By refraining from allowing nuanced discussions with a variety of people, it is in fact debilitating and stifling pluralism in the Jewish community.” An organization which is in favor of racial supremacy “refrains from allowing nuanced discussions”. Shocking.

  8. annie
    annie
    January 9, 2014, 11:12 am

    hi, we just had first time commenter making allegations about bdsers wanting to exterminate jews and other similar accusations/crap. i urge hostile first time commenters to review out comment policy thread prior to trying to post here.

    • eljay
      eljay
      January 9, 2014, 11:21 am

      >> hi, we just had first time commenter making allegations about bdsers wanting to exterminate jews …

      There’s something seriously wrong with the wiring in the brains of Zio-supremacists…

  9. subconscious
    subconscious
    January 12, 2014, 10:06 pm

    What’s noteworthy about the author is her ethnic background, which she states as “first generation Jewish Iranian-American” in her profile. It is quite rare to find a Jewish Iranian-American, a community mostly concentrated in certain parts of LA & NY, to espouse anything but unconditional support for the more hawkish elements of Israeli leadership and policies. Prof. Saba Soomekh of Loyola Marymount U., herself an Iranian Jew, approvingly describes this fanatical worshiping of Israel:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_C8Z7xMOC3o
    Soomekh considers the recent emergence of arms of AIPAC among Iranian-American Jewry, such as the youth group “30 Years After,” as a rising civic involvement of that community in American politics. In fact, it’s first & foremost AIPAC and its affiliates recruiting Iran.-Am. Jews to lobby for their cause.

    So Ms. Etehad is quite an exception and it would be interesting to hear of her experiences w/in her community on discussions of Israel. How have her family & friends reacted to her views and activities relating to Israel? Has she tried to open up the discussion w/in the Iran.-Am. Jewish community? Since she says that she gave up her activism w/in the Jewish student body at UCSD, I presume that she didn’t interact w/ Iranian Jews in that regard either. Does she know of others in her community who have considered a more open discussion on Israel like herself? More than likely, if any other such examples exist, they would be of the younger generation. Etehad reminds one of David Shasha, http://mondoweiss.net/author/david-shasha
    who, if I recall correctly, hails from the Syrian-American Jewry, a community w/ similar uncritical attitudes towards Israel.

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