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.
Although 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.