Boston University has recently become the headquarters for a new reactionary movement called “Safe Hillel,” which seeks to push back against the growing Open Hillel movement. Their stated goal is to “ensure that Hillel remains a safe place for Jews of all backgrounds to practice Judaism and a safe place for those that support Israel.” With this goal, they try to justify their support for the corporate censorship of Jewish students. They argue that Hillel’s Israel guidelines, which limit the spectrum of free speech and the exchange of ideas at Hillel, are there to protect students who support Israel and Zionism. In this context, the term “protect” means to save students from the burden of having their support for Israel questioned or challenged by other students in the Jewish community. In doing so, Hillel becomes an exclusive community that many young Jews do not feel comfortable joining because they are discouraged from expressing their views or feel out of place with the overt Zionist atmosphere at Hillel.
Competing ideas and open dialogue will make some students uncomfortable, Safe Hillel claims. This argument merits careful thought. Certainly, it is true that some students will feel uncomfortable with groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) or even J Street being allowed to have a presence in the Hillel community; however, that does not justify having an unfree community that censors students and discourages them from participating in Jewish life on campus. This discomfort emerges from the knowledge that the monopoly of ideas will end with an Open Hillel. The rigidly pro-Israel ideology supported by Safe Hillel and Hillel International will no longer go unchallenged in the Jewish community; thus, the pro-Israel establishment will lose its power at American universities and colleges. This is the last thing they want to happen since their power and influence takes precedence over freedom of ideas.
The argument that students may feel uncomfortable in an Open Hillel should be exposed for what it really is: a pretext for corporate censorship and totalitarian culture. At its core, Safe Hillel is hypocritical and deceptive. They claim that any anti-Zionist ideas will make Hillel less safe for Zionists, but they do not seem to care about the dangerous effects that exclusivity and intolerance have had on the Jewish community. Many liberal Jews are lambasted as “self-hating” or “anti-Israel.” It is also common for them to be harassed by others in the Jewish community. One of these incidents was caught on film in June 2010 when members of the staunchly pro-Israel group StandWithUs harassed and threatened protesters from JVP (see above). They were bullied and called “Pigs for Palestine.” Many received threats such as, “We’re going to find out where you live… we will disrupt your social life.” It is not hard to see why many Jews feel uncomfortable at Hillel when pro-Israel groups like StandWithUs are accepted at Hillel, while they are not. Ideas will not make Hillel more dangerous; however, institutionalized censorship and intolerance do.
In justifying their desire for power over the exchange of ideas at Hillel, Safe Hillel supporters lament that, “College campuses have become anti-Israel lately and are not providing a safe place for Israel supporters to be welcomed.” It follows that Hillel is supposed to provide that safe place for them to take refuge. In reality, people will be criticized for their ideas, regardless of whether they are about Israel or another topic. It is most unfortunate that criticism is not always done in a constructive and respectful way; however, creating a closed environment in the Jewish community that is hostile to anti-Zionism will certainly exacerbate that issue. Furthermore, pro-Israel events are welcome on campus. For example, the BU Israel Business Club had an event at our School of Management last semester. BU Students for Israel also hosted activities around campus for Israel Unity Week. The idea that they are not welcome is farcical.
Open Hillel strives to create an inclusive community at Hillel that allows for the free exchange of ideas. Safe Hillel will have to explain why they feel it is acceptable to ostracize Jewish students who do not agree with their dogma about Israel and create a hostile atmosphere that is intolerant of open dialogue. The movement is truly hypocritical in calling itself “Safe Hillel” while promoting an unwelcoming and intolerant environment that discourages many Jewish students from participating in Jewish life on campus.