Assimilation Indeed: Hillel’s Co-optation of Progressive Jewish Students, 1967-2015
On the eve of the Six-Day War of 1967, the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation was in dire straits. Though the parents of many Jewish college students had economically prospered in the post-WWII era and anti-Semitism had fallen precipitously, their children had come to perceive their Jewishness as a choice—and often an unappealing one. Full Jewish acceptance into mainstream society had come at a steep cultural and ethical price. As Jews became unequivocal insiders in white American society, many also veered from the progressive, pro-labor politics that had characterized urban Jewish life. Without a trace of irony, the leaders of Jewish liberal and centrist organizations proclaimed that a crisis of assimilation loomed among their activist-minded youth.
In this neurotic climate, the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation fixated its anxieties on Jewish activists in the New Left, whom it regarded with a mixture of hatred and desire. Like most Jewish organizations, Hillel lurched rightward in the 1960s to the point that it regarded civil rights and anti-war activism as antithetical to Jewish values. As Michael Staub documented in his book Torn at the Roots, anti-racist and anti-militarist student activism was perceived as an existential threat to Jewish continuity, if not to the historically unprecedented security and power of Jews in post-war America.
At the same time, Hillel yearned to redirect students’ passions for peace and civil rights into what it considered properly “Jewish” causes. Instead of celebrating the inherent Jewishness of the social justice values driving Jewish student activism, Hillel instead complained bitterly in a 1967 memorandum about the “apathetic, indifferent, alienated [and] escapist” college student. Offered the WASPish, comfortable, do-nothing liberalism of their parents’ generation, leftist Jewish students often did feel alienated from the rightward-drifting culture that rejected them and their politics.
Casting Israel as a Social Justice Issue
For many Jewish students, the Six-Day War constituted the first time they experienced a connection to a Jewish cause recognized by the establishment. In the anxious days leading up to the war, Israel appeared as a vulnerable and besieged underdog: it took on the role of the social-justice-worthy cause that also attracted them to the late Civil Rights movement and the struggle against U.S. militarism.
For Hillel, student concern for Israel represented authentic Jewish behavior. In a 1967 speech otherwise notable for the claim that the Civil Rights movement was tricking Jews into thinking they were white, the vice president of B’nai B’rith, Jay Kaufman, announced “This week in the escalating conflagration in the Middle East, Jews young and old are reacting as Jews! The Hillel Foundations are beset by Jewish college students who want to volunteer to fight in Israel!”
Indeed, an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 Jewish students attempted to enlist, but many more related to Israel by borrowing the tactics of the New Left: protests, teach-ins, peace vigils, and leafleting. At the time, Rabbi Arthur J. Zuckerman of the City College of New York wrote, “In a crisis which appeals to their sense of justice, our young people will respond…. We must provide them with inspiring goals and worthwhile purposes also in the intervals between Israel crises.”
For Hillel, the phenomenon of Jewish students desiring to fight for Israel, even if only in the field of campus discourse, provided a solution to the intertwined problems of assimilation and leftist Judaism. In an internal memo on June 2, Rabbi Benjamin Kahn, Hillel’s national director, wrote, “The tremendous response on the part of students particularly has been a most heartening indication of what we have been saying for a long time. Our students, although many of them seem indifferent on the surface, are accessible, and are deep down loyal to the Jewish people and Jewish values.”
Channeling Jewish students’ progressive ethos into solidarity with an embattled Israel constituted a double victory for Hillel. On one hand, the students’ newfound Zionism represented a triumph over the “assimilation” of leftist politics. On the other, Hillel could ignore the students’ ethical commitments—which it notably did not share—to radically transforming American society that were at the root of their enthusiasm for Israel, the noble victim and reluctant warrior.
In 1967, Hillel celebrated Jewish students’ identification with Israel because it was a victory for their anti-leftist interpretation of Jewishness, not merely an asset in gaining U.S. support for Israel’s newest occupation of Palestinians. Kahn was genuinely more interested in fostering Jewish learning than Jewish jingoism. In an essay on the campus response to the war, Kahn wrote that he hoped “to build through Jewish knowledge and Jewish identification and Jewish participation upon this foundation of belongingness so that we need not depend upon crisis to perpetuate those exciting reactions which emerged during the Israel crisis.”
Unfortunately, the Hillel International of today has prioritized parroting the hasbara of expansionist Israeli governments over capacious intellectual debate. This too has roots in the era of the Six-Day War, when the leadership of B’nai B’rith helped the Israeli government attempt to catalyze an unprecedented wave of American immigration—“aliyah”—to Israel. Before CEO Eric Fingerhut submitted himself for critique to the Knesset, the President (William Wexler) and Vice President (Kaufman) of B’nai B’rith flew to Israel to discuss with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol the “the critical need for aliyah and the million and a half Arabs living in Israel”—to brainstorm how B’nai B’rith, and its Hillel affiliate, could “attract sizable numbers of Western youth.”
The plan of Eshkol was to annex the West Bank with the help of 250,000 to 500,000 Jewish American youth—to which Wexler and Kaufman responded by suggesting “patterns of action we felt would be of worth.” Wexler and Kaufman’s enthusiasm for the plan was shared by other leaders in the Jewish establishment, who soon welcomed the Jewish Agency’s establishment of “aliyah centers” in cities across the United States. Notably, the executive director of the liberal American Jewish Congress reported favorably on the “new and vigorous tones” of the Israeli government’s plea for colonists.
Despite how public the efforts of B’nai B’rith became at aliyah (they even established an Aliyah Information Office), they continued to deny publicly that they were acting at the instructions of the Israeli government. As a B’nai B’rith attorney told a Washington Post reporter in 1971, “Any aliyah action by B’nai B’rith is not at the request or through the control of the government of Israel. Therefore it doesn’t come within the reach of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.”
One measure B’nai B’rith took to promote aliyah was to disseminate a pamphlet written by Hillel director Jack J. Cohen arguing that aliyah was “as important to the peace of the world and the progress of civilization as the emancipation of the American Negro,” and “one of the ways in which Jewish youth can serve universal ends.”
Though today’s Hillel International does not explicitly promote Jewish American colonization of Palestine, the red lines that Hillel and other Jewish institutions have enforced have had a similarly destructive effect on Jewish American culture, politics, and ethics on campus. Today, Hillel favors arming Jewish students with Benjamin Netanyahu’s thirty-seven-year-old talking points over creating campus communities that honor the multiplicity of ways students relate to their Jewishness. Instead, Hillel’s “Standards of Partnership” stigmatize Palestinian students and Jews who grapple with the complexities of reconciling Palestinian lived experiences with their portrayal as the “enemy.” Frankly, the “Standards of Partnership” are an insult to the intelligence of Jewish students; are students’ images of Israel so fragile and simplistic that they cannot even bear to hear the voice of the oppressed or to listen to dissenting Jewish perspectives?
If a romanticized image of Israel as the anti-oppressor once filled a void in Jewish American student life, the attempts to enforce that image are today the cause of a crisis in Jewish American life. Students who dare consider Zionism from the standpoint of its victims, who commit the heresy of humanizing Palestinians and trying to understand what suffering fuels their politics, are being driven away from the Jewish community. There has never been a communal consensus around Israel, only leaders who find it expedient to say so. Neither in 1948 nor in 1967 did all Jews see “Jewish values” as consistent with the dispossession and subjugation of the Palestinian people. Indeed, the wariness of the mainstream Jewish community today to all forms of leftist politics and perspectives is the most meaningful and impactful form of the “assimilation” that so frightened Jewish leaders of the 1960s.
If the “Standards of Partnership” teach us anything, it is that Hillel has never had a monopoly on the meaning of Jewishness. A community that cannibalizes itself in pursuit of a hyper-nationalist echo chamber—one that would rather exile its own members than hear difficult ideas—cannot keep critical-minded students in its grasp. Eventually, the crisis of 1967—of Jewish students who struggle to identify as Jewish because of their community’s retrograde ethics—will return.
(To read more about the Open Hillel movement, return to the Open Hillel table of contents.)