Then You Win: What Swarthmore Means For Open Hillel
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Popular sayings are often more useful as pithy evasions of analysis than as actual descriptors, but in this case it seems Hillel International is determined to enact Gandhi’s dictum. Recall October 2014, when Eric Fingerhut dismissed the Open Hillel movement as a “small group of activists.” In December 2014, Fingerhut likened us to the Biblical rebel Korach (cf. Numbers 16), and suggested our cause would not endure.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you.
By March 2015, Hillel International apparently has no choice but to fight: Formerly known as Swarthmore Hillel, Swarthmore Kehilah was forced to drop the Hillel name, following legal threats from Hillel International. Swarthmore’s sin was to plan an event entitled, “Social Justice Then and Now: Lessons From the Civil Rights Movement,” which will feature three Jewish veterans of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Since these particular activists support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, their very presence threatens Hillel’s “name and reputation,” and therefore, apparently necessitates legal threats.
By threatening chapters who host pro-BDS speakers, Hillel draws a red line within Jewishness itself, effectively marking particular viewpoints as un-voiceable within Jewish spaces. With the same gesture, Hillel exiles certain Jews as insufficiently Jewish to vocalize what their Jewishness dictates to them, or so threatening to the Jewish community that they must be kept away. These Jews are dangerous, they are treife; they threaten the “pure” Jewishness embodied in the Zionist position simply by speaking. If Hillel truly seeks to “maximize the number of Jews doing things Jewish with other Jews,” their legal intimidation of Jewish students at Swarthmore can mean only two things: Either discussing BDS is not a Jewish thing to do, or those seeking to do it are not really Jewish.
It should not escape our notice that the event in question presents itself as “lessons from the Civil Rights Movement” and that the speakers are themselves civil rights activists. Hillel International’s stance doesn’t just mark particular political viewpoints as fundamentally incompatible with Jewishness (and thereby mark the individuals espousing those views). It also limits the forms of solidarity with groups that are permissible within the Jewish community. In other words, Hillel doesn’t just want to limit who counts as a Jew; it also wants to dictate who is an acceptable dialogue partner for Jewish groups, which also limits who can and cannot be an ally of the Jewish community. The phrase “Palestinian solidarity,” for instance, should not be controversial; after all, shouldn’t we make every effort to be in solidarity with all peoples, especially those who suffer? And yet, the red line that Hillel draws within Jewishness precludes solidarity with particular non-Jewish groups, labeling this solidarity dangerous, and un-Jewish.
In discriminating against certain Jews, Hillel also requires “true Jews” to eschew relationships of solidarity with certain non-Jews. Over the past few months, we have seen significant discussion of American Jewry’s legacy on civil rights and other liberation movements. I take it as a given that it is good for the Jewish people, as for all people, to be engaged in struggles for justice, and bad for us to be either complacent or antagonistic in the face of systemic oppression. But Hillel’s position does not simply discriminate against Jews; it prevents Jews from entering into active solidarity with certain suffering groups, and thereby asks us to be complicit in the unfolding of injustice. Do not mistake Hillel’s threat as principled support for the State of Israel. On the contrary, it is principled exclusion of Jews who challenge complacency in the face of catastrophe, and a principled requirement that Jewish students remain, as Cornel West has put it, “well-adjusted to injustice…well-adapted to indifference.”
What is it about these Jewish civil rights veterans that makes them so dangerous? What power is held by those letters — B.D.S. — that they cannot even be spoken without threatening the safety of Jewish students? Does Hillel International, which has routinely shied away from public discussions hosted by any group to the left of AIPAC, presume young Jews to be so delicate that we cannot even bear to hear an opposing viewpoint? Is the systematic refusal of dialogue, refusal of difference, refusal of solidarity a value founded in Jewish tradition? For that matter, is there anything “Jewish” about bullying those with whom we disagree through legal intimidation?
Hillel International’s threats against Jewish students are surely a symptom of an American Jewish community concerned more with power than values. But it’s also a symptom of something else: They’re losing. Swarthmore is just the latest in a string of victories for Open Hillel, from Harvard to Michigan to Wesleyan to Penn. Jewish students aren’t nearly as scared of Open Hillel as Eric Fingerhut is. Whatever their view on settlements or Bibi or BDS, Jewish students want to have the conversation, and they want that conversation to be open. That emphatically does not mean that Jewish students, including those who identify with the Open Hillel movement, want to leave Hillel: We want to reform Hillel from within, to hold it accountable to the timeless Jewish practice of talking, disagreeing, and hearing each other out. Only when Hillel explicitly recognizes the centrality of that practice, and explicitly rescinds the Standards of Partnership, will it truly be a home for Jewish students on campus.
Hillel International’s threats represent the beginnings of an old guard’s last, desperate attempts to cling to an outdated notion of what it means to be Jewish. Hillel International is fighting Jewish students, and that’s outrageous. But it’s because the students are winning. Open Hillel is winning, and that is a good thing for us, for American Jewry, for Israel, for Hillel itself, and for the future of the Jewish people.
For more on the Open Hillel movement, check out Tikkun’s special web feature with Open Hillel.
Evan Goldstein is a student at Boston College, and will begin an MA in Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York this fall. These opinions are his own, and do not represent the official position of Open Hillel.