Hillel’s BDS Battle and Anti-Semitism
Jonathan S. Tobin
To listen to the arguments put forward by Harvard students to create what they call an “open Hillel,” their fight with the national Hillel group is about the right of young Jews to free association. The students say that rules mandating that the organization not partner with groups that support BDS—the anti-Zionist campaign that aims to boycott, disinvest and sanction the State of Israel—or host speakers that advocate such measures are unfair and limit their ability to have dialogue with Palestinians. To the thinking of the Progressive Jewish Alliance that is, according to the Forward, organizing the campaign against Hillel, such rules “stifle discourse” and discriminate against those who disagree with Israeli policies.
But this controversy isn’t about the deadening hand of a Jewish establishment determined, as leftists claim, to silence dissenters. Any Hillel branch that regards groups that are struggling to destroy Israel in this manner would in essence be declaring their neutrality not only about the continuation of the Zionist enterprise but that they can no longer be counted among those prepared to bear witness against the discriminatory ideology at the heart of the drive for BDS. Those who wage war on one people and deny the same rights they readily concede to any other group are advocating a form of bias. Such a bias when directed against Jews has a name: anti-Semitism.
Were Hillel to back down on this issue it would not be a victory for free speech or free association. Rather, it would mean the most important Jewish campus organization would be signaling that the war on Israel is neither hateful nor worth opposing. BDS is, after all, not just a point of view about the settlements or borders or the peace process. It is an economic war on Israel whose purpose is not an alleged reformation of its policies but a desire to bring it to its knees and hasten its destruction. It is an attempt to deny to the one Jewish state in the world the right to self-determination and self-defense in the face of armed foes who threaten it with terror and violence.
It needs to be understood that this is a very different argument from those that have divided many Jews in this country about the peace process. Groups like J Street and other left-wing critics of the current Israeli government may take a point of view about the country that is harmful as well as based in a poor understanding of the realities of the Middle East. Those who think Israel should be pressured from abroad in order to make concessions that are opposed by the country’s democratically elected government and the vast majority of its citizens are doing something shameful. But so long as they continue to support the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself and oppose those who seek to wage war on it, such groups must still be considered as having not crossed an important line between legitimate dissent and actions that are beyond the pale of communal conduct.
This debate is illustrative of the fact that there is a point of view prevalent in contemporary Jewish life that views any attempt to draw lines between those inside the community and those outside it as illegitimate. It values inclusiveness above Judaism, Jewish values and even Jewish survival. It fetishizes dialogue with all comers as the supreme good even if such encounters serve only to legitimize forces that are serve as fronts for those who wish to destroy the Jewish state.
The increasing acceptance of this frame of reference about Jewish life is a dangerous development for an American Jewish community that has spent the last two generations faltering in its effort to maintain itself against the ravages of assimilation. While the idea of welcoming everyone fits in nicely with our pluralistic American ethos, a community that is defined primarily by inclusiveness is one that stands for nothing. Such a community is not only unsustainable; it may not be worth saving.
But the application of the principle of inclusiveness to BDS supporters takes this trend to a new low. It is one thing to say Jews may believe anything about their faith or support any political point of view. It is quite another to say that there is nothing amiss with a nominally Jewish group that is neutral about the war on the Jewish state.
Any student who believes that being “progressive” requires them to be open to working with BDS supporters fundamentally misunderstands not only liberalism but the intent of Israel’s foes. Neutrality toward BDS is no different than neutrality toward beliefs that stigmatize Jews. What these students don’t understand that is that their fight for an “open Hillel” means giving a pass to hate.
It is up to Hillel to resist this attempt to transform a Jewish campus group into a beachhead for those who make common cause with these anti-Semites. Inclusiveness is not an excuse for acquiescing to an ideology of hatred. There is no alternative but for Hillel and its supporters to stand their ground and to help Jewish students find the courage to stand up against the enemies of their people.