Last December I wrote about Open Hillel, a movement founded in 2012 to oppose Hillel’s Standards of Partnership. Hillel International is the most prominent campus Jewish organization, with over 500 college and university affiliates. Their standards for sponsoring speakers or cooperating with organizations, though imperfect, protect Hillel’s foundational principles, which include a commitment to Zionism understood in the broad sense in which nearly all Jews of the left, right, and center, endorse it, namely the belief in the legitimacy and desirability of a Jewish state in the Middle East. This principle has led Hillel to say that it will not sponsor speakers or cooperate with groups who promote the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. That movement has, since 2005 sought to turn Israel into a pariah state comparable to apartheid era South Africa or even Nazi Germany. It is in the context set on campuses by BDS, which has included the targeting not simply of Zionists or Israel but of Jewish people and organizations altogether, that Hillel adopted its standards. As I have written here concerning Swarthmore College’s decision to disaffiliate with Hillel, when Open Hillel assails Hillel International for sticking to its standards of partnership, it assails it for sticking to rather than abandoning its fundamentally decent principles.
But this year, Open Hillel has been running a campaign to force Hillel International to abandon its principles. It is, one must admit, clever. Four Jewish veterans of the American civil rights movement are touring the country to discuss what they see as the connection between their civil rights work and their Israel-Palestine activism. Two support BDS. The campaign is quite explicit that its intent is to break Hillel’s standards of partnership. As Open Hillel says of the activists, who appeared at Open Hillel’s conference in October, they “discussed their work in the South fifty years ago and the role Judaism played in shaping that work. They tackled issues that are banned by Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. They made connections between their work in the Jim Crow south and activism around Israel-Palestine today.” I call the campaign clever because if Hillel rejects these speakers—two of whom can be expected to proselytize for BDS—they will appear to reject that most American of causes, the civil rights movement. But if they accept the speakers they put their name on the Zionism is racism obscenity, not at all well disguised in the program’s coupling of Jim Crow to Israel.
To its credit, Hillel has refused to sponsor the “From Mississippi to Jerusalem” event. So the civil rights veterans involved are expressing shock and outrage that Hillel won’t sponsor their campaign against Hillel. Their piece is entitled—one hopes not by them—“Shame on Hillel for Shunning Civil Rights Veterans.
If you are looking to inspire shame, though, it helps to start by being honest. Our civil rights veterans write that they “are honored that since the [Open Hillel] conference, Hillel students around the country, from Boston to Chicago to North Carolina, have invited us to continue these conversations in their Jewish communities on campus.” What they don’t say, here, or anywhere else in the 900 plus word article, is that they are part of the campaign I just described, publicized and partially funded by the Open Hillel movement, to break Hillel’s standards of partnership.
Our civil rights veterans say that one of them, the pro-BDS activist Dorothy Zellner, spoke in February “on an interfaith panel at Harvard Hillel, where she discussed both her work organizing for racial justice in the United States and her work organizing for Palestinian human rights in Israel/Palestine.” This event was well received, but “to our great dismay, Hillel International, the parent organization for Jewish students on campus, has blocked us from coming to every subsequent campus Hillel where students have invited us to speak.” What they don’t say is that Hillel International was willing to have its name associated with the Harvard event because it did not focus on Israel and Palestine, and that they have indicated—in a letter to Swarthmore—their willingness to have chapters sponsor similar events featuring these very civil rights veterans. So no, Hillel did not shun any civil rights veterans. But they won’t sponsor programs for speakers to “present or proselytize their known anti-Israel and pro-BDS agenda.” The campaign in which these civil rights veterans have been engaged is, unlike the Harvard event, designed precisely so that BDS can be preached under the Hillel banner, and it was because Hillel took a principled stand on that matter that Hillel supposedly should feel ashamed.
Finally, the civil rights veterans think that Hillel should be ashamed for trying to “censor what Hillel students can hear.” In fact, there is no shortage of anti-Israel or BDS speech for Hillel students to hear on the campuses that have declared themselves Open Hillels and, if anything, speech in favor of Israel is suppressed.
Unlike our civil rights veterans, I am no expert on what people should be ashamed of. But people who use their civil rights records to cover for a movement as ugly as BDS, then publicly misrepresent their own actions and Hillel’s, should probably not be wagging their fingers at others.