Top academics join call for Hillel to open up on Israel

The Open Hillel student group has established a council of more than 70 academics who support its mission to open up dialogue about Israel at campus Hillels.

On Jan. 7, Open Hillel announced the launch of its Academic Council, which includes high-profile Jewish academics such as Peter Beinart, Judith Butler and Todd Gitlin.

Diane Wolf

The academics have endorsed a statement that reads, in part, “Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership narrowly circumscribe discourse about Israel-Palestine and only serve to foster estrangement from the organized Jewish community. … Just as our classrooms must be spaces that embrace diversity of experience and opinion, so must Hillel.”

Hillel International’s partnership standards prohibit the Jewish campus group from organizing or sponsoring events that involve people or groups that are said to be anti-Israel. This includes those who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, as well as those who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

“I think that their [Hillel International’s] judgment as to who cares about Israel — and especially who doesn’t — is myopic,” said Diane Wolf, director of the Jewish Studies Program at U.C. Davis who joined the Academic Council. “There should be a large umbrella for Jewish students who want to be there.”

The Open Hillel Academic Council launched with an initial group of 55 academics but had grown to 72 as of Jan. 12 as more people from across the country signed on. The group includes professors from five Northern California universities in addition to Beinart, a journalist and political commentator; Butler, a philosopher and gender theorist who is a longtime professor at U.C. Berkeley; and Gitlin, a longtime professor at U.C. Berkeley who is now chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University.

Joel Beinin

Student governments at several U.C. schools and other U.S. universities have passed Israel divestment resolutions in recent years, sparking emotional debates about Israel. Wolf said that such debates, while difficult, should be embraced within an academic environment.

“I think that the elders need to let the youth express themselves and not engage in censorship,” Wolf said. “We know there are different views about what’s judged as acceptable in terms of Israel’s future. The student body represents the spectrum. If it’s allowed in Israel to have those discussions, I think it should be allowed in Hillel.”

The Swarthmore Hillel disassociated from Hillel and declared itself an Open Hillel in December 2013, citing the restrictions on Israel issues. The chapter is now known as Swarthmore Kehilah.

Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut has said the organization is committed to inclusiveness but will not give a platform to those who want to attack Israel.

“Hillel should and will always provide students with an open and pluralistic forum where they can explore issues and opinions related to their Jewish identity,” Fingerhut said in 2014 in response to Vassar’s decision to declare its Jewish Union an Open Hillel. “Hillel will not, however, give a platform to groups or individuals to attack the Jewish people, Jewish values or the Jewish state’s right to exist.” He said the BDS movement “represents a vicious attack on the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

But Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, said the fact that high-profile Jewish studies academics, such as himself, have joined the Open Hillel Academic Council indicates that Fingerhut’s view of Israel debate is less relevant.

“It’s an indication that the position that Hillel International holds is losing. They are only able to enforce that position by coercion,” Beinin said.

Such restrictions, he added, are not appropriate in a university environment. “It’s an impingement on free speech and academic freedom. It’s not what a university is for, to tell people what they can and can’t talk about.”

Other local academics who have signed on include Hilton Obenzinger and Steven Zipperstein (Stanford), Daniel Boyarin and Wendy Brown (U.C. Berkeley), David Biale (U.C. Davis), Nathaniel Deutsch (U.C. Santa Cruz) and Aaron Hahn Tapper (University of San Francisco). For the full list, visit www.openhillel.org/academic-council.

JTA contributed to this report.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.