What would Hillel the elder say?

By Lior Sternfeld

In hundreds of campuses around the United States, Hillels actually function as propaganda branches of the Israeli right wing. I find it hard to believe that this was the intention of Hillel the Elder. Perhaps Shammai’s. Recently, some have rebelled and dared demand transparent, free and critical discussion.  

If you ever studied or visited a mid-size and up American university, you probably encountered the local Hillel chapter. Hillel is a well-funded organization, professing the objective of strengthening Jewish students’ Jewish identity in the different campuses. In fact, in many instances, Hillel serves as an Israeli propaganda (“Hasbara”) agency in 550 university campuses (according to Hillel’s website). One of the most recognizable projects run by Hillel is the annual “Israel Week,” which is conducted simultaneously alongside the “Israeli Apartheid Week,” run by Palestinian students. Whereas there is a level of autonomy given to the local chapters, there is set of clear guidelines regarding acceptable speakers in Hillel. Speakers who wish to present on behalf of Hillel must be good Zionists. That is, never criticize Israel, never oppose its policies, or question its morality.

In November 2013, Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset (and former director of the Jewish Agency – a position which one would expect to earn him his Zionist stripes) visited Harvard University. The Hillel chapter in Harvard refused to host Mr. Burg as his opinions step out of their narrow definition of the good Zionist. This relatively minor event soon snowballed into a nationwide conversation that is now far from being over. Students that participated in Hillel events prior to this incident protested the organizational decision to prevent open discussion on Israel from taking place. The younger generation of American Jewry carefully witness a positive yet slow process of detachment from the community behavioral patterns that characterized its parents’ generation. This transformation, as minor as it may be, is evident in the emergence of several organizations, from J-Street (the moderate-to-conservative two-state solution lobby) to Jewish Voice for Peace (which is much more radical but has less presence on the ground). The trend, if so, is to open the public conversation on Israel to include civil and human rights, rather than almost exclusively birthrights.

kosher kitchen

The kosher kitchen in Swarthmore college

The big bang happened in early December 2013, when the local Hillel chapter at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, announced that following a unanimous vote among its members, Swarthmore Hillel will no-longer follow the Hillel International speakers policy. From now on, the announcement goes, “all are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” Swarthmore Hillel published the announcement in an open letter to the Jewish Orthodox newspaper, The Beacon. “We are an institution that seeks to foster spirited debate, constructive dialogue, and a safe space for all, in keeping with the Jewish tradition. We are an Open Hillel.” The response of Hillel president Mr. Eric Fingerhut arrived promptly afterward: “Let me be very clear – “anti-Zionists” will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” Well, this response should be nothing but praised. By saying it out loud he performed great service to the American Jewish youth. Subsequently, Swarthmore Hillel declared the establishment of an “Open Hillel,” and it seems like they receive solid support from many people in the broader Jewish community (most recently from Michelle Sachar, the granddaughter of Hillel founder, Abram Sachar). Online petitions call other chapters to join Swarthmore initiative and to severe their ties to Hillel International.

Hillel the Elder, whose name is borne in the organization name, was known to be a moderate and modest scholar of Jewish Law, whose Halakhic rulings were aimed to ease the lives of the community. Shammai, Hillel’s counterpart, had the reputation of being much more strict and conservative. Rabbinic tradition favored Hillel’s method over Shammai’s. Would it be unreasonable to assume that Hillel himself would have preferred to give his name to the new organization?

Lior Sternfeld is a PhD Candidate in the History Department in the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on Iranian social history and the religious minorities in Iran during the Pahlavi era. 

This post originally appeared in Hebrew on Haokets.

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