NYT sets new Course for Hillel
Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. As such, it gives students a link to the wider Jewish world, its history and values, including celebration of Israel as a thriving democracy in the Middle East.
But that's not exactly how the New York Times sees it in an article n its Dec. 29 edition with the headline: "Members of Jewish Student Group Test Permissible Discussion on Israel." To give it maximum reader exposure, there's a front-page box, titled "Jewish Student Group Rebels" that reads "The Hillel at Swarthmore says it will not abide by its parent group's guidelines against collaborative efforts with anyone unsupportive of Israel. Page 21."
The article, by Laurie Goldstein, focuses on a "rebellion" by Swarthmore Hillel, which has rejected guidelines against working with groups that oppose Israel's right to exist. Unfortunately, Goldstein leaves an unfortunate and incorrect impression that the Swarthmore brouhaha somehow infringes on students' rights to free speech and their political leanings. It does no such thing. Goldstein's piece is way overblown in suggesting that Hillel somehow cracks the whip into getting Hillel affiliates to follow a strict and narrowly defined pro-Israel course.
Israel is well known for internal criticism of its policies and Hillel is free to emulate such vibrant debate. Where Hillel draws the line is when such criticism devolves into outright denial of Israel's very right to exist.
Thus, Goldstein errs when she writes that Hillel chapters have been instructed "to reject collaboration with left-leaning Jewish groups." Not so. Goldstein also wrong when amplifies the Swarthmore dispute into a wider "bitter intra-Jewish debate over what is permissible discussion and activism about Israel on college campuses." Or that Hillel somehow has a "political litmus test" on who and what's allowed at Hillel.
Goldstein eventually gets around to Swarthmore Hillel's actual beef with Hillel guidelines, stating in its manifesto that "all are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist and non-Zionist."
And that's where Hillel actually draws the line. According to Eric Fingerhut, president and chief executive of Hillel, "anti-Zionists will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof under any circumstances." Fingerhut points out that Hillel's guidelines specify that it will not host or work with speakers or groups that deny the right of Israel to exist."
Nor should it. Would the NAACP tolerate braches welcoming racist white-power advocates in their midst? Of course not. So why should Hillel allow any of its branches to collaborate with speakers or groups that advocate an end to the Jewish state?
Goldstein's article does all too briefly get to that point when she quotes Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz as remarking that "I don't think this is a free-speech issue. The question is a branding one." Indeed, why sully the Hillel brand? Free speech is under no threat at Hillel. What is highly questionable is a Jewish campus organization lending credibility to anti-Israel divestment and boycott campaigns whose objective is to undermine the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
Let them get a platform somewhere else. As, for example, in the pages of the New York Times.
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers