Balancing Game: Hillel’s Standards of Partnership & BDS

Interesting study of mandates and dialogue:

In 2015, Caroline Dorn resigned in protest from her role as student president of Muhlenberg Hillel, the Jewish organization at Muhlenberg College. After her Hillel’s rabbi prevented the Muhlenberg Hillel from hosting civil rights activists who support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement against Israel, Dorn explained her resignation in an op-ed for the college’s newspaper: “I can’t be a representative of Hillel International, an organization that I feel is limiting free speech on our campus and prohibiting academic integrity.”

These past few months have seen an increase in conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, sparked by the threat of evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, and with the increased conflict comes increased international attention. As students and experts alike rush to share infographics and articles expressing countless viewpoints, the question of dialogue versus ostracism is more important than ever.

History of Hillel and BDS

One arena ripe with conflicting viewpoints is the Hillel community, the international organization for Jews on campus. Hillel International was founded in 1923 to, in the broadest terms, oversee, support, and coordinate communities for Jewish students on university campuses called “Hillels” (as an example, you may have heard of Harvard Hillel, which fits under the umbrella of Hillel International). While Hillel was not founded as a political organization — indeed, at the time of its founding, the State of Israel did not even exist — it has become increasingly right-wing regarding Israel in the past 30 years, especially following the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005.

At the end of the Second Intifada, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement was founded as Palestinian civil society organizations called for boycotts as a form of nonviolent resistance against what they saw as Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. The movement quickly spread across American and international university campuses, but not without controversy.

The BDS movement claims its actions are necessary since “Israel maintains its system of settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation over the Palestinian people because of the support that it receives from world governments and corporations.” They encourage international pressure against Israel in order to end Israeli occupation, recognize Palestinian rights to full equality, and grant Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes.

Those opposed to BDS claim that it is founded in anti-Semitism, as it both singles out Israel among a host of countries committing human rights violations and is rooted in the anti-Semitic belief that Jews do not have a right to self-determination. As Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, Executive Director of Harvard Hillel, puts it, “BDS is about singular alienation and ostracism of Israel among all countries in the global family of nations, and it is about severing all connections with Israel, not just financial relationships, but scholarly and academic interactions, all cultural intercourse, and really all possibility of getting to know Israel at all.”

When BDS and Hillel Clash

There are an increasing number of Jewish people in support of the BDS movement, especially college students, which makes the intersection of Hillel and BDS extremely contentious. Such was the context of Caroline Dorn’s resignation, who, in her op-ed, references a policy called the “Standards of Partnership,” implemented by Hillel International in 2010, which marked a shift in their Israel mission: from encouraging “Israel engagement and education” to “Israel engagement, education, and advocacy” (emphasis added).

The Standards of Partnership prohibit any Hillel from partnering with, housing, or hosting organizations, groups, or speakers that deny Israel’s right to exist, delegitimize or apply a double standard to Israel, support BDS, or disrupt campus events with an “attitude of incivility.”

While Hillel’s are encouraged to “review these standards and create their own Israel guidelines that are consistent with this document and reflect the local environment,” this policy has created a substantial divide in the American Jewish campus community as students and Hillel professionals alike grapple with how to engage with Israel in productive ways while abiding by Hillel International’s mission.

Different universities have taken different approaches to this challenge. Swarthmore Kehilah, formerly known as Swarthmore Hillel, chose to break with Hillel International over the Standards of Partnership. After attempting to host a panel discussion of civil rights activists about the connections between civil rights work in the 1960s American South and the Israel-Palestine conflict, Hillel International sent them a letter threatening legal action if they held the event.

Swarthmore Hillel thus declared itself an “Open Hillel,” writing in an op-ed, “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.” Hillel International, bound by the Standards of Partnership, refused to allow this, and the year-long controversy ended with Swarthmore Hillel disaffiliating with Hillel International, changing their name, and changing their mission, which now includes no reference to Israel.

Harvard Hillel has taken a different approach. “Harvard Hillel, as an institution, is committed to the deepest and most circumspect possible exploration of Israel,” says Rabbi Steinberg. “But, our role is vigorously to provide alternatives to the BDS-aim of simplistically demonizing, ostracizing, and alienating Israel.”

Bound by the Standards of Partnership but invested in productive dialogue, Harvard Hillel has sought to find creative ways to strike this balance. In 2014, former Israeli Speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg was invited to Harvard by the university’s Palestine Solidarity Committee, which in turn asked to host the event at Harvard Hillel. Harvard Hillel had to refuse but hosted Burg for dinner that night, and PSC members attended as “individuals” (Burg strongly denounced BDS as “a tool of violence” at that dinner). Then, the PSC hosted Burg in Quincy House, and Harvard Hillel students attended, again as “individuals.” This compromise allowed interested students from a diversity of backgrounds to attend the event without complicating Harvard Hillel’s commitment to the Standards of Partnership.

Open Hillel, Open Community — A Move Away from the Standards of Partnership

A year before the invitation of Avraham Burg, a similar controversy surrounding the Standards of Partnership led to the founding of the Open Hillel movement, now called Judaism on Our Own Terms. In 2013, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, an independent Harvard student group affiliated with Harvard Hillel, met with Rabbi Jonah to discuss hosting an event similar to Swarthmore’s with pro-BDS activists, but found they could not host it at Hillel due to the Standards of Partnership.

“I’d been heavily involved with Harvard Hillel for 4 years and didn’t know the Standards of Partnership existed until we walked straight into it,” said Emily Unger ’13, the former president of the PJA and co-founder of Open Hillel. “I and other PJA members were horrified that this actually meant that Hillel couldn’t cosponsor event with essentially any Palestinian organization on any campus.”

Unger and her peers realized their horror was not unique — Jewish students across the country were grappling with how to handle increasing Jewish support for BDS, and what that meant for their Hillel communities. They decided to launch a petition calling on Hillel International to end the Standards of Partnership, which was signed by over 900 students. When Hillel International did not give in, Unger and friends began networking with Hillel’s across the county, helping them to disaffiliate with Hillel International in protest. Soon, they discovered a demographic in need of a community.

“As a queer, Jewish person, the Palestinian experience of oppression and dispossession of land  resonates with me,” Unger said. “We found that the Standards of Partnership disproportionally affects queer Jews and Jews of color with ties to organizations that see BDS as a core issue.” Wanting to create a Jewish space where students do not need to “check a part of their identity at the door,” Unger and others morphed Open Hillel into Judaism on Our Own Terms, an open Jewish community organization engaged in collaboration across oppressed groups. As independent organizations with branches across the country, JOOOT affiliates can create whatever community best fits their needs, collaborating — unbeholden to donors or international policies — in whatever way they see fit.

When asked if she saw any advantages to the Standards of Partnership, Unger came up empty, saying that there is “nothing to be gained by making those conversations [between Hillel and pro-BDS organizations] impossible.” She sees the policy as “created from a place of fear and a desire to maintain power,” power of both long-term donors, who are typically more conservative, and the power of Israel over Palestinians. “BDS is a non-violent form of protest that is mainstream in Palestinian organizations,” Unger continued. “By banning partnering with pro-BDS organizations, it makes it impossible to have any communication of any kind with Palestinian organizations. And, cosponsoring events is the bread and butter of campus collaboration — it’s how organizations build relationships — so it is quite striking to have a ban on co-sponsorship.”

There may well be places of agreement between Hillel and the PSC — for example, they likely see eye to eye that humanitarian aid is needed in Gaza — but the Standards of Partnership would prevent Hillel from co-hosting an event with the PSC around those shared interests due to the PSC’s support of BDS.

In addition, the Standards of Partnership has the potential to taint Hillel’s name, as campus groups in support of BDS may legitimately say that they wanted to host an event about a progressive cause, but “Hillel refused to partner with us because we stand for human rights!” That is, Hillel would decline to partner not out of a lack of empathy for human rights — Hillel is of course in favor of those — but due to the organization’s support for BDS. This nuance can be easily lost, especially in today’s political environment.

Unclear Territories — The Nuance Behind the Issue

The relationship between Rebecca Araten, past president of the Harvard Hillel Steering Committee, and the Standards of Partnership, is a bit more complex. “I understand Hillel not wanting to sponsor an event under their name that will be a pro-BDS event — that is a message they wouldn’t want to endorse,” she said. “But, there is a difference between active encouragement and conversation.” She added that it is important that collaborations between Hillel and pro-Palestinian organizations happen, “because this is how peace works.”

Araten acknowledges that there is “strength” in having connections with Hillel International, both in terms of organizational networking and financial support. However, she urged students “not to get bogged down” in institutional bureaucracy and “interact on a human level instead.” As an example, Araten suggested that Hillel-affiliated students bothered by the Standards of Partnership make individual efforts to connect with pro-BDS organizations or individuals.

Araten also points to the diversity of viewpoints found among Hillel students, and emphasizes that Hillel programming tries to incorporate many views on the topic of Israel. “It seems like a natural extension to engage with views that are more critical [of Israel] with the aim to come to more understanding and collaboration on shared ideals,” she said.

However, both Araten and Unger agree that crossing the line from legitimate criticism of Israel into anti-Semitism cannot be tolerated. “Being able to criticize the state of Israel and its actions is important, but sometimes that criticism leads to demonization, like singling out Israel for things not unique to Israel. To me, that echoes historic anti-Semitic tropes of Jews being world’s biggest issue,” said Araten. Unger concurred, pointing out that “PSC views the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism to be an inappropriate and counter-productive framing of the situation.” Unger also noted that BDS is not inherently anti-Semitic, but admitted that it can be a “fodder” for anti-Semitism. However, she sees the increased dialogue as the solution to this conflation, not distance.

Still, the Standards of Partnership does encourage Hillel’s to create their own guidelines around Israel engagement, and in attempting to promote dialogue, Rabbi Steinberg tries to thread the needle between the Standards of Partnership and dialogue as much as possible. “The truth is that Harvard Hillel has never much invoked the Hillel International Standards of Partnership, not because we take issue with them but because we have long since arrived at our own articulation and approach, with the same outcome in practice where BDS is concerned,” he notes.

But he remains in favor of the Standards of Partnership because of what BDS is to him: “BDS is about singular alienation and ostracism of Israel among all countries in the global family of nations, and it is about severing all connections with Israel, not just financial relationships, but scholarly and academic interactions, all cultural intercourse, and really all possibility of getting to know Israel at all,” he says. Rabbi Steinberg also emphasizes “the ‘horrible anti-Semitism’ decried by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as having been manifest at the 2001 UN Conference Against Racism where the BDS movement took shape.” For these reasons, Rabbi Steinberg sees the benefit of the Standards of Partnership, while also committing himself to fostering dialogue about Israel within Hillel.

Rabbi Steinberg sees another benefit to the Standards of Partnership: the facilitation of students’ exploration of their relationship to Israel, whether positive or negative. He explains that Hillel’s commitment to Israel “is far past being political,” explaining that “Israel is a hugely generative crucible of Jewish thought and culture, home to nearly seven million Jews — almost half of all Jewish people alive in the world today — so connection with Israel is a fact of kinship and of global Jewish community.” He therefore emphasizes that “to come of age Jewishly without acknowledging and exploring the phenomenon of Israel as having something to do with one’s own self is, forgive me, not mature.”

BDS as a Mainstream Progressive Issue

It is the case that Hillel does not represent the subsection of the Jewish population that supports BDS, and therefore can be an alienating place, especially for progressive activist Jews. With the Standards of Partnership forbidding events as seemingly innocuous as a joint Hillel-PSC event to raise money for humanitarian aid in Gaza, there is concern about the potential for collateral damage from the Standards of Partnership as BDS becomes more mainstream.

“There is a clear trend globally, domestically, and especially on college campuses calling for the recognition of Palestinian rights and liberties as the situation continues to devolve into apartheid,” said the Harvard PSC Board in an anonymously written statement to the Harvard Political Review. “Hillel’s decision to disengage from any group who supports divestment as a way forward prevents the college community from engaging in an honest and open conversation about the human rights violations occurring [in Israel/Palestine],” they added.

Not only does the Standards of Partnership prevent Hillel from formally engaging with the PSC, it may prevent Hillel from co-hosting events with other progressive groups on campus. “Palestine is a rising issue on the American progressive agenda as evidenced by growing support from individuals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and many more,” said the PSC Board. There is a growing concern among progressive Jews that the Standards of Partnership will eventually isolate Hillel from most, if not all, progressive groups on campus, if they adopt BDS as one of their missions.

Expressing her concern about Hillel’s ability to be inclusive and hold the Standards of Partnership, Unger said, “Being queer is such a defamiliarizing experience that it makes it easier to see through norms in organizations.” “The Standards of Partnership don’t only harm communication between Jewish and Palestinian groups, but also between Hillel and other organizations surrounding any oppressed identity,” she added.

However, to the point that the Standards of Partnership inhibit productive speech on campus, Rabbi Steinberg disagrees, pointing to the importance of a plethora of diverse, mission-driven organizations: “A robust environment of ideas is populated not just by individuals but also by associations and institutions committed to various missions and visions. The fact that there is a Harvard Hillel committed by mission, as a part of a global Jewish community, to an active relationship with Israel and with our kin there is at least as valid as there being a Palestinian advocacy group at Harvard,” he says.

Beyond the question of validity, without missions, no one would have anything to stand behind, and campus dialogue would arguably grind to a halt. What fuels robust discussion is disagreement, and Rabbi Jonah argues that, if all organizations dropped their missions in favor of complete openness, that would lead to a rapid decrease in dialogue. Araten agrees with the importance of missions and of dialogue, saying “Hillel should strive to get as close to the line [drawn by the Standards of Partnership] as possible in terms of conversations with people who support BDS, but the challenge is not knowing when partnership will veer in a direction that is antithetical to Hillel’s mission.”

The point about missions and speech on campus brings into focus a broader question of mission-oriented clubs on campus. On the one hand, it stands to reason that clubs should be permitted to have and stand by specific missions, even at the exclusion of others. On the other hand, one can imagine a world in which the missions of each club are so exclusive that there leaves no room for collaboration or even communication. A third possibility is that clubs are so inclusive that they no longer stand for anything, or cannot allocate any resources for fear of going against a facet of the club.

To be honest, I am not sure what the solution is here. As a Jewish student, while I understand the perspective around missions given by Rabbi Jonah, and by extension, Hillel International, I feel uncomfortable about the Standards of Partnership. I would prefer Hillel to be open to hosting events with anyone in the name of mutual understanding, even if Hillel vehemently disagrees with the other organization’s position.

However, I do believe that every organization is entitled to a mission and to stand by it. Perhaps the answer is that missions should not prevent official dialogue —or that engagement policies can forbid monetary support but must not interfere with conversations —but I am wary of the idea of regulating which missions are acceptable and which are not. That solution feels like a slippery slope.

The bottom line is that missions should not get in the way of dialogue between people. Perhaps that dialogue is not endorsed by a club, but that should not stop us from seeking out opportunities as individuals to truly understand others, even if they hold perspectives antithetical to ours. If there are clubs whose missions we disagree with, we should be inspired to speak up, or start our own organizations. At the end of the day, the decision behind who gets to talk and how is just one big balancing game — and the scale should never fully tip to one side.

Source: Balancing Game: Hillel’s Standards of Partnership & BDS

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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