Perhaps it’s only fitting that we should end 2013 with the dumbest Jewish debate of the year, namely whether Swarthmore College’s Hillel should be allowed to have an open policy of bringing anti-Zionists and other Israel haters to lecture under its banner.
Firstly, Swarthmore’s announcement of their “Open Hillel” policy is wildly hypocritical. Really? You’re that open to free speech? Then why only on Israel? Jesus is arguably the most famous Jew who ever lived. Allow Christian evangelists to lecture to the Hillel students as well, not to mention anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists who espouse Jewish dominance of the media and finance to advocate their positions as well. In fact, why have an “Open Hillel” at all, which is far too limiting. Excise the word Hillel and just make it “Open”, open to all ideas, all persuasions, all religions, all philosophies. Why limit it to things Jewish at all, which is about the most closed thing I’ve ever heard of.
Asking Hillel to open itself to anti-Israel advocates is like asking the Democratic National Convention to have Ted Cruise take a night to speak about the virtues of the Republican party. There is nothing inherently wrong with it, except that it contravenes the entire idea of having a Democratic party in the first place.
So how could we have this debate at all? Who would condemn Hillel – and its brave new Chief Executive Eric Fingerhut – for insisting on Hillel’s pro-Israel posture when no other campus club dedicated to a specific proposition would be asked to shoot itself in the mouth by giving a platform to its most ardent detractors? No one’s going to ask the pro-Democracy club to give speaking slots to communists, or human rights organizations to have North Korean representatives speak about the glory of dictatorship.
It’s rather a sign of how badly Israel is losing on campus, and how delegitimized Israel has become in the halls of academia, that this debate is happening at all.
Twenty-five years ago last Friday, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me and my wife to the University of Oxford to promote Judaism on campus. It was 1988 and Yasser Arafat had just proclaimed the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was interpreted as a kind of de facto recognition the State of Israel, thereby grating him and the PLO legitimacy. I was 22 years old when I founded the Oxford L’Chaim Society and hadn’t anticipated an immediate and constant need to defend Israel from vicious attacks.
The tipping point for me occurred that first year when members of the PLO appeared at the Oxford Union and had an open forum to spew overtly inflammatory hate speech against Israel. Following that event I had to immediately confront additional unexpected philosophical battles pertaining to the Jewish State at every turn.
The model that I used to defend Israel through the Oxford L’Chaim Society was to establish a middle ground between allowing an open assault on Israel by its most ardent critics in my Jewish student center, and outright banning them from our activities. We chose to debate them instead. Not in our student facility – that was a place for teaching people to love Israel – but in the leading halls of the University where thousands of students who were not part of our organization gathered. We would engage our critics head on and welcome organized, rules-based debates, pitting two clearly defined sides on Israel, in the University’s main venues. We operated in the confidence that Israel’s cause was just and that the Jewish state could win arguments in the marketplace of ideas.
We organized thousand-student debates on the justice of Israel’s cause, its treatment of its Arab citizens and Palestinians, and Israel’s ongoing fight for survival. We proved in open arguments that Israel had the most humane rules-of-engagement of any country at war in the world. We proved that Israel’s Arab citizens had more rights than any country in the Middle East.