Which leads to my main question as it pertains to the news from Swarthmore: Why isn’t Hillel doing the same?
The problem with Hillel, of which I am an ardent supporter, and other Jewish campus movements, like Chabad, of which I am a part, is that rigorous debate of Judaism and Israel’s critics is not central to their activities. Too often intellectual exchange is subordinated to social events. But a Hawaiian Shabbos, or a Jewish film festival, is no replacement for the main purpose of students being at a University, which is to be immersed in an intellectual environment where ideas shape character and identity.
At countless Jewish activities that I witness on campus it’s about this party or that party, this dating event or that movie night. Such a watered-down format insults the intelligence of the students and inhibits the potential for real intellectual activism.
The L’Chaim Society model was based on engaging in political, religious, and philosophical discussions and, when it came to Israel’s critics, rules-based debates that clearly identified two opposing sides that would battle it out. What we sought to create above all else was a life of the mind that would inform and influence a life of the spirit. We, of course, had Purim and Chanukah parties, Shabbos dinners, and Passover seders. But more than anything else we had a focus on intellectual debate, which entailed bringing renowned speakers — Elie Wiesel, Mikhail Gorbachev, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Natan Sharansky — to campus to appear and defend Israel and argue other values-based issues that electrified the students. It was the L’Chaim Society that started the world-famous science versus religion debates that were the very first that Richard Dawkins participated in, and that would later spill over into the United States, Canada, Mexico, and beyond.
But more than anything else, we attacked Israel’s enemies head on. We would never think of granting Hanan Ashrawi, for example, a platform to simply discuss, let alone, attack, Israel under our banner. But we sure as heck sought to have speakers of her caliber engage Israel’s eloquent defenders in organized, university-wide debate in the belief that the Jewish state and its record of human rights would emerge victorious.
When it comes to Jewish life on campus we always seem to apply the notion that progress is being made by addressing soft issues, largely of a social and politically correct manner, such as Judaism and gender, Judaism and feminism, Judaism and egalitarianism, Judaism and homosexuality, etc.
While these are important issues, they are a poor substitute for the hard-edged debates that will shape the students political, cultural, and spiritual outlook.
It was in these debates at Oxford that gifted communicators like Ron Dermer, one of our student presidents, first cut his chops in defending the Jewish state against attack. Today, he is Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. It was listening to debates like these that Cory Booker, today our Senator from New Jersey and another one of our student presidents, heard the justice of Israel’s cause and became defenders of Jewish nationhood.
Hillel should be sponsoring and funding a national effort where, once-a-week, students are trained and groomed as defenders of Israel and Judaism on campus.
The Oxford Union, where we held so many of our debates – and where I will join Israel’s current and outstanding Ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, in a debate about Iran this March – is internationally recognized as a beacon of intellectual exchange. It is an amazing thing to witness young students achieve what they have always been capable of – riveting and intelligent dialogue and debate – but just needed someone to give them a proverbial nudge to discover said capability.
If Hillel and Chabad want to have a true impact on Jewish students they should subordinate the social events and the tired gender-homosexuality-egalitarian discussions to the hard-nosed debates about Israel, the truth of Judaism, and the other great challenges to Jewish identity. There is a time for social gatherings. But the focus must be on the intellectual aspect of Jewish life, the hardcore meat and potato issues that face both Jews and the State of Israel. There is no shortage of topics, nor of need to address them. All that is required is a bit of inspiration and focus from the top.