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Firestone: When It Comes to Israel on Campus, Partnership Has Limitations

by Hillel News |Dec 13, 2010|Comments

Israel flag.
Student activists, jewish Agency for israel Fellows, and Hillel professionals lead effort to engage, educate and advocate for Israel on campus.
By Wayne L. Firestone · December 13, 2010

WASHINGTON (JTA) -- In recent weeks, Jewish student activists have confronted mock Israeli checkpoints, opposed a student group that wanted to raise funds to defy the Gaza blockade and fought to keep an Israeli hummus brand on campus. In some instances, such efforts to delegitimize Israel have even included a sprinkling of American Jews and Israelis.

Even if such incidents are exceptional, should we really accept that "anything goes" on campus? The answer is no.

Hillel's Schusterman International Center issued guidelines this week to ensure that local Hillels know which organizations, groups and speakers are considered valid partners in promoting civil and informed discourse on Israel.

Our guidelines state that "Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state." We firmly state, however, that "Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

* Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders;

* Delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel;

* Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;

* Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior toward campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility."

These guidelines already are being utilized locally. The Tufts Hillel referenced them to say no to a partnership with its local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine based on the national organization's support of boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

Does this mean that debate or discussion among students might be stifled? Of course not.

Among the key tenets of the document is the principle that "Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner."

At the same time, we reject efforts that may divide the Jewish community on campus over the potentially rich debate and discussion that occurs about Israel. We seek to engage and educate students not only to prepare them to advocate for Israel, but also to enrich their Jewish identities with an understanding of the centrality of Israel to their own lives and to Jewish civilization.

We draw strength from the long Jewish tradition of vigorous inquiry and inclusivity modeled in the Talmud. While the Talmud includes diverse and even competing views in its discussion, it certainly does not endorse every opinion. It nonetheless models a vibrant practice of Klal Yisrael, the united people of Israel, which has fostered Hillel's historic commitment to religious pluralism on campus.

At the time of its founding, Hillel rejected the prevailing model of denominationalism, instead bringing together all Jewish movements on campus under one roof. We recognize the strength in a spectrum of voices and backgrounds, and we are not afraid to embrace a similar diversity of political and ideological perspectives. That being said, we also understand the importance of creating an environment for healthy, fair and informed exploration and discussion. We will not tolerate those who use foul play or misinformation to manipulate the conversation.

Israel is no exception, and that is where our guidelines come into the picture. No, Hillel will not allow for "anything goes" on our campuses. No, we will not partner with groups that seek to abuse our openness to espouse positions that undermine the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.

And yes, I am confident that Hillel can play a critical role in helping this generation of students not only develop a strong sense of Jewish identity, but also a personal connection and commitment to the State of Israel.

(Wayne L. Firestone is the president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.)

Reprinted by permission from JTA



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