Thursday, March 17, 2011

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of Hillel?

In my last [as in previous] post I talked about the recent Jewish Voice for Peace Annual Meeting, and there are already some fascinating items traveling through cyberspace about its energy and potential for effecting the Israel/Palestine discourse. One topic that, understandably, had many people talking was Brandeis Hillel’s  recent rejection of the university’s JVP chapter’s application for official recognition.

Much of the chatter about Hillel’s decision has centered on the semantics of  “BDS” [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], Israel being “democratic” and “Jewish” and what it means to be “pro” and/or “anti” Israel. Personally I think that this incident has exposed an incredible hypocrisy on the part of the “global” Hillel institution. While talking about Hillel’s commitment to “pluralism,” its desire to include all of  Jewish students on campus and its self-description as “The foundation of Jewish Life on Campus,” the organization has now announced that there are limits to the kinds of Jews, or at least the limits of those Jews’ opinions that are acceptable in its “pluralistic” foundation.

I actually don’t question Hillel’s right to make this kind of decision, nor do I fully reject the argument that individual Jews are still invited [if not welcomed] to participate in Hillel activities and programs. The rejection of a group that is outspokenly rooted in Jewish tradition with a strong commitment to traditional Jewish ethics and values, however, is setting a frightening precedent.

The obligatory disclaimer: I am both a former Hillel Director and a long-time member of Jewish Voice for Peace.  Having said that I want to comment on the title of this post: no, of course I’m not predicting the imminent closing of Hillel groups and houses across North America.  Hillel still provides some important services to Jewish students and, even if it didn’t, heaven knows it has enough money and high-powered supporters to tread the waters of the status quo for decades.  And this is especially true now that an enormous amount of resources are being directed to Hillel only because of fears that its mission might not be as “pro-Israel” as some would like.

My feeling is that, despite the current spike of support for Hillel, and because so much of this support is based on an “Israel right or wrong” mentality neither Hillel nor the rest of the institutional Jewish community is really paying attention to the realities of young Jews.  For some years now we have observed that Jews on campus have become vulnerable to the “anti-Zionist” and “anti-Semitic” assaults on them.  I believe that these claims expose a kind of paranoia rooted in old feelings of victim-hood and are self-defeating as a strategy – but I won’t seriously argue that here.  What may be more important is the blinder-ed response to the perceived threat.  The great minds of the institutional Jewish community have decided that the only way of protecting our children is to cushion them from any dissenting opinions while filling them with as much “positive” information about Israel as the community can pay for. [It’s not just coincidental that, on the “adult” level Israel has forbidden its citizens from going into Palestine, arguing its for “security” reasons but actually so that Israelis won’t see the realities there, at the same time as huge amounts of money are poured into public relations firms whose mission is to continually “re-brand” Israel, especially in the American market.] What is not permitted is the suggestion that if Israel confronted the worst of its misguided [and often illegal] policies that that would change the world’s [including our children’s] perception of Israel.  Ending the occupation or giving Palestinian citizens of Israel equal rights and services would go much further than images of top-notch Israeli athletes, sparkling beaches or international Israeli beauty queens.

So, what is the current reality of Jewish life on campus? When I was still part of the Hillel family perhaps the number one reason for pushing students towards the Hillel House [certainly among the parents of Jewish students] was to gain an edge in the fight against inter-marriage.  As in most parts of the Jewish community we focused significantly on getting Jewish students to interact more with other Jews in order to protect them from the temptations of exotic non-Jewish potential mates. Our emphasis was on creating more attractive – and admittedly Jewish – programming.  There was, of course, nothing wrong in enticing students to come to the Hillel House on Friday evenings for a good Shabbos dinner and enjoyable program. What we often overlooked, however, was the reality that, as our third and fourth generation Jews had become more and more successful in assimilating into the “American” culture the historic ties were being broken down. Perhaps the one saving grace was a re-focusing on the historical Jewish commitment to social justice, “Tikkun Olam” if you will. Now, my field in graduate school was social ethics, so I think this was a wonderful trend. We American Jews are right to feel proud of our involvement, far beyond our numbers, in the civil rights movement, our support of women's liberation, and our earlier than most community’s disgust at the war in Viet Nam. We were not thoughtful, however, of two consequences of these tendencies.

First, these activities thrust us closer to a part of American society that was no longer significantly concerned about things like race, gender, religion and sexual preference – and, inevitably, “marrying Jewish,” for many of us in the sixties and beyond, was not as compelling as our parents might have wanted. And, secondly, this tendency to make social justice one of the, if not the, center of our Judaism meant that we were more likely not to be tied to the synagogue and traditional practices like kashrut as our parents and grandparents, and, most significantly, more committed to ideals like fairness, human rights and justice while we tended to have more of a sense of spirituality than religiosity [think of the small, but significant, drift of Jews to Buddhist practice].

It is, therefore, not surprising that when the American Jewish Committee studied the American Jewish community a few years ago, while not hiding anything, played down the results pertaining to young American Jews.  They, like others, found that young Jews did not have the same ties with or feelings for Israel as their parents. To understand this we have to understand a kind of dialectic that exists relative to Israel and Judaism or Jewish-ness. Israel and the institutional Jewish community have been incredibly successful in conflating Israel with being Jewish. Israel is, we are told over and over, the “homeland of the Jews” and, while we condemn Palestinians for their feeling of persecution by “Jews” [which, of course is a form of Anti-Semitism] – we don’t consider the reality that we make no distinction between the two categories [and, therefore, if you criticize Israel you are, almost by definition, anti-Semitic]. The truth is that we continue to merge Zionism with Judaism. For many of our children who have been, thankfully, imbued with those values of fairness and justice, when they see Israel enacting policies that are clearly unjust, having already become, relative to their parents’ generation, somewhat less attached to religious Judaism, say “wait a minute. If that’s what Israelis/Jews do to others, maybe that’s not the community I want to be part of.” The result is that more and more young Jews are identifying themselves less and less primarily as Jews – and inevitably both our community and the state of Israel suffer.

Where does this leave us? No, of course we won’t witness the demise of Hillel for many years, if ever. However, if we try to “hold on” to our young people by trying to sanitize and justify what Israel does, even when its actions are patently inexcusable, we will eventually lose more and more of them. Every person who has worked for a Federation funded agency [as I have] has know for more than a quarter century that fund raising has become more difficult as younger Jews feel less connected to the institutions of American Judaism. Were it not for the appeals to our deepest fears [“we are headed towards another HOLOCAUST!” and “ANTI-SEMITISM has never been so rampant”] that motivate older, wealthier Jews to dig deeper into their pockets, we would be in big trouble. Those hooks, however, are becoming less productive as time passes. And an Israel that is becoming more and more of a pariah, even among “mainstream” Jews, doesn’t help.

So, by Hillel excluding the Brandeis JVP chapter from its community they do, indeed, send a message but probably not the one they think they do.  An op-ed in Brandeis’s independent newspaper, the Justice, gave a well-reasoned defense of Hillel’s decision. That op-ed, however, was written by the leaders of the AIPAC and Zionist Organization of America connected campus groups. I suspect that their opinions will, for now, persuade some students [and others] to, at least, accept, without much struggle, Hillel’s rejection of JVP.  In the long run, however, this incident will be one more in a pattern of rejecting anyone who in any way criticizes Israel. In time that can only undermine both Israel and the Jewish community.

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