Reports on the status of Israel on campus from two major Jewish Israel advocacy organizations — The David Project and the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise — have documented the relatively marginal influence of anti-Israel groups and their efforts on campuses in the United States. They note that while BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) efforts may continue on some campuses, Israel is not under siege by these efforts on campuses in the United States. Both reports were met with a measure of skepticism, in part because so much communal concern has been invested in combating these marginal groups, and in part because no amount of statistical data can outweigh the impressions made by videos of demonstrations and by singular events that mold North American Jewish public opinion.
As we begin a new year, we have the opportunity to rethink our priorities and to focus our attention in new ways.
Our Jewish community currently focuses its energies on threats: threats from anti-Semitism, threats to Israel, and the threat of Jews leaving the fold through intermarriage. Such concerns have their place; to be unmindful of threats abandons our responsibility to adopt strategies that successfully address them. However, in the pursuit of these strategies arises perhaps the greatest threat of all: discord among Jews that makes our community a dysfunctional family, driving some of its members out and causing those on the periphery to be wary, if not fearful. Is it any wonder that many Jews opt out of involvement in a community that can be unwelcoming or even intimidating?
The tone of political discourse in our community can be toxic. At the core of concerns regarding inclusion and exclusion from Hillel’s tent is the penchant of some in the Jewish community to divide the world into “friends” or “enemies” of Israel, demonizing those who openly voice dissent regarding Israel. Vilification and invective have no place on our campuses or in our communal discourse. Ad hominem attacks abandon any semblance of civility, substitute vitriol for reasoned argument, erode existing relationships, and undermine our interactions and relationships with Jews and non-Jews. One of Hillel’s key roles is to model discourse that provides safe space for disagreements and controversy and for work with others at the university to ensure that no one is permitted to intimidate others.
We need to monitor anti-Israel groups vigilantly and continue to ensure that universities are safe places for all students to express their pro-Israel attitudes, in class as well as on the quad. Battling at the margins, however, should not obscure a more important objective: building the center by identifying common ground on broad areas of agreement, and maintaining respectful relationships with those with whom we disagree.
The central challenge to Israel on campus today is not about BDS nor is it about responding to a very small but extremely vocal anti-Israel activist core on some of our campuses. Our challenge lies in identifying the center — clearly articulating our unity and why it is important for us despite our differences — and celebrating it. That “center” is articulated in Hillel’s guidelines that state: “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.”
As a “big tent,” Hillel provides a base that welcomes community members to work together toward common goals while constantly interacting and working with others, both inside and outside the tent. Inside Hillel’s tent at Brandeis, the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee and J-Street U-Brandeis groups work together with the Brandeis Zionist Alliance to create educational programs that focus on common interests and concerns, lowering thresholds for entry into the tent. Together with Hillel, these groups have worked with Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World, a non-Hillel group, to further expand opportunities for civil discourse and dialogue, and extend conversations about Israel outside Hillel’s tent.
When we speak of one people — Am Echad — we are not speaking of a monolithic people, but a united people, that benefits from our diversity. Our differences may be the result of hundreds of years of symbiosis with other cultures, or may emerge from divergent interpretations of our religious texts; they may be embedded in our families’ historical experiences, or may be reflected in diverse political perspectives.
Eric Fingerhut, the newly appointed president of Hillel, shared his vision for Hillel noting that “Hillel the man believed in bringing people together, in welcoming people, and in listening carefully to each other’s points of view — what today we sometimes call the big tent … Hillel [the institution] is a uniting force. If we help shape the next generation of Jewish leaders to understand and believe that we are one people, with one sacred mission but many different ways of expressing that mission, then we will deserve our place as the organization that is the most responsible for building the Jewish future.”
Fingerhut’s vision augurs well for Hillel and for the Jewish community. He understands the importance of both unity and diversity within our tent. The message for the Jewish community should be equally clear: disagreement and discourse are part of our heritage, but we should not allow our passions to impair our relationships. Hillel’s responsibility is to continue to embrace its identity as an organization that supports Israel as a democratic Jewish state while promoting civil conversations about Israel both inside and outside our tent. To paraphrase Louis D. Brandeis, “In the frank expression of conflicting opinions lies the greatest promise of wisdom.”
Larry Sternberg is the executive director of Hillel at Brandeis University.