Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, a senior fellow of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), and author of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (2013), is someone I deeply respect. However, his latest Opinion essay (“Limiting Debate on Israel Will Only Hurt Us,” The Jewish Week, Feb. 4) is a perspective that, if acted upon, has the potential to actually hurt our community.
In his desire to encourage more open dialogue on Israel, Rabbi Schwarz would like the college campus organization Hillel to reform its guidelines and allow overtly anti-Israel groups the opportunity to speak under the Hillel banner. Otherwise, Schwarz believes that preventing such contrarians from talking will actually drive young Next Gen Jews away from us.
Such a notion is just plain irresponsible.
While I can understand the rabbi’s ongoing challenge of engaging and retaining the faithful, perhaps what we need from our spiritual leaders is a clearer understanding of identity and community to market to Next Gen Jews in the era of the Internet.
One of the ideals I am most proud of as a citizen in our democracy is having the ability to freely speak on any topic, including Israel. It is in our very nature as Jews to question, discuss, debate, opine and challenge.
Yet, when we talk about opening our Hillel chapters to include debate from groups extremely opposed to Israel, what sort of debate are we talking about? Should Hillel chapters be used as a forum for others to express agendas and positions that are antithetical to our basic beliefs?
As leaders we have a moral imperative to stand by our religious tenets and customs to preserve our heritage and community, not create more avenues to splinter it.
I was raised in a very liberal household where great emphasis was placed on progressive issues. Today, I consider the home I have made with my wife and children equally liberal and also guided by strong concern for social justice. Yet, some far-reaching and impactful statements by “leaders of the left” drive me crazy.
Hillel has been a safe haven for Jewish students on both friendly and unfriendly campuses for decades. Its core principles and mission remain the same: to be “a place that welcomes Jewish students of all backgrounds and fosters an enduring commitment to a Jewish life of learning and Israel.” It is not intended to be an extension of the college where it is located as merely an organization that offers minority students a place to socialize and enjoy the academic experience.
Why then, should Hillel provide for speakers unsympathetic to Israel to promote the politics of destruction and tear down our Next Gen Jews under the roof meant to safeguard them? Such diatribe would not be intelligent honest debate and only open the doors for more negative anti-Israel propaganda to be fostered. Thankfully, Hillel’s agenda is clear, and beating up Israel is not part of it.
As a member of CLAL, Rabbi Schwartz usually brings great wisdom to American Jewry. If he’s in search of a new social experiment to promote greater interaction between the faiths, perhaps he should bring a speaker to his synagogue to preach on Christianity and Jesus Christ and open the floor to debate? To draw a good crowd I suggest he host the forum during Shabbat services. Sounds foolish and offensive, right? Of course it does. Likewise so does the notion of a Jewish organization sponsoring anti-Israel lectures. When held successfully, inter-religious councils, be they local community-based or on college campuses, bring people together to share their commonalities, not facilitate hostility by stressing what makes them different.
Nor should Hillel allow for “Open Hillels” as he recommends. I have witnessed time after time, speakers that condemn Israel do so without being properly vetted and fact- checked. Often listeners absorb every word as though it were based on facts when it is nothing more than biased opinion and misinformed rhetoric. Similarly, I’m not fooled when anti-Israel groups feign concern on social justice. Where are those same groups to comment when Israel physicians treat Syrian civil war casualties in Israeli hospitals; when IsraAID helps people around the world during times of extreme crisis; when a Palestinian fish farmer brings food home to the family table because of water technology developed in Israel. Are these not examples of social justice?
A hallmark of democracy, free speech is a right, but it does have great personal responsibility attached to it, especially when it violates the civil and constitutional rights of others. The thought of promoting speech that would tear down rather than build up is a formula for disaster. Instead, let’s share the wonderful experiences of our Jewish nation with our young people. Our roles as leaders are best used when we manage to create better and stronger connections to Israel, and highlight the strength of our Jewish community for today and tomorrow.
Yes, there are blemishes. We all have them. However, that is not the issue here. To promote true dialogue, let’s talk about how Israel makes the world a better place for everyone. Let’s embrace our heritage with a sense of pride, strength and a winning attitude. That is the megatrend for our future.
Russell Robinson is CEO of Jewish National Fund.