Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Rosh Hashanah 5775
25 September 2014
The Closing of the American Jewish Mind?
Once upon a time, not long ago, there was a young man named Joe. Joe was a nice Jewish boy from Anywhere, USA who did well in high school and got accepted early to one of his top choice colleges – let’s call it University of Middle America, or UMA. As Joe’s high school graduation approached, he found it hard to focus on homework and class, often lost in thought about what campus life would be like.
Joe daydreamed about the wealth of classes and professors he’d have at his fingertips; he daydreamed about learning that would happen in and out of the classroom through the open exchange of ideas. That’s what college is for, right? he asked himself. Not avoiding disagreement but seeking it out? Intellectual sparring with students and faculty? Joe had always excelled at that. It’s part of why he did so well in high school: by offering his own ideas to be crystallized and honed in the crucible of debate. He knew that’s how real learning occurs.
Needless to say, what happened around UMA’s commencement that spring surprised and disappointed Joe. He was finishing high school while closely following events on the campus he was about to call home. The University had invited a prominent leader to address the student body at graduation. But then a well-organized group of liberal students and faculty, who opposed the speaker’s political views, started a petition. Their outcry led to the disinviting of the speaker from that year’s commencement. Joe’s politics tilted liberal, but he was troubled by the bigger picture at stake here. On a university campus, of all places, a small vocal minority was able to stifle someone’s ideas simply because they were disagreeable? And this wasn’t the only campus where a speaker with “unpopular” views was disinvited. What did that say about the state of these supposedly “liberal” institutions of higher learning that their students and even some faculty couldn’t stomach hearing dissenting views? Nothing good, thought Joe.
The press was all over these disinvitations. One Jewish observer wrote, "College was once about preparing boys and girls to become men and women, not least through a process of desensitization to discomfiting ideas. Now it’s just a $240,000 extension of kindergarten" (Stephens; see also Wisse).
And a Yale law professor wrote:
In my day, the college campus was a place that celebrated the diversity of ideas… Your generation, I am pleased to say, seems to be doing away with all that… How marvelous it must be to realize at so tender an age that you will never, ever change your mind, because you will never, ever encounter disagreement! How I wish I’d had your confidence and fortitude. I could have spared myself many hours of patient reflection and intellectual struggle over the great issues of the day. (Carter)
Troubled by the developments on campus, Joe spent the summer packing for college, meeting his roommates online, and registering for fall semester classes. Though worried about a lack of real debate on campus, he took some comfort in knowing that he would always have a home among the Jewish community at Hillel. There, he knew, he’d find willing partners for debate. His childhood rabbi had always encouraged thoughtful dissent. They’d even studied Jewish texts about it, how the rabbinic tradition was founded on engaging seriously with your opponents’ positions.
With the Jewish community on campus, Joe looked forward to engaging in the age-old practice of chevruta study – arguing over texts and ideas, challenging your fellow learner and inviting him to push back, elevating your mutual learning together.
Needless to say, what happened at Hillel that fall after Joe arrived on campus surprised and disappointed him. The Hillel’s Israel Task Force had invited a speaker to address the campus community. This speaker was a Jewish educator who would speak about his attempt at reconciliation with the Palestinian family of the terrorist who bombed the Hebrew University cafeteria in 2002. That attack had killed two of the speaker’s friends, and nearly killed his girlfriend, too. He had gone on a personal mission to find the killer’s family because he wanted to see where such misguided, murderous hatred could come from.
As it turned out, the speaker had also written a blog post about BDS – the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. The BDS movement is especially active on campuses, its members ranging from progressive Zionists who want to end the occupation, to anti-Semites who want to delegitimize Israel. The speaker’s blog post said that BDS is a legitimate form of nonviolent protest against certain policies of the Israeli government. When this came to light, the Hillel rabbi informed the speaker that a pro-BDS stance disqualified him from speaking at Hillel because of the parent organization’s Israel Engagement Guidelines. Although Hillel promises to “encourage students’ inquiry” and welcome “a diversity of student perspectives” in a “pluralistic community,” they also set limits on speakers allowed to appear under Hillel’s name. That includes barring anyone who supports “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”
Bound by these guidelines, and backed by a small but vocal group of Jewish students, Joe’s Hillel rabbi disinvited the speaker. Joe didn’t get it. He didn’t support BDS himself, but he wanted to hear what this thoughtful, committed Jew had to say. Joe was on campus to learn and grow, and he could handle himself in an argument. He was not afraid to be provoked to think critically, even — or especially — about Israel.
When Hillel withdrew its invitation to the speaker, the Muslim Student Union stepped in to host him instead. Joe had reservations about that group’s intentions, but this was a conversation he wanted to be a part of, so he went to the event. The speaker stated his support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a dual commitment demanded by his Zionism. As he started to say that the occupation threatens Israel’s democratic character, and therefore violates his Zionist principles, a group of pro-Israel students stood up and shouted him down.
Joe had seen similar behavior when Palestinian students shouted down pro-Israel speakers. He and his fellow Jews would dismiss them as thugs who couldn’t handle having their ideas subjected to actual debate. Now Joe’s fellow Jews were using the same tactics. Ironically, these Jewish students were violating another of Hillel International’s guidelines, barring individuals who “exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
Joe was fed up with the hypocrisy on both sides. He had considered a degree in international relations with a focus on Middle Eastern affairs, but he decided in that moment to major in something less controversial, like particle physics or underwater basket-weaving. He never really set foot in Hillel again, except occasionally for the High Holidays, and he lost his passion for discussing Israel, too. There were too many lines drawn in the sand, everywhere he turned.
* * *
Joe’s story is fictional, but not by much. Last spring, a long list of colleges disinvited speakers because of “unpopular” views. Blistering critiques were written about college students’ need for intellectual coddling. At the same time, Hillel has been embroiled in a national debate about what qualifies as a sufficiently “pro-Israel” event to bear Hillel’s name. Speakers have been invited and then disinvited when deemed out of bounds (e.g. at Harvard). The tension came to a head last December when students at Swarthmore publicly rejected the parent organization’s guidelines and named themselves the first “Open Hillel.”
The organized Jewish community is sending a message, a mixed message, to our college kids: we want you to engage in stimulating intellectual debates, get involved in the open exchange of ideas, challenge your views — but just not when it comes to Israel. On that topic, you’re either with us – unconditionally, uncritically – or against us.
Let’s consider for a moment what one critic said about all those disinvited commencement speakers, and apply his thinking to the context of Hillel, even though the author wasn’t writing about that situation:
Ladies and gentlemen, you are graduating into a world of enormous complexity and conflict. There are corners of the globe where violence and war and abject oppression still dominate… Traditional societies are caught in an increasingly desperate struggle between the perils of fundamentalism on the one side and the perils of modernism on the other. Given your generation’s penchant for shutting down speakers with whom you disagree, I am assuming that you have no intention of playing any serious adult role in mediating those conflicts. And that’s fine. We should leave the task of mediation to those unsophisticated enough to be sensitive to the concerns of both sides. (Carter)
One of the main reasons we don’t foster a healthy Israel conversation among college students, let alone within congregations, is that we have substituted pro-Israel advocacy for Zionism. Zionism’s goal was to change the status of Jews in the world with regard to power, agency, and responsibility. “Statehood was a means to that end, not an end in itself” (Goldberg). Now we can’t see past the question of supporting or criticizing the state, as if that’s the substance of Zionism. We’ve forgotten, or never learned, that Zionism is not just about Jews having the power to defend ourselves – it’s also about Jews having the responsibility to treat others who live within our power in a Jewish way. It’s not just about creating a Jewish majority – it’s also about shaping that society to reflect the values of Jewish tradition. It’s a conversation, I’m proud to say, that we had for nine weeks this summer with the help of the Hartman Institute’s iEngage curriculum: 20 Jews around a table, arguing, disagreeing, pushing back, but sharing a commitment to respect each other as we studied our tradition’s views on power, sovereignty, self-defense, war, and human rights.
Peter Beinart wrote on Monday that during these High Holidays, American rabbis should not speak about the Jewish state, but rather about Jewish texts. The real crisis facing our community, he says, is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but illiteracy about Judaism. In other words, we are so alienated from Jewish tradition that we aren’t ready to have a real conversation about Israel, let alone Zionism. So we cling to defensive pro-Israel advocacy, at the expense of a richer engagement with Zionism and the future of the Jewish people.
College campuses are ground zero for this problem. The organized Jewish community pours money and energy into defending Israel on campus, sometimes from real enemies but often at the expense of building Jewish community or cultivating students’ Jewish identity. Rabbi Oren Hayon, Executive Director of the Hillel at the University of Washington in Seattle, experienced this firsthand. He spent two years gearing up to fight BDS legislation at the university, and fight they did. Reflecting after a successful campaign to defeat BDS, Hayon asks us to consider the cost of these victories. He said, "The moment a BDS resolution is introduced on a college campus, a mighty political advocacy engine roars to life and, before long, the entire community becomes characterized by a relentless scorched-earth approach” (Hayon). This machine is distracting and alienating. It forces Hillels to forego more substantive programming, and it shuts out students whose questions about Israel get them banished from the tent.
Rabbi Hayon compares this approach to the Akeidah, the famous binding of Isaac, which we will read later this morning. In the case of Abraham, his own son Isaac became a tool in his quest, the means to prove his faithfulness to God. Hayon says, “When we fail to treat college students as persons, and instead relate to them as objects to be manipulated for our political or ideological goals, we hasten our own downfall.” Rather than calling students “thinkers, partners, or colleagues,” activists on both sides of these campaigns refer to them as troops, vessels, and assets. What does it say about us that we treat students as pawns in our own defensive game, and not as the future leaders of our community? What kind of leaders will they be?
And what will become of our hypothetical Joe once he graduates, if this was his experience on campus? If Joe had been encouraged to learn and grow in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and rigorous debate, wouldn’t he be a stronger Jew, poised to confront the complex challenges of his generation? On the other hand, if Joe is brushed aside as not pro-Israel enough, then what do we expect? Why would he want to live Jewishly, if that’s the shallow Jewish identity he’s been sold? Why should he join a synagogue, or support a Jewish organization, when his experience of the organized Jewish community is that you either fall in line or get out of the way? What gifts of Jewish leadership, what potential contributions to the ongoing story of our people, are we sacrificing on the altar of pro-Israel advocacy?
Zionism calls us to imagine and enact the ideal Jewish future. It demands a proactive vision for the state of the Jewish people, not a defensive apology for the status quo. Jewish tradition challenges us to balance self-defense and the rights of others, to take care of our own without diminishing our moral commitment to humanity. As Rabbi Hillel himself famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Upholding these dual commitments is not childish or naive — it’s exactly the kind of sophisticated Jewish leadership we urgently need.
It’s time to let go of our insistence on simple answers to complex questions. It’s time to study, argue, and act — like adults.
Sources and Recommended Reading
- Genesis 22 (the Akeidah)
- iEngage: Foundations for a New Relationship (Shalom Hartman Institute; selected classical and contemporary texts)
- Ali, Ayaan Hirsi. “Here’s What I would have said at Brandeis”
- Avishai, Bernard. “Is Liberal Zionism Impossible?”
- Beinart, Peter. “American rabbis, these High Holidays, talk about Jewish texts, not the Jewish State”
- Cannon, Benjy. “Five things Jewish-American leaders must know about college students”
- Carter, Stephen. “Dear Class of 2014: Thanks for Not Disinviting Me”
- Cohen, Ben. “The Anti-Zionist College Ploy”
- Fein, Leonard. “From Gaza to Sderot, Trauma Marks The Past — And The Present”
- Fingerhut, Eric. “Hillel President Responds to Swarthmore College Hillel Resolution”
- Goldberg, J.J. “Summer's Missing Question: What Is Zionism?”
- Haaretz. “Us Jewish group accused of McCarthyism after publishing list of pro-boycott professors”
- Halevi, Yossi Klein. “At Rosh Hashanah: Grief, fear, hope”
- Halevi, Yossi Klein and Abdullah Antepli. “What Muslims and Jews should learn from Brandeis”
- Harris-Gershon, David. “I’m Now Another Jew Who Has Been Barred from Speaking in a Jewish Building (in America)”
- Harris-Gershon, David. What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? Oneworld Publications, 2013.
- Hartman, Donniel. “To be a peaceaholic: a new year’s resolution”
- Hayon, Oren. “After BDS victory, tending a scorched campus community”
- Hillel International. Hillel Israel Guidelines.
- Jick, Zoe. “The blood bucket challenge: too fast, too furious”
- Kurtzer, Yehuda. “For Israel Engagement on Campus: Coaches, not Cheerleaders”
- Rosen, Joseph. “The Israel Taboo”
- Stephens, Bret. “To the Class of 2014”
- Swarthmore Hillel Board. “An Open Letter”
- Wieseltier, Leon. “Israel and Gaza: A Just and Unjust War”
- Wisse, Ruth. “The Closing of the Collegiate Mind”
- Yoffie, Eric. “Muzzled by a Minority”