(NB: This is the first part of a two-part post. Please read the second post later, which will include the statement of the JVP students who were told by the Brandeis Hillel student board that their organization is not wanted at Hillel)
To tell you the truth, I thought it would go the other way. When I read the elegant and respectful statement of the student members of Brandeis U Jewish Voice for Peace (see next post), I actually thought – optimist that I am -- that they would be accepted. I was even prepared to write a post congratulating the Brandeis Hillel student board for doing the right thing, despite the pressures of International Hillel, which issued a lamentable series of guidelines that its brand of Israel-advocacy a litmus test for political student groups under the Hillel rubric.
Well, the student board at Brandeis Hillel didn't do the right thing. They rejected the JVP bid for membership as a student group – because JVP's politics on Israel are not in line with Hillel's politics.
According to reliable sources, the student board argued that National Hillel has issued guidelines that only allows "pro-Israel" groups within Hillel. And even though JVP sees itself as pro-Israel, the Hillel board reserves the right to check its "tzizis" and to determine who is pro-Israel and who is not. In other words, Hillel as an organization has declared that only groups that it considers pro-Israel can apply. Were a Hillel to say that J Street is not pro-Israel, then that alone would be reason to exclude it.
How Jewish is that?
The board effectively said to JVP, "Even though we recognize that you express your Judaism politically, and even though we admit other Jewish political groups here, your vision of Judaism and your political vision of Israel has no place in Hillel. Unless you say the magic words ,"Jewish and democratic" and mean by them what we say you should mean, your organization is treif (unkosher).
(Note to J Street U at Brandeis – if you bring the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement to Brandeis, a movement that has been supported by David Grossman, Paul Mendes Flohr, James Kugel, and Moshe Halbertal, but which was lately labeled as "anti-Zionist" by the Jewish Agency – your group may be kicked out of Brandeis Hillel – maybe not by this board, but by the next.)
What clinched the rejection was that JVP supports a boycott of settlers' products. So were the likes of Theodore Bikel, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and a host of the best and brightest Israelis – who support the artistic boycott of the settlers – to come to Hillel, they would not be allowed to form as a student group in Hillel – because their public endorsement of a partial boycott is not pro-Israel enough.
But hang on – surely an organization has the right to determine who is recognized and supported by that group! Since Hillel defines itself as Zionist politically why blame the student board at Hillel for doing nothing more than following their announced policy?
Well, first of all, I don't blame the student board. And anyway, who am I to throw stones? After all, I come from Israel, where Reform and Conservative Jews are allowed to practice their religion – as long as they don't go anywhere near the "historical home" of the Jewish people – the Western Wall, where their groups are not welcome (Of course, they are welcome to go there as individuals.) And doesn't Israel have a right to define itself as a state that will not recognize Reform and Conservative religious ceremonies? How can I blame Hillel when it only follows in the best Israeli traditions of fostering Jewish pluralism?
Of course, Hillel can exclude any Jewish group it wants. Legally, it can draw up guidelines that exclude J Street U and include Zionist Freedom Alliance and Kahane Lives (both good Zionist organizations, by Hillel's standards; none of the guidelines says anything about racism. How many times have I heard orthodox Jews sing at Hillel "La'asot nekamah ba-goyim" (To take vengeance on the goyyim). Nothing wrong with that according to the Hillel guidelines)
But how Jewish is it to say to a group of young Jews,"We won't give you funds to buy sodas and popcorn for a meeting about challenging Israel's policies on the West Bank. It is not just that we don't agree with you; we don't think your position is a legitimate position for Jews at the home for the Jews on campus – although, of course, we will defend to the death your right to that position."
Again, I don't really blame Brandeis Hillel's Student Board, any more than I blame National Hillel. We Jews live in a dark age – where ideological conformity on Israel counts more than observance of commandments, or love of fellow Jews. Perhaps it is best that the JVP students were turned down.Maybe it's time for a truly inclusive Jewish home on campus that makes ahavat Yisrael/love of Israel the litmus test for Jews and not ahavat medinat Yisrael/the love of the State of Israel – according to Big Brother's determination of what that is.
After all, most Jews on campus don't bother with Hillel anyway. In many schools, it has become a refuge for the orthodox kids. Most Jewish students don't care about doing Jewish. The problem with the Jewish Voice for Peace students is that they do. And Hillel has shut the door on their Jewish identity.
It doesn't have to be this way. Hillel doesn't have to be "pro-Israel." It could be pro-Jewish and leave Israeli politics to the student groups outside Hillel.
Maybe it's time for a Beit Shammai, which is truly inclusive of Jewish groups doing Jewish.