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Hillel International Bans Free Speech
by Mark Levy
SOME THINGS make me quite angry and tend to increase my activism rather than push me away. Take, for example, speaker bans.
Hillel chapters on college campuses have, over the past couple of years, had limits placed on them by their parent organization, Hillel International, regarding whom students can or cannot invite to speak. I experienced the impact of this policy as part of a group of four white, Jewish, civil rights veterans (Dorothy Zellner, Larry Rubin, Ira Grupper and I) who volunteered last year to speak to Hillel chapters about the civil rights movement, its values, aims, and accomplishments, and why and how we personally chose to get involved. We were excited that a new generation of passionate people wanted to hear about what got us started and kept us going as activists, and how our experiences in the South still influence us today.
Our talk’s title was “From Mississippi to Jerusalem — A Conversation With Civil Rights Veterans.” A group of students organized our tour under the banner of “Open Hillel,” a movement that rejects Hillel International’s 2010 “Standards of Partnership,” which read, in part:
Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.
Not unexpectedly, Hillel International demanded that local chapters withdraw their invitations to us.
TO BE CLEAR, we four hold a variety of views on Israel/Palestine. Dorothy and Ira have openly advocated for support of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, advocacy that they see as on a continuum with their civil rights work. Larry sees it as one of many ways to oppose Israel’s policies and believes it has “become almost impossible to do social justice work as a Jew and ignore the 800-pound gorilla.” As for me, I have been an advocate neither for or against BDS, and I am the least involved of the four of us on issues concerning Israel.
Israel was not, however, what we were coming to campuses primarily to talk about, nor had we been invited to speak as BDS advocates. Nevertheless, Hillel chapters were threatened with decertification, and in several cases Hillel International lawyers came to intimidate chapter leaders, members, and college administrators. Chapter rabbis, directors, and other staff were also mobilized to enforce the national ban and to dissuade students from having us speak.
Our tour brought us to thirteen colleges in seven states. (For scheduling reasons, I participated only in the mid-Atlantic leg of the tour.) Except at Harvard, our events ultimately had to be sponsored by groups other than Hillel, but had many Hillel students attending. One chapter, after long discussion, elected to withdraw from Hillel and change their name in response to being censored, and then voted to go ahead and sponsor the event.
I HAVE BEEN involved in campus free speech struggles twice before. When I was an undergraduate at Queens College, 1961-’62, the administration banned three speakers invited by student clubs: Malcolm X, Benjamin Davis, and William F. Buckley, Jr. That censorship led to a one-day student strike with the slogan, “Ban the Ban,” and we successfully forced the college to change its policy. (One of the picket captains was a young guy named Mario Savio, who would later spark the Free Speech movement at the Berkeley campus of the University of California and also serve as a civil rights worker in Mississippi.)
Years later, when I was working as a healthcare union official with medical interns and residents, Dr. Ladi Haroona and I were invited by a student group to Albany Medical College to talk about the impact of the long hours that they would soon be forced to work on doctor well-being and patient care and safety. The administration not only banned us from speaking but intimidated the student leaders and refused to allow us to step anywhere on campus. Although we did get to visit with a smaller group of courageous medical students in an off-campus apartment, I experienced a profound loss of respect for those administrators who terrorized the interns and tried to keep controversy at arms’ length. What kind of doctors would that medical college produce?
With these experiences behind me, I found it disconcerting when I and my fellow senior citizens and Jewish civil-rights activists found ourselves banned, demonized, and BDS-baited. Jewish students who persisted in inviting us were sent hostile e-mails and intimidated by Hillel staff and right-wing Zionist students. Pressure from wealthy alumni also became part of the repressive dynamic.
Adding insult to injury, our tour was underway when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the U.S. claiming that he had the right to speak for “all Jews.” This increased my anger: Not only does Netanyahu not speak for me, but the fact that he claims to do so violates many core Jewish values that I cherish.
So I can thank Netanyahu and Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut for forcing me to look and care more deeply about Israel’s policies, and to learn what the initials “BDS” stand for and the significance of organizations like J Street and Students for Justice in Palestine. Originally, I was merely miffed by the ban, but now I know I can’t be silent in the face of their efforts to stop young people from learning about all sides of the Israel-Palestine issue. I am not a BDS activist for a variety of reasons, but I deeply believe that BDS advocacy is a legitimate part of the Jewish debate of our time.
All four of us civil rights veterans are proud to be Jews. We believe that being proudly Jewish does not necessarily mean being Zionist or even pro-Zionist (much of the Jewish world, we remember, was quite critical of Zionism before the creation of modern Israel). We believe it should be our right to speak with fellow Jews in criticism of Israel’s history, policies, and relationships, as many Israelis do on a daily basis.
As my friend and fellow civil rights and labor activist Larry Rubin is fond of reminding our audiences: “Jews — we argue. That’s us.” We read, we study, we debate, and we try to make the world a better place. If Hillel International continues to deny a platform for that Jewish tradition, its attraction for some of the brightest, most committed and thoughtful Jews of conscience among the college-age generation will steadily weaken. Many Jewish college students are irate about Hillel’s policy; some have withdrawn from Hillel, either to create alternate, cultural and religious campus groups or to join with other progressive Jewish students who are active in independent, social justice organizations with quite different strategies; others are remaining to work with Open Hillel for internal reform that will allow discussion and debate.
Our civil rights veterans’ tour was one element in the Open Hillel effort. The four of us share a profound respect, admiration, and love for the brave and undaunted college students and tour organizers who invited and fought for us to speak on their campuses. They are our hope and our future!
For perspectives from students at Michigan and Muhlenburg, see the print edition of our Summer 2015 issue.
Mark Levy’s photographs from Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964, formed the back-bone of our magazine’s Spring 2014 pictorial and traveling exhibit about Jewish participation in that campaign. Returning to New York from Mississippi in 1964, Levy worked first as a classroom teacher and then in the labor movement. After retiring, he has been involved in civil rights archival projects and in speaking about the movement in order to foster contemporary student activism.