WHEN OPEN HILLELS WEAR THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES

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“But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” said a little child.

“Listen to the voice of innocence!” exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another.

“But he has nothing at all on!” at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.

-Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837)

 

In the Emperor’s New Clothes, two swindlers posing as weavers convince a king they possess a wondrous fabric visible only to the worthy and wise; those of lesser intelligence and discernment, however, are quite incapable of seeing anything.  Of course, when the con men complete the “garment,” neither the king nor his counselors are willing to admit their inability to see what in fact is not there . . . lest they become objects of ridicule at their stupidity.  Similarly, when the king “dons” his marvelous new raiment and parades before his subjects, the latter make sure to “ooh and ahh” over their ruler’s new clothing for the same reason.  It is only a child, utterly lacking in concern about what others might think, who reveals the truth that everyone knows, yet dares not utter.

As such, The Emperor’s New Clothes is an example of what academician Jens Ulrik Hansen calls “pluralistic ignorance.” Writes Hansen, “No one believes the emperor has clothing on, but everyone believes that everyone else believes. Or alternatively, everyone is ignorant to whether the emperor has clothes on or not, but believes that everyone else is not ignorant.”

In our time we encounter Andersen’s tale in a need to pay obeisance to political correctness at the expense of fact.  Indeed, there are some more than ready to sacrifice truth for the so-called free exchange of ideas in which all assertions are equal simply because they exist.  Yet whether on the left or the right, those who are honest enough to care — or care enough to be honest — will stand up for what is true,  inconvenient, nuanced and complex though that may be.

In the past several months there has been a brouhaha at Hillels on campuses around the country. As reported in the national and Jewish news media, a number of Hillels have cancelled speakers deemed hostile to Israel.  The Hillel at the University of California at Santa Barbara prevented David Harris-Gershon, a Jewish day school teacher whose wife was injured in a terrorist bombing during the two-year period they lived in Israel, from speaking on campus. Harris-Gershon, author of What Do You Buy The Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, has publicly expressed acceptance of BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanction) initiatives to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In another case, this time at Harvard University, the presenter was not at issue — Avraham Burg, a onetime Speaker of the Knesset and former chairperson of the Jewish Agency — but the co-sponsorship of the event by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, an organization seeking not only the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, but the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state as well. Meanwhile, at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, the student leadership has thrown down the gauntlet to Hillel International by declaring themselves an “Open Hillel,” not bound by organizational guidelines regarding acceptable programming about Israel.

A careful reading of Hillel’s organizational guidelines reveals a balanced approach, one sensitive to the fact that there are legitimate differences of opinion in the Jewish community regarding Israel:

Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluuralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensable partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.

Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. 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

The guidelines are fair:  they ensure a place for individual students to say what they think, no matter how controversial, while insisting that Hillel’s name, its “brand” if you will, not be sullied by relationships with groups and causes inimical to its values as an organization.  Yes, given the autonomy of each campus group, there have been some Hillels that have interpreted these guidelines with excessive stringency by prohibiting any criticism of Israeli policy.  Such decisions have not only violated the pluralistic spirit of the guidelines, they have been unwise and counterproductive.

One can love Israel deeply and still be critical of Israeli policy.  The cry of “Love it or Leave It” is not the clarion call of the patriot, but the intolerant shouting of those who wish to drown out all other voices but their own.  From the writings of Amos Oz, David Grossman and Ari Shavit to the work of Peace Now and the initiatives of J-Street, there are many who believe that the ongoing occupation of the West Bank endangers Israel’s soul and her future as a state that wishes to be both Jewish and democratic.  Should Israel continue to hold on to and build settlements in the West Bank, in just a few years there will be more Arabs than Jews in the country, the former living under Israeli rule  without the rights and benefits of citizenship.  This is not an opinion, but a cold demographic reality that scares many of us who love our ancestral homeland deeply.  Nothing in Hillel’s guidelines regarding Israel campus activities would prohibit searching conversation about this issue or about how U.S. diplomacy might best help Israel remain a Jewish and Democratic state by confronting this dilemma now instead of kicking the can down the road.  As Mark Twain once said, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.”  This is the hallmark of any vibrant healthy relationship, whether between spouses, parents and children, or for that matter, members of the Jewish people.  A love that is too brittle and frail to withstand differences of perspective is no love at all.

Yet for those who belong to the “Open Hillel” movement this is insufficient.  They claim a place at the Hillel table not only for those who are critical of Israel because they love her, but also for those who deny her right to exist as a Jewish homeland.  In making this claim, they implicitly understand that freedom of speech is insufficient  justification– after all, these young Jews  know that the free exchange of ideas could easily be used to justify inviting Neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers to speak at their Hillels, which, to their credit, they aren’t about to do.

It is precisely at this instant that members of the Open Hillel movement don the Emperor’s new clothes, by insisting that anti-Zionism isn’t the same as anti-Semitism.  As the Open Hillel folks explain:

Open Hillel does not advocate for any particular political view, but we recognize that there are many young Jews who believe that their Jewish values bring them to criticize Israeli policies, or find boycotts to be an effective non-violent tool for achieving social change, or believe that there should be no Jewish state until the messiah comes, or oppose the idea of ethnic nation-states altogether. Although some of these views may be non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, none of them are anti-Semitic, and Jewish students who want to discuss and hold events about these ideas in a Jewish context should be welcome to do so.

For the Jews of “Open Hillel,” then, criticism of specific Israeli policies is no better or worse than a denial of Israel’s right to exist, which is delicately expressed as “those who oppose the idea of ethnic nation-states altogether” (parenthetically, being Jewish is neither an ethnicity nor a race, but that’s for another day).

Yet anyone even superficially familiar with Judaism knows that Israel as a Jewish homeland has always been deeply embedded in Jewish liturgy, ritual, text and practice. From a Grace after Meals composed in antiquity, which asks God to “Rebuild Jerusalem, the Holy City, soon in our days” to the daily Amidah prayer, written 2000 ago, which pleads for “our exiles be gathered into Israel from the four corners of the earth”; from a religion that observes Tisha b’Av, a major fast commemorating the Temple’s destruction, to the chanting of the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the end of the Passover seder and at the climax of Yom Kippur; from a Sacred Scripture that mentions “Zion” 154 times and “Jerusalem” 667 times to the Midrash, which teaches: “ The Holy One said to Moses, ‘The Land is precious to Me, and Israel are precious to Me. I shall bring Israel who are precious to Me into the Land that is precious to Me’” (Numbers Rabbah 23:7), it is categorically impossible to speak of Judaism without acknowledging the centripetal force exerted by the Land of Israel for Jews throughout the Diaspora over the course of more than 2,000 years.

Accordingly, many centuries before Zionism became a political movement, normative Jewish belief held that Jews would never forfeit their claim to the Land of Israel, no matter how long their exile.  Admittedly, the Reform movement of the 19th century attempted to redefine Jewish identity as a matter of conscience only rather than as membership in a people with a sense of collective national destiny, but the effort was a failure, eventually repudiated by Reform Judaism itself.  As for the Neturei Karta, the fanatical ultra-Orthodox minority that rejects the modern State of Israel as nothing less than blasphemy, their theology is certainly religiously Zionist.  They differ from the mainstream only in their insistence that no one less than the Messiah can transform Israel into a Jewish kingdom ruled by a descendant of David, and in their total rejection of anything but a theocratic Jewish government in the land.

The assertion that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitic is a mantra employed by Jew-hating circles that seek political cover and respectability.  It is found in the virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric espoused by Iran’s rulers and in the depictions of Zionists in Arab newspapers with hooked noses and dollar signs on their clothing.  It is seen on white supremacist websites and in the literature of skinhead groups that  talk of the worldwide conspiracies of the Zionist Occupation Government, using descriptive terms right out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a favorite work of the anti-Semite.  Tellingly, when Martin Luther King Jr. heard a young Black nationalist spout anti-Zionist rhetoric at civil rights event in Cambridge, Massachusetts more than forty years ago, he sharply replied, “”Don’t talk like that. When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism” (For more on Dr. King’s attitude toward Israel, see Richard Kazarian and Robert G. Weisbord, Israel in the Black American Perspective).  That some Jews may themselves espouse such sentiment doesn’t cleanse it from the virus of bigotry; self-hatred is no less a form of prejudice than any other.

If anti-Zionism of necessity repudiates a core value of Jewish teaching, ritual, belief and history regarding the relationship of Jews to Land of Israel . . . if it’s rhetoric is most frequently cloaked in anti-Semitic imagery by those who truly hate Jews . . . at what point do we acknowledge its malice and mendacity?

Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism . . . except for those who insist on wearing the Emperor’s new clothes.

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