Sunday’s NY Times reported that Hillel, the national Jewish student college organization, has formalized a new policy banning any speaker or program that challenges the State of Israel and its policies from appearing at a Hillel sponsored event. In doing so the organization is following in the steps of AIPAC, the Israel lobby group in Washington, which does not allow its representatives to appear at any program or meeting where a member of an organization that does not agree with its policies is on the agenda. And about a year ago members of Atlanta’s Jewish community tried to ban Peter Beinart from speaking at a Jewish book fair there, saying that his views on Israel were not acceptable.
I understand the impulse. We look around and see a world that is hostile to Israel, we see anti-semitism (just this morning reports of a French comedian’s anti-semitic gesture being used by French athletes), and we fall back on the old Hillel maxim (not the organization, the Talmudic sage) If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But while we are thinking about the sage Hillel lets remember that he was the bar plugta, the one who argued with, another great sage from antiquity, Shammai. Hillel and Shammai always disagreed about matters of Jewish law. If one said black, the other said white. If one said something was permitted, the other said it was forbidden. In the end, Hillel won the debate soundly, and in the over 300 disagreements between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, almost all of them were decided according to Hillel’s opinion. Yet the opinions of Shammai and his house are all recorded and preserved in the Talmud. Even though they were wrong.
This seems to me a fundamental Jewish ideal. The Talmud, which is the core document of Jewish life, is a record of debates. Page after page, disagreement after disagreement. Sometimes the debates are about trivial matters, sometimes they are about issues that would have a long lasting affect on the entire Jewish community. The point is that the Judaism we practice today, a rabbinic-Judaism, was formed through these debates, through the arguments. And the record of those arguments is complete – both the winners and the losers are present on the talmudic page, both the main stream opinions and the radical ones. That is authentic Judaism, the shakla v’taryia, the give and take, the intellectual back and forth.
To stifle debate, to close it out, or avoid it, to present only a single unified view, is just not the Jewish way. Is it easier? Yup. Is it safer? Maybe. But since when have we Jews chosen the easier way? And why should we start now? And by the way, if Hillel’s mission is to foster authentic and meaningful Jewish life on campus, how can they do that when they are not operating in an authentically Jewish way?
So I say kudos to the Swarthmore Hillel. They recently declared themselves an ‘open Hillel,’ and have stated they will not abide by the new national Hillel guidelines. By doing so they have reminded us all not only of the importance of free speech in our country, but also of the role that open debate and discussion should always have in Jewish life.