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The Problem With Hillel

“But they’re still our brothers even if we disagree,” said a representative of Barnard Columbia Hillel, in response to the ostracism and public smear campaign against a Columbia student who called Jewish Voice for Peace “Kapos.” She went on to tell me that JVP deserves a voice, and that, though she disagrees with them vehemently, they have an important message and should not be censored.

Her comment to me alone represents how utterly disconnected diaspora Jews, specifically Americans, are from the situation in Israel. While to some the issue of Israel’s existence is a matter “deserving of debate,” (while other countries’ existences are not), to the people in Israel, their entire livelihoods, the lives they built for themselves from nothing, are at stake.

But we Jews continue to engage in such “lively” discourse that we sabotage ourselves in the end. In the end we have antisemites, which is what JVP actually are, despite being Jews. The ideology of the organization supports ethnic cleansing of 6 million Jewish people, which will inevitably happen when any random Arab who calls himself “Palestinian” is allowed to “return.” Not all JVP members are smart enough to realize that. Many are just in it to follow the Israel-hating trend among left-leaning folks, others to give them “Social Justice Cred.” but a similar analogy to giving JVP any legitimacy as a Jewish organization would be like the Jewish Federation of Germany allowing a “Jews for Hitler” group admission under the tent under the guise of “allowing diverse opinions.”

Yes, I compared JVP to Jewish supporters of the Nazi party, because they want the same thing: the ethnic cleansing of 6 million Jews, even if they don’t know that what they want leads to that.

Yes, some JVP members are naive enough to believe that when the country is flooded with Arabs who “return” to a land they barely touched, described by Mark Twain as “barren desert,” that everyone will suddenly join hands and sing kumbaya.

But yes, there were some Jewish Nazi supporters who couldn’t believe Hitler actually wanted to kill Jews, and genuinely felt Hitler was what Germany needed to restore its national pride and fix the economy.

It’s the same sheltered naivety.

So yes, comparing JVP to the Nazis is a pretty apt analogy, even if many if not most of them don’t quite understand exactly what they are supporting.

Hillel-LogoThis incident with Hillel apologizing to JVP and humiliating a pro-Israel student because she called JVP, a group most Jews see as the enemy of the Jewish People and Israel, “kapos,” a term that, well, is an insult to kapos – because the kapos didn’t have a choice – is indicative of a larger problem, a virus that has infected many campuses in the Hillel system.

Many people have responded to some of my posts on the matter with the following comments, in bold. In this post, I will address all these comments. While many of them are very valid and I’m glad you brought them up – I even actually agree in part with many of them – I need to set the record straight:

1. Hillel knows exactly what it is doing, it knows Columbia is a very leftist campus and is doing what it could to lure leftists so they could love their Judaism and eventually, love Israel, as an extension of that.

I don’t disagree with this statement as a whole. However, I don’t see any evidence of this in action. In the discussion series, Israel and You, I see facilitators call themselves “Zionist in ideal, not in place,” I see them bash Israel incessantly with the odd, very unconvincing “but I still love Israel!” disclaimer peppered in there every once in a while.

I’m not going to lie, I came out of there wondering what there is to love about Israel, since all I heard was complaining, as well as about huge injustices that later, upon reading, found out are more lies, exaggerations, and propaganda against us. And now they are being spread and condoned from within.

I’m all for your method though, and do not oppose the Israel and You discussions, per se. I just think having more Zionist facilitators would be beneficial, because otherwise it defeats the whole concept of “coming to Israel through your Judaism”. (Funny enough, I came to my Judaism through my love of Israel and learning that it is inherently just).

Another thing – don’t say you want to get students to love Israel through their Judaism and then host groups like Breaking the Silence that all but erase that love. And no, just saying “I love Israel, but here are ten zillion horrible things about it” is not going to get people to love Israel. Actions speak louder than words. As often as Avner Gvaryahu loved to wax poetic about how he loves Israel and wants to raise his children there, he did not provide any reason to love Israel in his talk. It was an Israel-bashing fest in its entirety. Just like J Street.

Allowing groups like J Street (the gateway drug to antizionism, Simone Zimmerman is a prime example of this, she got her start through J Street) and JVP to poison Jewish minds against Israel does not “bring students closer to Israel through their Judaism,” it does the opposite – it creates a generation of “asajew” Jews who use their Judaism and “Jewish Values” to validate the antisemitic idea that Israel should not exist.

2. Gan Eden advocacy doesn’t work, in fact, it turns people off, and leads them to get sucked into anti-Israel organizations in their desperate search of nuance.

I totally agree with this statement. Gan Eden advocacy, as I call it, is the type that makes Israel look like an unrealistic Gan Eden, a method smart and critical thinking students often see right through.

I believe it is important to give students an accurate portrayal of Israel, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

That being said, I recognize that there is a fine line between nuance and downright promoting hatred and shame over the world’s only Jewish state.

There seems to be a trend among young American Jews to act ashamed of the State of Israel. The popularity of J Street seems to bolster that idea.

When we do criticize Israel, we should keep it balanced. We must include the context as to why such actions are being taken, and make it clear that Israel isn’t just doing these awful things for fun – it’s because the Israeli government determined it’s the least shitty alternative, and might be what must be done to preserve the Jewish state.

What bothers me about some people who criticize Israel is that they take these criticisms in isolation, making Israel look awful when it is just doing what it must in order to survive, or choosing the less shitty option. Sometimes there are threats that are hidden, one domino topples and you lose the whole structure. We cannot afford to lose even once, so we err on the side of caution. And sometimes, extreme caution is not pretty. Criticizing Israel without context in front of American college students who are completely removed from the situation is wrong, and is raising a generation of students who hate Israel, who are ashamed by it. It is okay to criticize Israel but not okay to do so without context. For example – yeah there is racism and bias against Arabs in Israel, but how is that surprising given the frequency of exploding buses and knifing attacks carried out by Arabs? Israeli culture has a collective PTSD, for good reason, and are therefore wary of Palestinians and Arabs given that Palestinian media is constantly trying to incite people to this type of violence. Racism is wrong no matter what, but it is somewhat more understandable in Israel than it is, say, in the USA, as the situations are totally different. Taking it out of context is dangerous, and makes Israel look bad for no reason. Remember, Israelis are still human, expecting them to all be perfect angels when many have lost relatives and even body parts to Palestinian terror is simply unreasonable. Groups like Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, etc. seem bent on only criticizing Israel without context and therefore constantly cross that line.

3. J Street only criticizes Israel because Aryeh [the other pro-Israel student group at Columbia] doesn’t, so J Street complements Aryeh

I don’t know about you but I tend to leave J Street lectures angry at Israel, wondering “what is there to like?” They can claim they love Israel all they want but it’s never convincing because all they do is criticize. At the StandWithUs conference in LA last week, Alan Dershowitz himself said that he never once read a single item of a J Street press release that was positive about Israel. Keeping things realistic about Israel is fine, but J Street does not keep things realistic – it focuses on the negative while totally ignoring the positive. Therefore, many students who (inaccurately) dismiss Aryeh as “right-wing” and only attend J Street talks never get to hear anything good about Israel, and only hear bad things. Does this give anyone a reason to love Israel? Absolutely not!

4. Breaking the silence doesn’t outright support BDS or Israel’s ceased existence, so it is perfectly okay for Jewish audiences. It just wants to make the army better.

Let me see. So Breaking the Silence

  • Extorts and sells Israel’s classified information.
  • Only says bad stuff about Israel
  • Spreads lies about the IDF.
  • Gets paid by foreign NGOs and governments only to furnish bad things about Israel
  • Implies that they believe Israel is an apartheid state
  • is hated by at least 90% of Israelis
  • Is banned by the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Education (it is skirting the latter ban and bragging about it).
  • Believe smearing Israel to the world is what must be done to “end the occupation.”

How will the constant negativity spewed by groups such as Breaking the Silence help bring students closer to Israel? It won’t. In fact, it will lead them to support anti-Israel causes, because when Hillel is promoting (by hosting) Jews that spew the same lines as hate groups like SJP and JVP, those groups suddenly are handed a ton of credibility.

If Breaking the Silence really wanted to make the army better and end the occupation, it would work within the appropriate channels rather than make money off of smearing Israel to the world. The IDF has extended a hand and an olive branch in case they want to cooperate to actually make the army better, but Breaking the Silence refuses to engage.

5. Don’t bash the entire Hillel organization due to the acts of only one Hillel! The groups are autonomous.

I make it a point not to bash the entire organization. Every Hillel is indeed different, and some are more effective than others. That being said, it is obvious there is a problem at the top that needs to be addressed. A weakness of leadership, alliances between key Hillel leadership figures and radical left-wing organizations, is definitely widely known about Hillel among pro-Israel pundits. Hillels are also often tied to federations, which too have been infiltrated by the radical left and have been known to fund anti-Israel groups such as the New Israel Fund.

The same party lines they parrot – “stay quiet because then the other side won’t react,” “those people [aka pro-Israel activists who are loud and do stuff] are extremist radicals!! Let’s smear and ostracize them so that they go away!” “You’re being divisive instead of uniting” (ironic because they smear and ostracize pro-Israel students who lean a bit more to the right instead of welcoming them into the tent and explaining where they are wrong or what their disagreements are). They are being completely counter-productive and making anyone who is proactive and isn’t a J-Street leftist feel extremely alienated.

The above statement is a distracter. So what if it’s not like all Hillels? It doesn’t discount the fact that Columbia-Barnard Hillel, among many others, needs a makeover! Even before I started speaking out as pro-Israel and engaging in SSI, I and many of my friends found this Hillel extremely unfriendly, cold, cliquish, unwelcoming, and snobby. I have never felt welcome at Hillel, even when I came on Rosh Hashanah with my roommate and nobody ever said hi to us the entire time, and the Rabbi (Karen) just ignored us.

Moreover, as a pro-Israel campus leader, I heard so many stories told to me in confidence about other Hillels engaging in the same kind of anti-Israel activities and abuse, the same kind of hostility to new ideas and more pro-active or “loud” pro-Israel groups. I cannot name names as I was sworn to secrecy but the truth will come out eventually, I am sure.

Moreover, I have only had negative experiences with Hillel. I felt ostracized by Hillel McGill when I was a student there, and nobody would even tell me why. I wondered if it was just my own paranoia, but it was not. A good friend of mine repeated to me, also in confidence, that a high-up executive of Hillel Montreal told him to steer clear of me, because I’m “bad news.” I had never met the person who told my friend that in my entire life, nor have I even had much interaction with Hillel Montreal after I initially felt unwelcome, I didn’t interact with them again, nor did I spread anything bad about them anywhere before my friend told me what he heard.

However, it could have been to quell opposition to them. I did express opposition to the cancellation of my friend’s talk at Hillel, midnight on the day the talk was supposed to take place, pressure from anti-Israel students. Yes, Hillel Montreal gave into pressure from anti-Israel students, a testament to their weakness and aversion to controversy. “Controversy, no matter why, reduces donations,” a source close to Hillel Montreal had informed me, “at the end of the day, the executive director of Hillel has a master’s degree in fundraising, that’s all he cares about.” The fact that they would appoint a man with these kinds of credentials is very telling, it is evidence that at its core, Hillel is a corporation.

But not all Hillels are like that. That being said, I’ve had personal interactions with two different Hillels during my time as a student, both of which had been toxic. However, I cannot speak for any changes that may have taken place at Hillel Montreal with regards to Israel advocacy that took place after I graduated in 2013, and I definitely feel they did a great job at combating BDS the three times in eighteen it was presented.

6. The other side is often provoked to act by seeing pro-Israel displays, so just don’t go there, and they’ll quiet down / Don’t be reactive, be pro-active! Otherwise you’re on the defense!

So you’re saying we just shouldn’t do anything….

7. Obnoxiously pro-Israel Hillels turn left-leaning students off…

Maybe, but that’s no reason to eliminate Israel programming altogether from your agenda, or bring in anti-Israel groups like Breaking the Silence. We need programming that meets leftist students halfway, eventually making them able to defend Israel, as there are many reasons why leftists should support Israel. J Street doesn’t even come close to doing that, they are all negative all the time, they’re basically a JVP that calls itself “pro-Israel.” Hillel needs to be a home for all students, right as well as left. I’m all for giving students the freedom to create their own programs, but the extremes – doing absolutely nothing and bringing in anti-Israel organizations – will not help our cause at all. Instead we must show leftist students why supporting Israel is a leftist cause.

If your goal is to bring students closer to Israel through their Judaism, and avoiding advocacy so as not to alienate left-leaning students, stop lying to donors that you support unapologetic advocacy and pride on campus when you don’t. And no, the ends don’t justify the means, as shying away from pro-Israel advocacy won’t magically bring left-wing Jews closer to Israel. And stop trying to snuff out strong pro-Israel efforts that occur externally to Hillel as a natural consequence of Hillel’s weakness and inaction, for fear that we will get some of your donations. That’s selfish, and a sign that you only care about donations, not Israel.

Trying to please everyone will please no one.

So obviously I’m not bashing all Hillels everywhere, but the organization clearly needs a facelift.

8. But Hillel does so much good work, despite its issues, if it didn’t exist so many students would be without a Jewish home on campus, and that’s a lot worse, so don’t bash it please.

I understand that, and even somewhat agree. However, I believe we must either reform Hillel or provide students with an alternative. Otherwise, the weakening of the affinity of Jewish students to Israel, which is ongoing and a direct result of Hillel’s incompetence as a “pro-Israel organization” on many key campuses that are responsible for providing America and Canada with most of their leaders, among other factors, will persist and destroy diaspora Jewry, and weaken the Jewish support for Israel across the country, including through the legislature.

Hillel does some great things, that’s for sure. Some Hillel campuses remain steadfastly pro-Israel, such as Cornell, UMinnesota, and many of the Southern chapters, and for that, I applaud them for being so resolute in the face of so much pressure. I also say that this article does not apply to them. I also say that Hillel contributes invaluably to Jewish life, outside of advocacy, in a very tangible way. It hosts great Shabbat dinners, necessary holiday synagogue services, and even hosted a musical theatre production I took part in and wholeheartedly enjoyed. That being said, shying away from Israel might be the most industrious thing to do, the most trendy thing to do, but not the right thing to do.

And for that, sadly, the Jews will lose.

About the author

Picture of Lex


Lex is a trained comedy actor who is Montreal's second-favourite export aside from poutine.
Picture of Lex


Lex is a trained comedy actor who is Montreal's second-favourite export aside from poutine.
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