Who is Boycotting Whom? National Hillel Guidelines, Dissent, and Legitimate Protest

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January 10, 2014

Boycott as Legitimate Form of Nonviolent Protest

Swarthmore Hillel’s decision to thwart the National Hillel guidelines on Israel that exclude Hillel’s sponsorship of individuals considered “anti-Israel” or “anti-Zionist” (these slippery terms are not adequately defined) has become an important moment in American Jewry’s continued struggle to come to terms with its own identity when it comes to Israel. Some of this revolves around the growing BDS movement, given new life by the recent American Studies Association decision to boycott Israeli universities and the upcoming discussion on the same topic in the Modern Languages Association conference later this month.

Of course, it is not all about boycotts, but more generally the issue of boycotts has become a test-case for Hillel’s commitment to pluralism and its intended goal of serving as a “Jewish home” on college campuses for Jews, whatever their belief, practice, or affiliation. For the most part Hillel has been exemplary in this regard, sponsoring events for all religious denominations, for secular humanists, atheists, and totally unaffiliated Jews. But as we have seen, Israel is a different story.

From what has thus far appeared in print, discussion of this topic has largely avoided a few basic issues. First, terms of the debate are rarely defined. Second, the concept of “boycott” as a form of protest is never explored outside the parameters of the issue at hand. Finally, there has not been a well-crafted reason offered to limit pluralism when it comes to this issue while honoring it elsewhere. This is not to say an argument can’t be made, it is only to say that it hasn’t.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definition of “boycott”:

Withdrawal from social or commercial interaction or cooperation with a group, nation, person, etc., intended as a protest or punishment. Now usually as a count noun: an instance of this; (also) a refusal to buy certain goods or participate in a particular event, as a form of protest or punishment.

Let me add that boycotts are mostly — and surely in our case — a nonviolent form of protest. People endorse boycotts when they believe a group or country is acting in a manner that is unacceptable and has not yielded to any other pressure to cease from such behavior. One could look at the decision to boycott apartheid South Africa as an example and, as we know, the US boycott greatly contributed to the demise of apartheid.

There is also an important distinction to be made between supporting a boycott and supporting the right to boycott. One can, for whatever reason, not support a particular boycott and yet still support the right of individuals to boycott in order to exercise their right of nonviolent protest. That is, to support the notion that a boycott, any boycott, be part of a conversation, that supporters of a boycott should have a seat at the table, in this case, the Jewish table.

Objections to this have been rehearsed again and again. First, the boycott of Israel, in any form, is a double standard. This is true. And yet, as Peter Beinart recently noted in Open Zion, all boycotts are double standards. South Africa was not the only country guilty of human rights abuses in the 1980s when the US supported a boycott. The same with Cuba.

Groups choose to boycott for all kinds of reasons. I assume anti-Semites would support a boycott of Israel. But that surely doesn’t mean all who do so are anti-Semites. Some may be Jews (or non-Jews) who feel deeply invested in Israel’s human rights abuses and feel this form of nonviolent protest is the only, or best, option, for them to have an impact on a situation that matters dearly to them. One can certainly disagree with that. But why is that point of view excluded by definition? To say that supporting a boycott of Israel, or supporting the right to boycott Israel, is aiding and abetting anti-Semites is nonsense. I protested the Vietnam War even though anarchists also protested the war. Was I aiding and abetting anarchism because I protested the same issue? Many supporters of an Israel boycott do not deny the right of Israel to exist; they protest Israel existing as an occupying power and illegally settling civilians in occupied territory. I do not think it is too difficult to distinguish between those who deny Israel’s right to exist and those who protest Israel’s present state of existence.

Hillel’s guidelines excluding those voices is, in effect, waging a kind of boycott, that is, it is “withdrawing interaction with a group or person as a form of protest or punishment.” I support Hillel’s right to make that decision. And I support the Open Hillel movement’s right to contest it. I simply want to make the point that Hillel’s choice to exclude those who do not meet the bar of Israel “support” are essentially engaged in a boycott of their own. On a personal note: I have been teaching at Indiana University/Bloomington for nine years. I have published many topical essays expressing my criticism of Israeli policies regarding the occupation. I teach Jewish Studies and many of my students are members of the IU Hillel, yet I have never once been invited to speak there. I respect IU Hillel’s right not to invite me, but I also suggest that this choice is a kind of boycott. Hillel’s choice to boycott me and others like me is a legitimate form of nonviolent protest, just as the support of a boycott of Israel (or supporting the right to boycott) is a legitimate form of nonviolent protest whether or not you agree with its use in this case.

An Analysis: Hillel’s Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities

National Hillel has guidelines for campus Israel activities. Interestingly, as Aryeh Cohen recently pointed out in his blog Justice in the City, they do not, as far as we know, have guidelines regarding “ethical commitments … along the lines of ‘Hillel does not accept donations from anybody who has not been faithfully honest in their business, who has not done their utmost to ensure that they were just to their workers.”

In any event, the guidelines are more ambiguous than clear. For example:

Hillel desires that students are able to articulate why Israel plays an important role in their personal Jewish identities…

Why is that a “desire”? What if some Jews don’t think Israel plays an important role in their Jewish identity? What if they simply don’t care about Israel at all, or are angry that Israel acts in ways they think are immoral in the name of the Jewish people. That is, the assumption here is manipulative, perhaps even coercive.

Hillel, the guidelines say, “advocates for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state in peace and security.”

This, of course, repeats what is the most vexing and most hotly debated line in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Some, even in Israel, think this line is self-contradictory. Most do not but admit it is surely a complex issue. Others claim that this is the aspiration, but the continued occupation makes it such that Israel is not presently a democratic state, at least not as democracy is conventionally defined. Arab Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi was once asked if he thought Israel was a Jewish and democratic state. “Yes,” he said, “If you’re a Jew it is a democratic state, and if you’re an Arab it is a Jewish state.” Does this mean, then, that if an invited speaker at Hillel would argue that the occupation creates a situation where Israel isn’t really a democratic state, he or she would be excluded? Why can’t this be a topic for legitimate conversation?

Hillel will not sponsor or partner with any person or group “that denies Israel’s right to exist as a state with secure and recognized borders.” This statement is quite vague. Who determines “secure” borders? Prime Minister Netanyahu claims 1967 borders are not secure. One of his ministers recently called them “Auschwitz borders,” echoing a comment made by Abba Eban in the 1970s. It seems the consensus in the present Israeli government is that 1967 lines are not secure borders. Would this then suggest that that if an invited speaker at Hillel would argue that a Palestinian State should be established according to the 1967 lines he or she would be excluded?

Hillel will not sponsor or partner with any person or group that “applies a double standard to Israel.” This can be taken to apply to any criticism of Israel, as any criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians under its military rule can be accused of being a double standard. What about China? What about Russia? What about North Korea? All critique is open to the accusation of a double standard. Thus Hillel can be viewed here as silencing any critique of Israel that does not also include a critique of all other counties that are guilty of human rights abuses. But Hillel is supposed to be the “Jewish home” for Jewish students on campus, not a human rights organization. Thus the fact that Israel’s human rights abuses matter more inside Hillel than North Korea is understandable.

Finally, Hillel will not sponsor or partner with any person or group that “supports boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.” Does this include boycotting products manufactured in the settlements? Unclear. Does it include supporting the right to boycott while not supporting the boycott itself? Unclear.

Regarding the question of the Jewish mainstream, I think Hillel is disingenuous. Hillel would likely exclude Jewish Voice for Peace (which supports the boycott), for example, but would likely invite representatives from Yesha (the settlement movement) to speak to its students. Yesha does not support a two-state solution nor does it support Israel as a “democratic state,” if by that we mean full rights to all those living between the Jordon River and the Sea. Many in Yesha support “limited autonomy” for Palestinians under a permanent occupation or full annexation of the West Bank without granting full democratic rights to its inhabitants. Why are they not excluded? Some years ago, the Hillel where I teach invited Effie Eitam to speak. Eitam is one of the more radical voices in the settler movement who is diametrically opposed to a two-state solution. I don’t recall any protest from the National Hillel.

In short, the Hillel guidelines are not about fostering an open discussion about Israel but rather, as it states, to train “students [to be] able to articulate why Israel plays an important role in their personal Jewish identities. But this arguably assumes too much to be considered pluralistic.

In fact, given the plethora of opinions among college-age Jewish students (e.g. J-Street U or Jewish Voice for Peace), these guidelines can be interpreted as a kind of boycott, and Hillel can be viewed as a training ground for Israel advocacy on campus as opposed to a “Jewish home” where the students decide the terms of the debate. By excluding the “boycotters” or those whose criticisms question the very parameters of “secure borders,” “democracy,” or the right to criticize Israel while not also including all other counties worthy of critique (i.e. a double standard), Hillel is essentially engaged in the very thing it deplores: a boycott, defined as, “[withdrawing] from social interaction or cooperation with a group, nation, person, etc., intended as a protest or punishment.”

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington. His most recent book is *American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Indiana university Press, 2013). His forthcoming book is Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism (Stanford University Press).*

Editor’s Note: Don’t miss New Voices editor Derek M. Kwait’s sheds new light on issue, looking at how Swathmore Hillel’s independent funding enabled its student board to directly challenge the status quo of National Hillel’s guidelines. This episode, he writes, marks a missed opportunity to “show students Hillel really can be a place for open debate, that dialogue is a more constructive means of communication than counter-protests and, most importantly, that Hillel understands that limiting conversation on Israel is dangerous to serious engagement with Israel in 2014.” Read the full editorial, “Four Things You Don’t Know About the Swarthmore Hillel Controversy,” at New Voices, the nation’s only magazine written and published by and for Jewish college students.

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