Israel, Hillel, & Idolatry

Recent controversies within Hillel International, the “home” for many Jewish college students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, have made public in a sharper way a profound spiritual issue confronting American Jews and their “official” organizations.

The spiritual issue: When does strong support from many American Jews for the State of Israel and its Jewish citizens as an emergency refuge, as a creative culture, as a defender of Jewish interests, as a member of the Jewish family, become idolatry of the State?

First, the background of the Hillel controversy; then, an examination of what idolatry is:

The controversy surfaced most publicly when Swarthmore College Hillel announced they would refuse to abide by rules handed down by “Hillel International” that would limit what Jewish organizations and speakers were allowed to speak there. Hillel International then threatened to disaffiliate Swarthmore Hillel.

The debate within Hillel began in 2011 when its official managers adopted a policy that prohibited having speakers or partnering with organizations that “deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; delegitimize, demonize or apply double standards to Israel; support boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] efforts against Israel; or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

Applying these rules, Harvard Hillel refused to allow a former Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Avraham Burg, to speak at Hillel because co-sponsors of his speech included a group of pro-BDS students in the Palestinian Solidarity Committee along with J Street U and two Hillel-affiliated groups, Students for Israel and Progressive Jewish Alliance. -

Responding to this exclusion of Burg, first Harvard students and then a growing band of Jewish students across the country created “Open Hillel,” arguing for a policy of welcoming broad debate and inclusion of Jews of varied views and action about Israel as Hillel welcomes Jews of varied views and action about prayer, gender, sexuality, economic policy, political party, theology, and every other issue.

More recently, Hillel International announced it had become formal partners with AIPAC, an American lobbying group that almost always strongly supports Israeli-government policies when it meets with and encourages campaign contributions to Members of Congress.

Open Hillel raised strong concerns about the effect of Hillel’s privileging AIPAC in this way, as against other Jewish organizations that strongly differ with Israeli government policy. Open Hillel urged that instead, AIPAC continue to be treated as one voice among many in the voices Hillel encourages to speak in its venues..

Then Swarthmore Hillel proclaimed itself an “Open Hillel.”

Swarthmore Hillel’s refusal to knuckle under to Hillel International’s restrictions has put “Open Hillel” and the whole debate over what is “not allowable” to say in American Jewish life on the public agenda-- not only in the Forward & the JTA but also on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

For me, all this raises some basic questions of the Spirit.

What is idolatry? Worshipping any being – person, object, institution, community – as if it were Divine. “Carving it out” and “bowing down to it” as the Ten Commandments describe and forbid. (Exod. 20: 4). Not only “carving out” a physical object, a statue, but carving out from the One Great Flow of Life a piece that must not be criticized, not be questioned. A piece not only to be loved and honored for its usefulness and beauty, not only to be seen as a temporary aspect in service to that Unity  -- but treated as an Ultimate, Unchangeable good.

The Hillel International prohibitions make the State of Israel, and indeed only one version of it, into an idol.

 I understand the urge to do this. The Rabbis told a tale in which they searched and searched for the yetzer hara (the evil impulse) toward idolatry, hoping to destroy it. They finally found it — in the Holy of Holies!  We most easily make an idol of something that has a lot of sacredness in it.

What is the alternative to idolatry of Israel? Idolatry of any thing?

The alternative is celebration of the God Whose Name is "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Will Be Who I Will Be."  I am Becoming. Never stuck.

That was /is/ will be the God of the Burning Bush, Who called Moses to resist Pharaoh and calls us to resist all pharaohs. (Exod. 4)

There is an intrinsic connection between  Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh and freedom of work, restfulness, association, speech,  conscience, politics, culture, sexuality.

“Hillel International” as a non-governmental organization is of course in American law free to make its own prohibitions on speech and ideas  in its venues. It is also true that freedom in our society is strengthened when our “private” organizations, not only our governments, take great care and wisdom before imposing restrictions on speech. From that perspective, do we want the Jewish community to be one that strengthens or weakens the culture of freedom – internally as well as in America at large?

And there is another perspective. Free speech is not only valuable because it treats the consciences of people seriously; it is also valuable because from much debate emerges greater wisdom.

Does excluding Avram Burg make sense? Does it work for or against a vibrant Jewish people, for or against wise policies toward Israel?  Does refusing to allow a Jewish group and a pro-BDS Palestinian group to co-sponsor a Hillel program make sense? Does that exclusion help Palestinians and Jews get to hear each other and begin to shape a relationship that could seek peace and pursue it? ? (Or is the point of the prohibition precisely that such encounters are dangerous — they might lead to Mandela/De Klerk relationships!)

A personal example: I have debated publicly, against supporters of all-out BDS against Israel. As a result of those debates, people have written me that they have grown in their understanding of the flaws and dangers in such BDS. And I have grown in my own understanding as well, coming to see that a more limited and targeted boycott of products dependent on Israeli Occupation of the West Bank might be a reasonable instrument of nonviolent opposition.  The debates have led to greater wisdom.

If there is a Jewish group on campus that wants to invite speakers who support BDS, why not have the discussion in the Hillel House, signaling that we are confident that the best ideas will win the most support?

Or – let’s put it the other way around. Is the right wing treyf (unkosher)?

Should groups that encourage war with Iran be barred from Hillel because the war will be destructive to the US and Israel  -- far more destructive than BDS?

What about groups that have supported the forcible expulsion of the Negev Bedouin from their homes and villages? Should they be barred from Hillel because oppression of the Bedouin  violates democracy in Israel?

I would not exclude such groups from speaking at Hillels. I am willing to have pro-war or ultra-right-wing Israeli parties speak at Hillel, so long as they do so as only one voice among many  - - though I think their ideas are terribly dangerous to Israel and the US.

I trust that Jewish creativity and wisdom will be enhanced by open debate.

By forbidding open debate in the Hillel venue, Hillel International signals they are afraid of ideas they consider "treyf,"  and they tell young Jews at just the moment in their lives when they are searching and exploring, that the Jewish establishment doesn't want them around.

The danger is that because of its idolatry toward Israel, the Jewish establishment DOESN'T want creative, independent-minded Jews around for the next generation to create a vibrant Judaism in tune with the God Whose Name is "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" --   a Judaism that would be threatening to those same established structures.

As for me, I prefer the intense debates that make the Torah and the Talmud, the Hassidim & their opponents the Misnagdim, full of life.

So I applaud the response of Open Hillel, which instead of walking away from Jewish life in disgust, seeks to shape not only new content but a new form of college Jewish life, and is using Internet connections to do it. You can access their Website and sign their petitions at


Torah Portions: