Chipping Away At Israel’s Legitimacy


The insidious BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel made new inroads this week, from an American organization of university professors and a campus Hillel group. Neither action, in and of itself, is more than a symbolic annoyance. But together they underscore the growing effort of those who seek to delegitimize the Jewish state, chipping away at its very right to exist.

Academics from the American Studies Association, in choosing to boycott colleagues from the Mideast’s only democracy while ignoring gross human rights violations from all other nations, display ignorance and prejudice. And the situation at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania is particularly troubling because it comes from a Hillel group. It underscores that for all the talk about the value of a “big tent” in discussing and debating Israel, and being as inclusive as possible, it is also true that if you widen the tent too far it collapses.

In this case, the student board of Hillel at Swarthmore declared itself an “Open Hillel” last week, rejecting the international group’s guidelines for Israel activities on campus. The Swarthmore group has aligned itself with Jewish Voices for Peace, which promotes BDS. The Hillel guidelines state that campus chapters “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.”

While the Swarthmore students have every right to form their own organization and welcome anti-Zionists — as is their stated intention, along with Zionists and post-Zionists — they do not have the right to maintain their status as part of the parent Hillel group while defying its guidelines. Every organization has rules about who qualifies for membership, and Eric Fingerhut, the CEO and president of Hillel, was correct in delineating boundaries.

“Let me be very clear,” he wrote in response to the Swarthmore students. “‘Anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name, or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”

Sympathizers of the Swarthmore student action are calling the official Hillel policy “censorship,” and a sure way to alienate students seeking deeper discussion on Israeli policies. But no one is prohibiting their explorations, which are in fact encouraged. They just can’t invite those who would undo the Jewish state while under the banner of Hillel, which has every right and reason to define itself as a group that supports “a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.”

The appropriate response here is not to look for Israel’s flaws, though of course like all other nations it is imperfect. Indeed, that’s the point. Israel is a state like all others, and far more moral than most. Why, then, is it singled out, alone held to the highest standard? It is the motives of its accusers — not critics, to be clear, but those who negate its most basic rights — that should be questioned and examined. We fear we know the answer why.