A Look Inside Hillel’s Boundaries


Several incidents, seemingly centered on Israel, sparked nationwide reactions from academic institutions and Hillels in recent days. I would argue, though, that they have much less to do with Israel than we might think.

First, dozens of university presidents and provosts around the country rejected the boycott of Israeli academic institutions recently adopted by the American Studies Association. In response, they pointed to the importance of free speech and free academic exchange.

Second, at the University of Michigan, an anti-Israel student group placed fake eviction notices under the doors in residence halls to send a message about Palestinian evictions. The university’s Department of Housing, in whose name these “eviction notices” were falsely distributed, noted the group was “in violation of Housing’s solicitation policy” and apologized immediately to its residents.

Lastly, in response to Swarthmore College Hillel’s resolution to “open Hillel” to anti-Zionist speakers, Eric Fingerhut, the president and CEO of Hillel International, re-asserted Hillel’s Israel guidelines by welcoming “a diversity of student perspectives on Israel”, while drawing the line at activism that delegitimizes Israel, denies it the right to exist, or imposes boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

The responses of these leaders reveal that our focus should not be on Israel, but on the freedom of academic exchange, freedom to pursue one’s mission, and freedom to set institutional boundaries.

These incidents challenged Hillels and university administrators to consider and define appropriate boundaries for discourse, scholarship and advocacy among the student body. While some may perceive these responses as limiting speech or activism, I believe they offer the broadest possible invitation for exchange and dialogue within our institutional boundaries. University presidents called for academic freedom and global relationships. The Department of Housing called for civil discourse and dialogue. And Hillel called for diversity, pluralism, and civility. To focus on what is outside of our parameters alone is to ignore the broad expanse of what is supported inside our institutions.

Every institution has the right to pursue its mission and establish its boundaries. I agree with the Hillel guidelines that we should not host an event that calls for the destruction of Israel, such as those furthered by the BDS movement. Further, I think we also need to consider the limits to activism on the right, and oppose our institutions being used by both extremes. While some have criticized Hillel for setting limits, I can think of no other Jewish institution with as broad a mission, as diverse a community, and as strong a desire to pursue civil discourse and address challenging topics as Hillel. 

A recent defense of Hillel International’s stance applauded its “censorship” and suggested “anti-Zionists” should not be invited to dinner. But this response reflects neither our Hillel values, nor what happens in many Hillels. As a Hillel director I find it profoundly troubling that Hillel’s mission is being misconstrued, by both defenders and attackers, to be bound up with censorship and exclusion.

Shabbat dinner is just one way in which Hillels across the country welcome the diversity of students into their doors. It should not be surprising that we absolutely should be inviting all students into Hillel’s safe spaces, like Shabbat, to engage in difficult topics.

We believe every student has a place at our table for the following reasons:

What are these labels?

Where is the line drawn among an anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, and non-Zionist? As with most efforts to categorize people, the reality is more complex than the labels might suggest. Yes, there are anti-Zionists on campus, but most of the students who I meet who appear to reject Zionism are supportive of Israel in some form. They just don’t associate with the word Zionism because they think the label lumps them in with policies with which they may not fully agree. Plus, millennials don’t like labels. That’s not about Israel. That’s about exploring one’s identity in college. It’s only through engaging in a conversation in a safe space (like dinner) that we can learn their thoughts and feelings about Israel.

Who is labeling?

We host up to 600 students for Shabbat dinner. No one is checking Zionist credentials at the door. Moreover, the student who someone labeled “anti-Zionist” because of something on his Facebook wall or something she said in class, is probably not an anti-Zionist. So yes, invite her to dinner so that she too can feel welcome in her Jewish community.

It’s dinner, not divestment.

Yes, there are students we have welcomed to Shabbat dinner who we know are anti-Zionist. They are left-leaning anti-Israel students (Jewish and non-Jewish) who grew to trust us through our relationships, came to Shabbat, and felt welcomed by their Jewish community for the first time. They leave their activism at the door, and eat with our students, talk, laugh, and share. They pass by two Israeli flags on their way to our dining hall. They hear announcements about celebrating Israel’s independence. It is not easy for them. It’s not easy for our students who have debated them in classrooms. But in these spaces where activism can be left outside, we can have dinner as a community and talk.

I agree with Eric Fingerhut when he writes, “Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner.” I also agree with him that we must be “for ourselves” first in putting forward our Hillel mission. We have a proactive Israel agenda that we are proud of pursuing on campus. But after we are for ourselves, we must remember the second line of Hillel’s famous quote, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Together with our student leadership, we need to create spaces where students can deepen their relationship with Israel, love Israel, and advocate for Israel. But our students will hardly become effective advocates or understand and love Israel’s complexity if they only advocate, talk, and listen to themselves. We must continue to build confidence and trust among our student body to be a home for discourse and dialogue that meaningfully engages students in complex and challenging ideas.

Because if not at Hillel, then where?

Tilly R. Shames is the executive director of University of Michigan Hillel in Ann Arbor, MI.