Touching the third rail of American Jewish life

Well, here I go.

There are not a lot of “safe spaces” in American Jewish life to talk about Israel. If that seems like a ridiculous statement, I invite you to take a look at what’s happening at Hillel.

If there is any single facet of my time as a student–at all education levels–that most cemented my Jewish identity, it was my (initially grudging) involvement in Hillel programs at my undergraduate school–including AIPAC programming that I happily participated in. And so it pains me to see this article, and others, about what’s going on at Hillels and other Jewish student organizations with respect to talking about Israel.

(The links to related articles here are placed not because I do or do not agree with any specific position advanced by the authors, but merely for background in the debate.)

I’m not going to speak to the merits of any side in the Israel debates. I have my own views. I view Israel issues in the same way that plenty of American Jews and Israelis do–with nuance. I don’t have answers to the problems. And I don’t begrudge a private organization wanting to control its money, its message, and its membership; that is, after all, what a private organization is for.

What saddens me is not the debate itself. Rather, it is knowing that Hillel, the organization that I really have to credit with being tremendously open to diverse views, that allowed me to begin to find a place at the table, would try to limit what is acceptably Jewish–because make no mistake, as the central point of Jewish life on most college campuses, Hillel is perhaps the single most important arbiter of Jewish identity and belonging on college campuses across the U.S.–deeply pains me.

I don’t know where this dispute will ultimately go. But we know we’re seeing a change in how American Jews–particularly younger ones–think and talk about Israel. And we’re seeing problems that come up when Jewish community leaders talk about Israel in ways that offend other community members.

I have no significant voice in all this, which is to say, I have no significant influence with anyone in any of these organizations. All I can do is to lament the present situation.

And so, here I am, worried about what the single largest arbiter of Jewish identity for college-age and young adults might become if it actively rejects components of the population it seeks to serve.