Jewish Studies Is a Free-Speech Zone, and It Needs to Stay That Way

I had never really thought too much about Hillel, the ninety-year old organization devoted to supporting Jewish life on college campuses. While I was aware of their efforts to promote certain discourses and to curtail others, I largely left them alone.

This was perhaps made easier on my campus because Hillel does not really bring in speakers—on top of the fact that I have the privilege to teach some of the brightest students I have ever encountered. Many of my Jewish students here are searchers, trying to make sense of their religion and to make it meaningful. Unlike at other universities I have taught at, many of my Jewish students do not simply celebrate their identity, but interrogate it.

Many students have told me that what they want more than anything is a “safe space” on campus to discuss the problems in the Middle East. When I was asked to join the Hillel Executive I accepted, even if hesitantly, because I thought I might bring a more liberal voice. When I was told that the “price” to be on the committee was a donation in the five-figure range, I balked. The obligation to donate was waived. It was good to have members who lived in the area and interacted with the students, I was told. So I agreed.

My seven months on the Executive were largely spent on the margins, as it had to be given the fact that I teach full time. Three things happened recently, however, that caused me to resign. If my situation were unique, my comments here would be merely anecdotal. They are not, and this is why I have decided to write this.

One other caveat, since I like my students and my work, I have no interest in undermining either. My comments are simply meant to raise what I consider to be important issues and to echo others who have recently been critical of Hillel.

First thing. I consider announcements for academic job vacancies in the field of Jewish Studies and in my disciplinary home, Religious Studies, to be “discursive sites.” By this, I mean a glance at them reveals where the field is, what topics are hot and what are not. When I looked recently at the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS)’s online openings, I was shocked to see a job announcement for the Executive Director (ED) of the Hillel at Brandeis. I had never once seen such an announcement, in all the years I have been looking at the listings.

The AJS site has traditionally listed academic jobs and, maybe, the odd announcement for a non-academic position in the organization itself. That there was a job announcement for a Hillel ED disturbed me. Is this the new norm? It seemed to me to be a muddying of the already blurry line between Hillel and Jewish Studies—a border that I have watched with growing concern.

Hillel is engaged in the creation of a positive identity for Jewish students, but it is not a  “free speech” zone. This is territory that needs to be monitored, but many in university administrations, not to mention many of my colleagues, are unwilling to do so.

Although Hillel exists in the university, it does not operate within its rules and regulations. Executives are often comprised of wealthy alumni, many of whom live far from the schools. They don’t see how things work on the ground and are often unaware of the needs of an often wonderfully diverse Jewish student body. Their main concern is to make sure that Israel is addressed properly, to expedite “birthright” trips, to check the growing popularity of Chabad, and to make budgets.

Some members of Hillel Executives may even try to involve themselves in the hiring process at universities. The recent case of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana is illustrative—a wealthy member of the Hillel Executive led the charge to silence the academic process that had been responsible for Salaita’s hire.

In addition, since Jewish Studies is often in the business of fundraising,  we are often competing with Hillel for the same alumni support. But, whereas many in Hillel want to bring officially sanctioned Israeli diplomats and others to campus to silence critique or otherwise preach to the converted, I want a position in Israel Studies that will contextualize, explain, and analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for all students.

Hillel is also very wealthy organization, something that further reinforces the status quo. Those local Hillels (Swarthmore, for example) that have tried to become “open“ Hillels have received disapproval and condemnation at the national level. That universities allow organization on campus that go against the mission of the university is problematic.

Also problematic, at least for me, is the fact that most Hillel EDs have a starting salary that is greater than that of many Associate Professors.

Second thing. A student in one of my classes this semester told me that our interim Hillel ED had asked students at the weekly Hillel Shabbat dinner about my religious and ideological commitments. My student felt very uncomfortable and wanted to tell me this. This crossed a line that, to academics working in a secular institution, is sacrosanct (irony noted).

It is illegal to ask academic job candidates about their religious affiliation at job interviews—and yet it is legitimate at Hillel. A fellow director of Jewish Studies at another institution, apprised of my situation, told me that he could arrange for a list of letters of support from colleagues should I need them. I don’t, of course. But I think this issue reveals further the tortured relationship between Jewish Studies and Hillel, one that the AJS, especially in light of my previous point, does not seem to recognize.

If Jewish Studies is to be academically responsible, surely the main academic organization devoted to the field must realize these issues.

Third thing. I read a brave op-ed in the Tufts Daily by two Jewish Students complaining about the “birthright” programs they went on. I have to put this term in quotations marks because how American Jews can have a “birthright” in a country they were not born in when the government of that country is trying at the same time to destroy the birthright of some of its citizens is beyond me.

In the article the Tufts students complained about how Hillel International and its own board was willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that “birthright” is largely funded by Sheldon Adelson, and about how those who go on it never get to meet Israeli Arabs or Palestinians except for a sham dinner in a fabricated “Bedouin” tent.

All of these things, but especially when taken as a whole, led me to resign from the Hillel Executive on my campus. I am convinced, now more than ever, that academics and special interest groups on campus should not mix.


Photo: “Birthright students are welcomed with a discount.