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)