Thursday, January 07, 2016

Open Hillel: Erasing the Line, Redrawing the Line, or Handing Over the Pen?

Open Hillel has just announced a new academic advisory board. It comprises a range of different viewpoints from along the left-liberal spectrum, ranging from Judith Butler to Peter Beinart to Zachary Braiterman. The announcement offered me the opportunity to ask a few questions clarifying some confusion I had about Open Hillel's mission and principles.

The Open Hillel movement emerged out of objections to the application of Hillel International's "standards of partnership", most specifically a provision preventing partnership with organization which endorse the BDS movement (a rule which, OH maintains, effectively prevents collaboration with most Palestinian groups which have endorsed said movement). Open Hillel objected to this rule as stifling open inquiry and debate regarding Israel (hence the name).

The discourse around Open Hillel has, to my ears at least, conflated three distinct questions:
  1. Is Hillel justified in drawing certain lines whereby certain groups or positions are beyond the pale?
  2. If line-drawing is permissible, has Hillel drawn them in the right place (excluding BDS)?
  3. Should decisions over the above be made by a central organization or by individual Hillel chapters?
We can view these three questions as expressing three potential positions regarding "where to draw the line": First, that there should be no line, second, that the line should be drawn somewhere else from where it is now, or third, that somebody else other than Hillel International should be in charge of the line-drawing decision.

The way I've often thought about this question is by asking whether Open Hillel would think it an injustice if Hillel refused to partner with or host Pam Geller? If the answer is yes, then that means Open Hillel really is taking a principled "open inquiry" stance. If the answer is no, then Open Hillel doesn't object to line-drawing per se, only to where the lines are drawn. And if the answer is "all of these decisions should be made at the chapter level", then the question is simply shifted to a new forum (and Open Hillel's ambitions become a lot narrower than often assumed). Any of these represent a legitimate position, but they are very different positions that raise different arguments in response, and I've never been clear on which one Open Hillel actually takes.

Anyway, I was able to ask the question to Open Hillel on twitter, and their response did help clarify things:
That exchange suggests Open Hillel really does see itself as being inside the "open mic" camp (it answers my first question in the negative), and thinks that any voice -- even if many students find it hateful or offensive -- should be fair game. That principle applies equally to Pam Geller and to BDS acolytes (both of whom many people find hateful and offensive). In this way, Open Hillel can be seen as standing against the "safe space" trend one sees on some college campuses, where certain types of views are said to be so inherently marginalizing so as to be validly excluded from public dialogue. They are closer to the Williams College "uncomfortable learning" group, affirming the importance of hearing ideas many people -- dominant and subordinated group members alike -- might prefer to ignore.

One might question, then, why Open Hillel focuses so much on the BDS issue if its free inquiry commitment really is so non-partisan. But here I think they have a valid response: BDS is right now the predominant flashpoint for Hillel International's interference into local chapter affairs. Indeed, it's notable that while Hillel's partnership standards put several hoops in front of left-wing groups to jump through, there are no corresponding boundaries whereby someone can be beyond the pale on the political right. There are no guidelines that, for example, suggest Hillel would refuse to partner with groups or speakers that demonize Palestinians or engage in racist incitement (let alone prohibitions on right-wing "one-staters"). Indeed, there's nothing that would prevent Pam Geller from having a platform.

This is a serious problem for people who, like me, don't find the idea of "drawing a line" to be inherently problematic. I've often remarked that the Jewish community cannot only have a boundary on its left border. Even people who think that it is reasonable to say "BDS is beyond the pale" can't act surprised if that contention falls on deaf ears where only left-wing movements are so exiled. If Hillel International really does want to preserve its position that BDS should be no platformed, the best thing it could do would be to release similar guidelines, enforced with similar robustness, that demarcate what sorts of right-wing positions, agitation, or incitement (against Palestinians or against Jewish leftists) is also out of bonds.

Hillel's infirmities notwithstanding, it still remains the case that Open Hillel's position depends on the viability of a true "open mic" policy. And there are arguments to be had here. One goes to the last question I posed: who makes the call? Should "openness" be a mandate from Hillel International (an inversion of the guidelines), or do local chapters decide for themselves what voices they think are legitimately worth including in dialogue and who/what should be left out. The tweets imply the latter,  and Open Hillel's about page suggests the same: their prime mission is to change Hillel International's partnership guidelines so as to permit local chapters to adopt their own standards; they then say they will "encourage" these chapters to themselves adopt open policies. So if a local Jewish campus community democratically elects to exclude voices Open Hillel thinks should be included, that seems to be their prerogative. Obviously, OH can (and has said it will) "encourage" chapters to reverse those positions, but it presumably could not demand any sort of centralized rule requiring inclusion.

The larger problem rests in the feasibility of a true "open mic" position. Even if one believes that OH activists, in their bones, think it is equally outrageous to exclude the Pam Geller's of the world and the Jewish Voice for Peace activists of the world, they'd still face the problem of what to do with groups who openly oppose "open dialogue" in any capacity -- perhaps most notably, "anti-normalization" groups. Hillel International's final partnership guideline targets those who "[e]xhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility;" a rule clearly designed to encompass folks who, say, tried to shout down Moshe Halbertal. In this, they seem to be in accord with Open Hillel (which presumably must also view such actions as incompatible with the spirit of open dialogue). And indeed, Open Hillel specifically says "Open Hillel is committed to making its events, programs, membership, and leadership open and accessible to all who share in Open Hillel's mission and values", which leaves the door open to excluding those who are seen as not sharing in its "mission and values." A true commitment to openness isn't as straightforward as it appears, particularly when not everybody shares the principle.

Indeed, one can see shades of the problem in Open Hillel's reference to being open to any speaker who elicits "interest from students." Embedded in that statement, I think, is the valid hope that there are many potential speakers that most students would not be interested in; that private consensus can replace organizational diktat in ensuring that truly ridiculous and repulsive views aren't offered a forum. But which views qualify? It's the "Academic Freedom vs. Academic Legitimacy" debate all over again. If Jewish students on a particular campus expressed an "interest" in bringing in Pam Geller to speak, I don't think most of us would react by lauding their commitment to open inquiry and hearing various points of view. Even if we concede their "right" to extend the invitation, we would be dismayed at the students' appraisal of what sorts of views are worthy entrants in serious conversation. Certainly, I would think that a community which thought that Pam Geller was presenting something "interesting" has gone badly off the rails. But many view the proposition that the world's only Jewish state should be exiled from the global community in the exact same way. So we're right back into the "where to draw the line" question; the only difference is that the forum has changed. And while Open Hillel obviously has substantive opinions on where the line should be drawn (specifically, that BDS advocacy should remain in-bounds), its entire rhetorical arsenal acts as if the line drawing endeavor can be avoided entirely.

In short, Open Hillel does seem to be attempting to take a genuinely "open mic" approach to discourse within Hillel, applicable to controversial left and right speakers alike. That's a perfectly respectable position (albeit one that perhaps cuts against some of the current left-liberal zeitgeist, and one which OH seems willing to subordinate to the broader value of chapter control). Unfortunately, the "open mic" approach actually cannot eliminate the question of "where to draw the line", it can only shift the forum in which that question is debated over. One can legitimately say, as OH apparently does, that such questions should not be made at the national level but rather be devolved to individual campus chapters. But campus Jewish representatives will nonetheless not be able to avoid making decisions about what sorts of views -- from Pam Geller to BDS -- should and should not be seen as legitimate entrants into Jewish communal conversation.


Alan Jay Weisbard said...

David, I appreciate your thoughtful exploration of these issues. As a critic of the Hillel International "Standards of Partnership" from early on, I have informally supported Open Hillel from its early days. I have conferred, mostly by email, with a number of Open Hiillel activists over the past couple of years, asking some of the same questions that you raise in your blog post. My own position, for whatever it is worth, is that Hillel International (first) drew its line in the wrong place, and (second) arrogated to itself top down authority where there should be a level of discretion accorded to local chapters. While I personally disagree with, for example, Jewish Voice for Peace, and its support of BDS, I do not think those so inclined should be consigned to herem; they can and should be part of the conversation. I also disagree strongly with some of those on the Academic Council--for example, Judith Butler--but again, I think she and her views, no matter how much I disagree with them, should be heard. I strongly disagree with the anti-normalization policies followed by many Palestinian and Arab or Muslim entities, but insofar as possible, where dialog is possible with supporters of the Palestinian cause, I think those opportunities should be pursued, including in "Jewish space" on campus, such as Hillel.
My conversations with some of the leaders of Open Hillel--remember, a relatively new organization with a student leadership--is that there are differing views among both the leadership cadre and among the broader membership on the questions that you raise, and that this is understandable under the circumstances. While I have my druthers, I think the group needs and deserves some time to work through these issues, and that some differences of view may well persist for a period without undermining the group's core commitments. Might there be some groups or speakers on the far right or left who should not be welcome? In my view, yes, although I doubt that genuine peace activists would fall in that category. One can reasonably argue that the line is drawn in the wrong place without insisting that no line drawing is permissible under any circumstances. One can argue that different campuses might draw lines differently, and should have a realm of discretion to do so, without running afoul of national limitations. Some campuses might go "open mic" and invite a Pam Geller. If it were my campus, I would argue against such an invitation, and might well participate in a protest demonstration against her appearance, but do not think such an invitation, ill-advised as I think it would be, should be prohibited by rule.
There is independent value in allowing student-led groups to make their own way through some of these difficult questions. I think those of us belonging to older generations are free to offer our perspectives and advice, but must recognize that students are entitled to make their own decisions, and that occasional mistakes are a necessary cost of learning through experience.

David Schraub said...

Alan: Thank you for this reply. I actually had a very pleasant conversation with OpenHillel (or whoever runs their twitter feed, anyway) over these topics. And I don't think I disagree with the thrust of what you're writing; particularly that local control includes discretion and includes the inevitability of disagreements or even mistakes. But it is important to note that there will not be any getting around some very difficult questions:

(1) I absolutely agree it is possible to challenge "where the line is drawn" without saying there should be no line (as a line-drawer myself, I have to take that position). But OpenHillel right now is ill-equipped to engage in that conversation because its frontline arguments are all of the "no line" variety. They don't have a cohesive theoretical framework for what is in versus out of bounds. If Geller is a bridge too far, why? If BDS isn't, why not? Those distinctions can be justified, but not through the argumentative language of open dialogue that Open Hillel adopts.

(2) If what we want is open dialogue, is Open Hillel equally obligated to speak out against efforts to close such dialogue from the left (e.g., through anti-normalization or boycotts)? It is perfectly coherent to assert a free speech right to oppose free speech rights; Open Hillel would be entirely reasonable to say that pro-boycotters should have the right to promote such views and to oppose them substantively as in opposition to principles of open dialogue. But it is unclear if Open Hillel is willing to take that step; if anything they seem to lean against.

(3) The "beyond the pale" questions are going to cut closer to the bone than I think many are comfortable admitting. For example, one might think that an easy "beyond the pale" example would be someone who endorses the medieval blood libel and appears on neo-Nazi talk shows. Yet the JVP has long partnered with Alison Weir despite such behavior. So what if the JVP invites Weir? Indeed, one of the major objections I have to JVP is less their politics and more their troubling history of trying to exclude Jewish voices not their own from broader liberal conversations. Given point #2, an Open Hillel that is actually committed to open dialogue will face some tough choices re: JVP sooner rather than later.

(4) Finally, one thing I very fervently believe is that open dialogue must include the right to openly call things anti-Semitic (including in cases where others might disagree with the charge). An open discussion about Israel has to include an open discussion about the role anti-Semitism plays in discourse about Israel (and again, the JVP is a prime offender in seeking to stifle this element of the conversation by casting anti-Semitism charges as inherently "muzzling" or rendered in bad faith). Does the "Open Hillel" envisioned here include a vigorously protected right for members of Hillel to call the now-unbanned BDS elements anti-Semitic, if that's what they believe? If not, then I'd suggest that we've redrawn the line to have a conversation even more stilted and closed than where we started.

Alan Jay Weisbard said...

Excellent comments, David.
I find myself wondering whether Open Hillel itself will have to take "top down" decisions on some of these points, or may/should leave some of them to local chapters. Kind of an ironic parallel to Hillel International. Some chapters may go with open mic, others not. I agree that there is not now a clear theoretical framework, but sometimes that comes from experience, not at the outset. I do not think there is any clear consensus among the leadership group.
I have myself been publicly quite critical of anti-normalization strategies, to which Hillel International's Standards of Partnership bears an uncomfortable resemblance. The Ameinu Third Narrative group, to which I belong, issued one of few existing statements on the phenomenon. During the drafting process, I pushed to make explicit mention of Hillel in this regard, but was insufficiently persuasive on the point. I'm not sure that any Palestinian or Arab group that fully adheres to anti-normalization would be a tenable participant in a Hillel-based event. I would not be sympathetic to an event including JVP people but closed to other Jews.
Right now, I think there are too many invocations of antiSemitism rather than too few, but there are certainly occasions when the charges are justified--despite nonsense to the contrary emanating from Steven Salaita in a recent issue of The Nation. (The people he attacks by name are friends and colleagues.) I have no necessary opposition to civil protests within Hillel of highly objectionable speakers, either on right or left. Of course, that does open into difficult questions of poisoning the atmosphere within a given Hillel chapter.
One additional point that I think we must include in this and similar discussions: the role of (largely right-wing) donors in trying to control the allowable ambit of speech, exercised at both national and local levels. This is a powerful fact of life, which infects any effort to address these issues in a purely principled fashion. It is one of the key reasons that there are no prohibitory standards affecting right-wing speakers and events.It is one of the main precipitants of the Open Hillel movement to begin with. I am curious how you would address that piece of the puzzle.

David Schraub said...

I'm a huge fan of Ameinu and Third Narrative (indeed, if I were to identify myself ideologically with reference to a particular group, they're the ones I'd choose). I can't agree that there are too many invocations of anti-Semitism in discourse about Israel, particularly in the left-liberal circles Open Hillel and Ameinu operate in. Anti-Semitism is one of the major orienting features surrounding Israel as an issue, it should be a central part of how Israel is discussed. So I've argued that the question of anti-Semitism should always be frontloaded in our minds when talking about Israel, as it is a (though certainly the only) central issue demanding serious and critical consideration. One of the things I very much like about Ameinu and Third Narrative is that they offer space to have such discussions in a serious and thoughtful manner.

For me, that goes hand-in-hand with your important point about resisting right-wing donor pressure. Ceding anti-Semitism, as an issue, to the right is a huge strategic mistake -- in part because they're terrible at addressing structural oppression, in part because allowing them the issue means that the issue becomes coded as conservative. For me, the right move is (a) for left-wing groups to tackle anti-Semitism consistently, critically, and robustly as an issue of equal weight and intellectual gravity as racism or sexism, and (b) for liberal Jews to counterpressure mainstream Jewish institutions to rope in right-wing elements (in some ways, I'm the bizarro Open Hillel -- I want the Jewish center to treat ZOA and JVP the same, but that's because I think both are equally outrageous).