Wednesday, August 01, 2018

On Open Hillel's Brief Against Hillel

There is an ongoing lawsuit by Jewish students at San Francisco State University alleging the school has tolerated and promoted an antisemitic environment -- among other ways, by deliberately excluding the campus Hillel from certain university activities. Open Hillel just filed an amicus brief in that case, arguing that because of its controversial "standards of partnership," Hillel does not represent all Jews and therefore acts singling it out for exclusion and ostracization cannot be seen as probative evidence of antisemitism.

I have a column in Tablet Magazine today that goes into further detail. In essence, my observations are that (a) this represents a dramatic escalation of Open Hillel's posture towards Hillel International and the establishment Jewish community; and (b) as a matter of anti-discrimination doctrine, the principle it asserts (that attacking an identity-affiliated group cannot be seen as evidence of discriminatory intent if the group is not wholly coterminous with or uniformly backed by the relevant protected class) would represent a disastrous narrowing of anti-discrimination law -- not just for Jews, but for all marginalized groups.

There are no LGBT groups supported by all queers, no African-American groups that enjoy the backing of every Black individual, no Middle Eastern groups inclusive of all Middle Easterners. But if a public university made the terrible decision to single out the Gay-Straight Alliance or the Black Lives Matter chapter or the Middle Eastern Students Association for exclusion, LGBT, Black, and Middle Eastern students would have every right to feel as if their equal standing on campus was threatened—regardless of whether every single member of those identity groups felt represented by the corresponding student organization and regardless of whether the university could identify a more palatable (if likely far less representative) alternative. So too with Hillel. That Jewish students perceive university efforts to extirpate Hillel from campus life as a form of anti-Semitism is neither mysterious nor idiosyncratic.

The full argument is in the column, of course. The only other thing I want to observe is that Open Hillel's press release promoting the brief suggests it is motivated in large part by opposition to the Lawfare Project, which is backing the plaintiffs' suit against SFSU. OH asserts that the Lawfare Project "uses lawsuits as a tactic to shut down speech that calls attention to Israel’s actions or protests Israel’s policies."

I have no quarrel with skepticism towards the Lawfare Project, and on the internet OH and TLP can squabble back and forth indefinitely for all I care. But courtrooms are not the venue to act out such grievances, because court decisions set precedents. They're not just meaningless notches in a virtual scorebook; anti-discrimination law changes as a result of these rulings, and (as I argue in my column), it would change much for the worse if Open Hillel's position is adopted. There are stakes here -- not only for themselves -- that I highly doubt Open Hillel considered, and that is a failure of responsibility on their part for which they deserve serious chastisement.

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