I Call Shenanigans!

by Ari Y. Kelman

I’m a member of the American Studies Association whose Academic Council recently voted (unanimously) to endorse a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions.

Then, I woke up the other morning to find this news story about the Hillel at Swarthmore College, whose student board voted (unanimously) to

defy guidelines restricting who it may host for programs on Israel and condemned the ground rules, imposed by Hillel International, for repressing free speech on Israel for Jewish students on campus.

In the example of the ASA, we have a professional academic organization voting to boycott its peer institutions. Though the ASA boycott focuses on institutions, not individuals, it effectively recommends to its members who they can and cannot talk to. In the example of Hillel International, we have approximately the same thing: one organization telling its affiliates who it can and cannot speak with.

The irony of the situation is something only someone like Kafka could invent. It won’t be hard to find Jewish organizations who support Hillel International’s guidelines have come out strongly against the ASA resolution. Similarly, those who have come out in support of the ASA resolution will probably welcome the decision of the Swarthmore Hillel students.

I call shenanigans on all of you.

To support the free and open exchange of information and intellectual work, and to encourage the vibrant (albeit sometimes difficult) educational atmospheres of our universities means opening avenues for conversation, not foreclosing them. To criticize Hillel International and then turn around and support the ASA resolution is absurd. To condemn the ASA and support Hillel International’s guidelines is similarly as ridiculous.

I know that the stakes are high and that prospects are low with respect to the creation of an ongoing, sustainable, just peace between Israel and Palestine, but the way to foster a public who is informed about the complexities of these issues is not to constrict lines of communication, but to open them.

Professor Ari Y. Kelman is the Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University.

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  1. Linda Cedarbaum says

    While the symmetry in comparing the ASA and the Hillel situations is clever, it does not hold up under the least scrutiny. The mission of academic institutions is, in your words, “to support the free and open exchange of information and intellectual work”. The mission of the Hillels is, in their words, “Enriching the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. We envision a world where every student is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel.” Th ASA vote in favor of an academic boycott of Israelis is a violation of the very core and mission of academic institutions in the modern world. Hillel’s on the other hand, are a cultural and social organization solely conceived for the support and benefit of Jewish students on campus. Hillel International’s objections to the Swathmore Hillel’s attempt to distort and violate the organization’s purpose has nothing whatever to do with academic freedoms on the campus. Attempting to equate the Hillel International ruling with the political anti-Semitism of the ASA does not whitewash the ASA’s intellectual hypocrisy.

  2. Michael Lustig says

    Ari Kelman may want to “call Shenanigans”, but instead he makes a specious comparison.

    The Hillel guidelines are directed against a specific position which we (as the general Jewish community) consider to be reprehensible. The ASA boycott is positioned broadly against *every* institution, regardless of their position. The difference is obvious, and allowing a comparison to take place provides a degree of legitimization to a disgusting stance.

    How might Prof. Kelman feel about a Hillel guideline preventing an advocate for a return to slavery (or some equally reprehensible position) to speak? Would he be against that sort of thing, or would his personal worldview necessitate that it be given a platform to be heard? The ASA boycott ignores individual positions, and in many (if not most) cases it effectively ‘punishes’ academics whose position closely mirrors their own (albeit without the underlying anti-Semitic undertones), thereby *preventing* their message from being promulgated at the expense of a misguided political correctness.

    The Hillel International guidelines make sense within the context of their mission, and they should be lauded for their courage in taking a public stand and not backing-down as the ‘usual’ forces line-up against them. They set a fine example to the students whom they serve and to the community at large.

    -Michael Lustig
    NY, NY

  3. David Pollack says

    So glad to see commentary which found the professor’s statements both confusing and hypocritical. In any case I wonder how the Jim Joseph Foundation (jimjosephfoundation.org, with one of its four core values “a strong commitment to the state of Israel”) views such a stance from its named and fully funded chair at one of the country’s most prestigious and influential universities.

  4. Ron H. Feldman says

    David Pollack: regardless of my thoughts on the proximate issue, your point precisely defines the reason why there is a principle of academic freedom of thought, and why academic tenure exits (although I don’t know if Professor Kelman has tenure). I would think that the Jim Joseph Foundation (or any other person/group) knows that when they fund an academic position, they no longer have editorial control over the message coming from the person in that position. Seeing the criticism of Kelman’s position (which, since he has provided a critique of both sides, must not be a surprise to him), I think it’s a good thing that such freedoms exist.

  5. David Bernstein says

    Fails elementary logic, on numerous grounds. For example, national Hillel isn’t “boycotting a peer institution.” It owns the Hillel “brand”, which it has basically licensed to Swarthmore Hillel. Swarthmore Hillel is violating the terms of the license. A licensee is not a “peer.”

  6. Ari Lubowicz says

    I also find the comparison between the two situations to be disappointing because of the source. Regarding the Hillel situation, I fully support Hillel in requiring that it’s affiliates live up to the code that was agreed to in order to represent the organzation. There are many different opportunities on most college campuses to hear why Israel should be destroyed. I insist that my college age children have a safe haven from these antagonists. Regarding the ASA situation, I once again apply my always valuable litmus test to the question. If you take out Jewish and Israel from the subject and replace it with African-American, Hispanic or LGBT, would the professor find vote as nauseating as I do. There you go Mr. Kelman, how does your nausea reaction apply here.

  7. Av says

    Those attacking Prof. Kelman are indulging in pilpul better suited for Purim than a serious discussion. Freedom of inquiry and discussion must be protected regardless of venue and Hillel could easily have protected their “brand” by simply asking Hillels to provide a balanced debate when controversy is anticipated. The criteria they outline is point by point composed of concepts that are often contested and lack a consensus definition. What constitutes a Jewish state? Are representatives of the religious/settler right (particularly a certain KM from Hevron) believe in democracy ? What does defenseable borders mean? This is the stuff that we zionists argue all the time. And let us not forget that until thelast ten years most federations would not as policy fund over the green line and many laudable Jewish foundations still do not. Are they boycotters and should not be invited to speak? And when will we learn that those who stifle debate almost always look stupid while allowing freedom of discussion has never worked to the detriment of Jewish life.