In Praise of Pluralism at the Swarthmore Hillel
An excerpt from a seventeen-year-old’s college application essay:
“I want to go to a college…where the academics dictate the social climate, where discourse and debate are encouraged not for the sake of convincing the other, but to teach the other, and where scholarship – my core value of Judaism – is the core value of the institution.”
This was the conclusion to my answer responding to the prompt, “Why Swarthmore?” Evidently, the admissions committee liked my comparing the Swarthmore educational experience to a page of Talmud, as I’ve just finished the first semester of my sophomore year at the institution in question. As many of you know by now, December 2013 was an exciting time at Swarthmore. As usual, students had to read and write hundreds of pages for finals, but, unusually, the board at Swarthmore Hillel – a campus group I rarely attend – declared themselves an Open Hillel; a Hillel that would accept speakers and encourage discussion on Israel beyond what is typically debated at Hillel Houses around the world. This began a firestorm in the Jewish community, with some welcoming Swarthmore Hillel’s stance to allow all views to be expressed – including Post and Anti-Zionist opinions; and others declaring that Hillel should be, as has always been, a place of exclusively pro-Israel sentiment — and though discussion amongst participants is always invited, that Hillel, as an institution, should not welcome speakers or organizations who, in Hillel International’s opinion, recommend policies that undermine the State of Israel’s ability to exist as a Jewish State.
Like most things in life, particularly in contentious debates, the answer to who should speak, what can be said, and whose right it is to determine what gets said in a Hillel House is complex. An answer can emerge from classic Jewish understandings. The Talmud is replete with disagreements; one has only to look at the name of the organization to be reminded of the legendary, quotable sage Hillel, remembered for constantly disagreeing on the interpretation of the law with the sage Shammai. Jewish practice nowadays is primarily constructed of Hillel’s rulings, but even the budding Talmudist knows not to ignore Shammai’s claims: a vital lesson in Jewish discourse.
College students want to grapple responsibly with all opinions, all claims. Eric Fingerhut, the President of Hillel International, has rightly stated that no student, Jew or non-Jew, regardless of their views, is turned away from Hillel Houses, but this is not enough. To truly engage in one of the most difficult, challenging, and emotionally charged debates of our time, we must be willing as a community to embrace that Jews everywhere, young and old, religious and secular — feel and believe differently about Israel, and we must speak aloud about it. To forbid views from being taught does a disservice to all students, as it prevents learning about these uncomfortable issues in a Jewish context by experts who know the material, the history, and the social context better than many students.
I’ve often been told that pluralism is the key to the Jewish future. Edgar Bronfman, zichrono livracha, a major Hillel leader, challenged himself and others to study views that were near anathema to them. Mr. Bronfman understood that Jews must be unafraid to discuss issues core to our existential future in order for there to be any hope for inter-group understanding.
It is in this spirit that I declare my pride in the Swarthmore Hillel. My peers are leading the way to a pluralistic vision for the wider Hillel community. They understand that allowing an opinion to be aired out in the open does not necessarily imply endorsement of that opinion. It only acknowledges that people in our community are entitled and encouraged to struggle with what they believe about the Jewish state and the Palestinian people.
As both Jews and participants in the 21st century, we must not be satisfied with hearing a single side or a limited range of an issue. If we are to honor the legacy of the Rabbis of the Talmud, pluralists who came before us, and respect the free discourse surrounding the future of the Jewish state, we must engage, debate, and discuss with one another the issues so key to our collective future.
Rafi Ellenson lives in New York, New York and is a sophomore at Swarthmore College majoring in Religion and minoring in Educational Studies. He hopes to combine these two areas of interest someday in order to study and improve the state of Israel and Palestine education in American Jewish settings such as summer camps, day schools, and Hebrew schools – among others. Rafi was the recipient of a Bronfman Youth Fellowship in 2011, and is a proud BYFI alum. He eagerly awaits for the day that he can apply for a Wexner Fellowship. Rafi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.