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Michaud: Israel-Palestine diplomacy, the college-campus way

The elders defend Israel's long struggle for existence.

The elders defend Israel's long struggle for existence. But by their openness, it's the young who may chart a path to peace. Credit: iStock

Students at a small liberal arts college outside Philadelphia have inserted themselves into one of the most uncompromising debates in world history: the question of Israel and Palestine.

Swarthmore College's Hillel, the Jewish student association, is the first in the nation to defy its parent organization and announce it will host groups and speakers who do not support Israel. The move earned the 100-student group at Swarthmore a public rebuke from the president of Hillel International, Eric D. Fingerhut, who said he will not allow the Swarthmore chapter to continue using the name Hillel.

The outcome of this clash is yet to be determined, but I am inspired by the students' brave defense of intellectual freedom. Their openness to hearing diverse ideas and beliefs runs opposite to so much of what we see today: the gridlock in Washington, the struggle over gun control, the fundamentalist and ethnic hatreds fueling wars.

Call me naive, but I don't think people resolve disputes by retreating into corners with their partisans. Besides, isn't college the very place to debate ideas, test one's opinions and decide where one belongs in the world?

This campus' jump into the Israel-Palestine controversy began in 2010 when Hillel International adopted a policy barring chapters from sponsoring events, hosting speakers or partnering with groups that deny Israel's right to exist, that apply a double standard to Israel or that support a boycott or divestment of its products.

The new policy was a response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, originally Palestinians who urge the boycott of Israeli products and sporting, cultural and academic institutions. Begun in 2005, BDS has grown and added last month the 5,000-member American Studies Association, which promotes the study of American culture. The ASA urges American colleges and universities to stop collaborating with Israeli scholars and academic institutions.

It's ironic that the ASA's members, who are teachers, researchers and faculty -- essentially people who devote their lives to learning -- would act to quash the exchange of ideas.

Threatened by the advance of the BDS movement, Hillel International retreated to its own corner, raising another irony. The organization that is the foundation for Jewish life on campus is named for Hillel the Elder, a first century sage who believed that discussion leads to learning, and that intellect should play a vital role in figuring out the right thing to do.

Last spring, students at Harvard University started a campaign called Open Hillel, which seeks inclusive discourse at campus Hillels and wants Hillel International to reverse its 2010 policy. Nearly 1,300 people have signed the Open Hillel petition online.

The Swarthmore Hillel board voted last month to renounce the international organization's restriction. The board stated in a resolution that "all are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist." The group hasn't yet held events or gatherings on this basis.

Fingerhut posted a gracious response online to Swarthmore Hillel, stating nevertheless that "this position is not acceptable." A spokesman for Hillel International likened some pro-Palestinian activities to "hate speech."

It's not difficult in this conflict to perceive a generational divide. The elders defend Israel's long struggle for existence. But by their openness, it's the young who may chart a path to peace.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.