Who is a Jew? An entire Wikipedia article devoted to this question states that this “is a basic question about Jewish identity and considerations of Jewish self-identification. The question is based on ideas about Jewish personhood, which have cultural, ethnic, religious, political, genealogical, and personal dimensions.” This question has always pervaded Jewish communities, and it still does today. Arbitrarily defined markers of “Jewishness,” from religious to cultural to political, are part of every young Jew’s experience as they grapple with identity in a confusing world.
Recently, while talking to a housemate in the comfort of our home, he echoed this question of “true” identity, admitting that he felt “less Jewish” than me because he doesn’t speak Hebrew. For me, this was a truly representative moment of the different ways young Jews develop and police the boundaries of Jewish identity, and how they come to understand their position in relation to those boundaries.
Rather than embracing the many facets and forms of connecting with one’s own Jewish identity, many Jews, like my friend, are falling for today’s hegemonic definition of Jewishness, characterized by being Israeli and speaking fluent Hebrew, untinged by any traces of foreignness. The global Jewish community is a demonstrably diverse, diasporic community, representing cultures and histories from all corners of the globe, yet Israel has in many ways become a focal point of Jewish identity for Jews all around the world. When did the Jewish community come to eschew the diasporic character so central to our familial and communal identities? Who is perpetuating this Israel-centrism?
While there are multiple Jewish organizations that cater to the UC San Diego community, Hillel’s involvement is the most notable. Hillel is an international umbrella organization that serves as a home for “Jewish learning and living.” Basically, Hillel acts as an extremely well-funded, well-staffed, and all-encompassing organization that supports many facets of Jewish life on campus. Hillel, at UCSD and on the international level, has proven to be very inclusive in many respects. As a non-denominational organization, Hillel welcomes secular, religious, and interfaith Jewish students of all backgrounds, while maintaining an incredibly pro-LGBTQ track record. Accordingly, UCSD Hillel’s mission statement claims that it “builds radically inclusive community that fuels innovation and inspires students to become active change agents on campus and beyond.” In essence, Hillel leaves it to the students to define what their own connection to Jewishness is.
Mosaic United is a front organization focused on Israel’s public image and funded by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs to partner with Hillel and other campus Jewish groups. Recent news that Mosaic was planning to create a database of Jewish students in the United States for Israel-related outreach initiatives has spotlighted the Israeli government’s very active role in Jewish identity formation, even beyond its borders. It was seen as too invasive, too tangible, even by Hillel International, which threatened an end to the collaboration. Yet, the ideological chokehold that conservative political Zionism has on mainstream Jewish institutions at U.S. campuses prevails.
That said, Hillel hasn’t extended its principles of inclusivity to community members within one arguably personal dimension: the political. Perhaps the height of this exclusion is enforced by Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines, which outline vague standards for the types of speakers, events, and partners that Hillel chapters are authorized to host. By implementing arbitrary guidelines to determine what does and does not “demonize” Israel, Hillel effectively limits the variety of voices in our community through institutionalizing a political litmus test. In fact, Hillel’s Israel Guidelines have been weaponized to censor speakers and programming from its own community across American campuses in the past—ironically, even Zionist speakers and groups have been targeted, such as J Street U, the college branch of liberal Zionist advocacy group J Street, which is often regarded as a mainstream alternative to the more conservative (and influential) American Israeli Public Affairs Committee.
Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines and its partnership with Mosaic do not simply exclude Jewish community members based on their political views—they redefine diasporic Jewish identity itself. Historically, Jewish perspectives on Zionism have been remarkably diverse, ranging from anti- and non-Zionism (and as of recently, post-Zionism) to a variety of interpretations of Zionism: cultural, religious, and political. As an act of revisionism, Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines serve to equate Judaism to a narrow political Zionism—defined as supporting a Jewish state in Israel/Palestine and often institutionally practiced as opposing any and all critical discourse of Israel and its policies or ideologies. Hillel is institutionally asserting that they are one and the same, when in reality, not all Jews are Zionists and many Zionists aren’t Jews. This is an alarming blurring of the line between an ideology and an ethnoreligion.
Of course, this benefits the government of Israel, which is providing over $20 million through the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs to jointly fund Hillel programming through Mosaic. Does it benefit Hillel? No, it only counteracts Hillel’s principles of pluralism and individually-defined Jewish identity. Hillel is inclusive of many types of Jews, yet Mosaic aims to strengthen the “Jewish foundations of the family unit” (read: heteronormative, Orthodox Jewish nuclear family unit) while fighting any and all criticism of Israel. Fittingly, the Mosaic United initiative is overseen by the Israeli Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett, infamous for standing in complete opposition to Hillel’s principles of inclusive Jewish community building—Bennet openly opposes intermarriage between Palestinians and Jews, queer rights, and the recognition of Reform Jewry, the Jewish denomination of over a third of American Jews.
At UCSD Hillel, how can we possibly stand by this? Our goal of “radical inclusivity,” in which there is no litmus test to be a good Jew, is at direct odds with Mosaic United’s assimilationist mentality and Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines. The rich Jewish tradition of debate is thrown out the door; students aren’t encouraged to come to their own informed conclusions. I believe that many of UCSD Hillel’s student members and professional team, of all political beliefs and views on Israel/Palestine, would agree that we are only strengthened by new perspectives within our community. Part of my Jewish experience, and of many others’, was having to remind my Gentile dinner guests that everyone yelling at each other were indeed friends. I would argue that Hillel’s Israel Guidelines are, frankly, not very Jewish.
The ethical choice would be to declare UCSD Hillel an Open Hillel in line with both its principle of radical inclusivity and the Jewish tradition of questioning and debate. According to UCSD Hillel’s website, they currently serve around 80% of the Jewish community on campus. A part of me wonders if declaring it an Open Hillel would raise that already high proportion, while strengthening the connection of those already in Hillel’s network, Jewish students like myself. What I do know is that until Hillel does declare itself Open, its usage of the term “radical” in its mission statement is simply a co-optation.
Tal Marom is a writer for the Opinion section at The Triton. We welcome responses to opinion pieces. If you’d like to submit a response, or comment on a different issue affecting the UC community, please submit here.