Campus discourse: Lack of progress is disturbing

Sue Fischlowitz is a former chair of the board of St. Louis Hillel at Washington University and of Hillel at Brandeis University, and previously served as interim executive director at St. Louis Hillel. She is a former Jewish communal professional and lives in Clayton.

By Sue Fischlowitz

Regarding the Point/Counterpoint columns in the St. Louis Jewish Light of May 3 (“WashU Hillel explains decision on Breaking the Silence exhibit” and “Voices of dissent should be welcome in ‘big tent’):

Once again, Jewish life on campuses in St. Louis is being highlighted in the Jewish Light. Three years ago, the issues were much the same as they are in this week’s Point/Counterpoint columns. Issues of civil discourse, discussion, criticism and the right to share divergent views in a respectful manner still find their ways into local headlines. Have we moved the discourse forward in the past three years? 

If we don’t move forward, we will have to live with the knowledge that many of our students, our children, our grandchildren, are not being allowed to find a home for themselves within the organized Hillel world, because the organized campus Jewish community really is administering litmus tests: Hillels are saying to them, “Engage with Jewish life, but on our terms, not on yours.” 

And of course we will be losing our children because, as Aitan Groener says, “We need to make sure that our members can bring their full selves into our community, politics and all.” 

But the establishment is making that impossible.

As to civil discourse, I am disheartened to read that Jackie Ulin Levey says “there was no acceptable middle ground.”

That’s just unacceptable. We must be able to find middle ground and safe spaces for engagement, or the establishment will continue to fail Jewish students by the thousands, and we cannot afford that.

Going back three years, the headline in the April 9, 2014, Jewish Light [“Event at Hillel sparks criticism, discussion about campus group’s policies”] caught my eye because it is so representative of situations at other Hillels across the country.

 The question this raises for me is can we have “discussion” without “criticism”? And, further, is it possible in this country, at this time, in this Jewish community, to have truly respectful discussions about big issues of concern to many?

 In examining the implications for discourse on Israel and other big issues on campuses, we can look carefully at a few basic concepts and terms used freely in Hillel communities: “Creating a Big Tent”; “Asking Big Questions”; and “Engaging students” by starting with where they are in their Jewish journeys.

When noting the guidelines of the Schusterman International Center (SIC), we come up against a fundamental inconsistency. We created a big tent to welcome students of all stripes. Within that big tent, we encourage students to ask big questions. But the SIC guidelines restrict the parameters within which the answers to the big questions may fall.

 And the limitation on the boundaries of the discourse is in itself inconsistent with the purpose of the Academy writ large. In academic settings, which are by definition centers of inquiry, to erect a stop sign as to how far the discussion of big questions can go creates a logical, moral and ethical inconsistency and perhaps a fundamental flaw in the design and function of individual Hillels.

Can Hillel as an organization allow each campus affiliated with the SIC to determine the size of its own big tent, to ask its own big questions, and to allow its discourse, driven by its students and where they are in their Jewish journeys, to flow unrestricted?

Can the SIC live with individual differences on different campuses, which will model the concept of inclusion in a truly big tent and make that concept a reality?

 Can the SIC allow students to ask their own big questions without limiting the range within which their answers may fall and, in so doing, make Hillel experiences and Jewish life on campus truly engaging for students where they are?

 Can the staffs and supporters of Hillels around the United States and the world reframe their view of students and the function of Hillel, to treat students as independent, thinking, questioning adults and let the discourse on campus go where it may?

 I’d suggest that a move in that direction will serve our students well, treating them more as growing young adults, with good minds, hearts and souls, learning to think for themselves within a safe and supportive campus community.

Clearly, the issues of three years ago regarding free speech, civil discourse, the acceptability of difference and the imperative of inclusion are still with us today, unresolved. We must do better.