During the early 1970s when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, one of my two roommates was a Jew. We became close friends and beer-drinking buddies, and many late nights we studied together in Regenstein Library. We still correspond on issues that concern us.
He introduced me to the University of Chicago Hillel, the Jewish student group. He was a member even though he was, as he said, "an agnostic Jew from Boston" who spoke his mind. He said the Chicago chapter, even with its problems, was one of the most tolerant in the country. I accompanied him to several functions that were open to the public, and I was impressed with the sophisticated, uninhibited debate on many controversial issues, including Israel.
The main purpose of Hillel, at more than 500 colleges and universities, is to nurture Jewish identity in the next generation of students. Over time, its core mission has become more defined and less inclusive. Now those who reject or question the legitimacy of Israel or its policies need not apply.
For me, the most striking things about my roommate were his courage and selflessness. He didn't support Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and he publicly said so. I'm reminded of him and my Chicago years because of recent political and ideological conflicts in several Hillel chapters around the country.
Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, with 1,534 students, of which 275 are Jews, is ground zero for the conflicts. Last month, members of the Swarthmore Hillel passed a resolution permitting anti-Zionist speakers to participate in its activities, a move that goes against Hillel International's strict 2010 guidelines that bar chapters from associating with individuals or groups that "delegitimize" or "apply a double standard" to the Jewish state.
In deciding to give Israel critics a voice, the Swarthmore chapter described itself as the first "Open Hillel" in the United States. Its leaders officially declared: "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."
Pushback was immediate and fierce. In a letter to the Swarthmore chapter, Eric Fingerhut, president and chief executive of Hillel, warned: "Let me be clear — 'anti-Zionists' will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances."
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, was venomous, saying that if the Swarthmore Hillel collaborates with anti-Israel speakers, the chapter "will deserve to be spat upon."
Although the likes of Fingerhut and Podhoretz have many supporters across the Jewish world, large numbers of Jews, especially the young, are siding with the Swarthmore students.
As my former roommate told me last week when we discussed the Swarthmore controversy, the terrible irony is that the American academy is the last place where debate should be restrained or disallowed. Challenged after being heard, yes, but not prohibited.
When we were at Chicago, Israel was open to debate in and out of class. Edward Hirsch Levi, who became U.S. attorney general during President Gerald Ford's administration, was the university president. His wisdom was a guiding force in our lives, and I have kept many of his words close at hand.
"The University of Chicago exists for the life of the mind," he wrote. "Its primary purpose is intellectual. It exists to increase the intellectual understanding and powers of mankind. … While its faculty and students will individually respond to a variety of political and social commitments, the purpose of the university continues to be intellectual, not moral. … Its greatest service is in its commitment to reason, in its search for basic knowledge, in its mission to preserve and to give continuity to the values of mankind's many cultures."
Would the current Hillel crisis exist if powerful opinion leaders such as Fingerhut and Podhoretz and chapter leaders everywhere apprehended the words of Levi, one of America's greatest legal thinkers? Would they continue to fear intellectual understanding and the powers of reason?
A student on the Swarthmore Hillel board put the issue into rational perspective for the New York Times: "There are a lot of really smart people across the political spectrum on Israel that we want to talk to, and we feel that Hillel should not have a political litmus test on who is allowed and who is not."