The death of Nelson Mandela prompted many reminiscences about what people around the world did to support the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. On college campuses, students organized to persuade their institutions to withdraw the investments of their endowments from companies and financial agencies doing business in or with South Africa.
My two older daughters, Berkeley-raised as they were, supported the actions on their own campuses while they were in college. At the eldest’s outdoor Barnard-Columbia graduation in 1985 (Marion Wright Edelman was the speaker) most of the graduates in their caps and gowns stood up in the middle of the ceremony and marched off the field to symbolize their commitment to divestment, which began at Columbia that same year. The second, at Swarthmore in the class of 1986, participated in a variety of actions which ultimately resulted in that college’s plan for complete divestment in 1989.
The enormous turnout of world leaders at Mandela’s funeral, with assorted peaceable gestures by President Obama, among others, was testimony to the idea that occasionally humans can agree on what it means to do good, albeit in some cases after the fact. Obama , who was on the Columbia campus at roughly the same time as my daughter and son-in-law, remembered his own participation in the divestment movement as his entrée to political achievement.
And the kids are still at it, showing older but not wiser folks how to do what needs to be done. I’ve been very cheered by a report from Swarthmore (where my first grandchild started this fall) that the campus organization of Jewish students, Hillel, has resolved to open its lecture platform to all points of view regarding the situation in Israel/Palestine.
The students’ statement, as quoted in the Jewish Daily Forward, was 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.”
By establishing this policy, the Swarthmore students are defying the policy of the parent Hillel organization as reported in the Forward: “Hillel International’s Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities reject partnerships with groups or hosting speakers who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; delegitimize, demonize or apply double standards to Israel; support boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts against Israel; or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
It’s obvious that the leaders of Hillel international are concerned that the tools employed so successfully by Nelson Mandela and his supporters in South Africa will be employed again in an attempt to persuade the Jewish state to change course in the way it deals with the Palestinians. That’s why they don’t want students to hear from those who “support boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts against Israel.”
Whatever you might think about the policies of those who now run Israel, it can’t hurt and might help to promote civil dialogue among those with all points of view. The great (and Jewish) Justice Louis Brandeis noted that “it is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” (Whitney v. California 271 U.S. 357 )
If you don’t like what you hear, in the same opinion he said : “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Hillel International would do well to study the writings of Justice Brandeis as a guide to what their policies should be. And while they’re at it, they might review the words of another great Jewish thinker, the prophet Isaiah: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” (King James Bible translation)
The Swarthmore students who are setting an example for their elders might bridle at being called little children, but they’re certainly trying to lead the way to what everyone, especially adherents of the three great desert religions, claims to want: peace in the Holy Land. Led by our young people, let’s all keep talking about how we can get there.