‘Open Hillel’ seeks to redefine U.S. Jewish debate on Israel-Palestine

A student-led movement is seeking to ‘open’ a prominent U.S. Jewish campus group to a broader range of voices, and it’s gaining ground. This weekend, Open Hillel will seek to model an inclusive Jewish community that embraces marginalized voices. 

By Naomi Dann

“What’s wrong with conflict?” A professor once challenged me, a student of peace and justice studies and non-confrontational by nature. “Points of tension and moments of debate are productive, we learn from them.”

This weekend, a student movement known as Open Hillel will host a historic conference that promises vibrant debate and plenty of conflict over the relationship between the American Jewish community and the State of Israel. The tensions produced by uncensored conversations about the Israel-Palestine conflict promise to offer a moment of growth for our community.

Hillel International, the umbrella organization that houses Jewish life on American college campuses, imposes a set of guidelines delimiting the parameters of the conversation about the State of Israel within its community. Those redlines prohibit Hillel chapters from hosting or partnering with organizations or individuals that support the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, as well as those who “demonize” or “delegitimize” the State of Israel. These red lines and blanket characterizations have been used to silence debate and exclude prominent scholars, leaders, activists and organizations from mainstream Jewish life in American universities and institutions.

In the last year, the student-led movement to open Hillel to voices that dissent from the institutional American Jewish community’s unquestioning support for Israel has gained ground. In December 2013, the Hillel at Swarthmore College publicly declared that it would no longer abide by Hillel’s guidelines. In February 2014, I led a deliberative and democratic community process within the Hillel-affiliated Jewish community at Vassar College to publicly assert that our community would welcome a full diversity of political views, criticism and debate.

Building on the energy of students who have felt silenced on campus, the movement will host its first conference in Boston this weekend to model an open and inclusive Jewish community that allows space for the kind of dissent and disagreement around Israel that characterizes Jewish life in every other realm.

Bringing together a politically diverse group of hundreds of students, activists, scholars and Jewish community leaders, the conference will provide a space for spirited debate and engagement with difficult moral and political questions. There will be conflict. There will be tension. The long overdue growing pains of our community will be uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.

As a Jewish student of Peace and Justice Studies at an American liberal arts college, talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict was inescapable. I struggled against the fact that as a leader of a Jewish community, those I interacted with assumed my full political support for a nation-state that had displaced hundreds of thousands of people and imposed military rule on millions living under occupation. The oppressive policies of that state do not reflect my values, and a Jewish community that silences those of us who speak out for justice does not either.

Under the current guidelines, people like me are not welcome in the institution that claims to provide a home for Jewish life on American university campuses. The muzzling of dissent is not unique to Hillel International, but rather characteristic of the mainstream American Jewish community’s approach to criticism of Israel. Challenging this does not come without pushback. Speaking out against Hillel’s guidelines and in favor of putting pressure on Israel to change earned me hate mail and an ad hominem attack published by a disgruntled alum in the Wall Street Journal. But while it strained some relationships, it also strengthened and empowered our community.

This summer’s brutal assault on the people of Gaza made it clearer than ever to many of us that we must speak out against the militarism and ethnocentrism supported and even encouraged by our Jewish institutions. We’ve heard again and again that there is a generational shift happening. Polls tell us that my generation is less likely to identify with Israel. New movements and the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace signal that my generation is no longer content to remain willfully ignorant of the injustices committed by the State of Israel.

The Open Hillel conference speaks directly to this generational shift. Hillel International’s redlines are based on the claim that criticism of the State of Israel makes Jewish students feel unsafe. But we will not be safer as a Jewish community because we excluded the voices of those telling us that we are on the wrong path. Safety and security will never come from the silencing of dissent.

Queer theorist Judith Butler, one of the voices who has been excluded from Jewish institutions because of her political views, will speak at the opening plenary of the Open Hillel conference. She suggests that embracing the vulnerability that all people share as “precarious lives” can help us to transcend ethnocentrism and militarization.

For the sake of our community and for the sake of others, we must embrace this shared vulnerability, lean in to discomfort, and engage with the politically and morally challenging realities of the Israel. Opening Jewish communities to this conversation will not make them less safe. It will make them stronger.

Naomi Dann works full time to change the discourse in the United States around Israel-Palestine, as an organizer with Open Hillel, an activist with #IfNotNow and the media coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace.