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An Open Hillel

By Sasha Johnson-Freyd, Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash, and Emily S. Unger

Last week, in an attempt to save money on kosher meals, Harvard University Dining Services put up a sign outside the Hillel dining hall stating that only members and invited guests of the Jewish community should eat there. In response, Hillel’s executive director, Jonah C. Steinberg, asserted that this externally imposed restriction “creates conflict with [Hillel’s] inclusive and welcoming environment.” Indeed, it is true that the Hillel community values the Hillel dining hall as an open space for all regardless of religious affiliation.

However, while this unfortunate situation is HUDS’s fault, not Hillel’s, Harvard Hillel hasn’t exactly proven itself a welcoming space for all in the past week. In fact, Hillel International policies have actively excluded important voices from Hillel—which is deeply disturbing to us, as members of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Hillel-affiliated group.

Yesterday, PJA co-sponsored an event entitled “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation” with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee. The event featured two Jewish speakers—one Israeli and one American—involved in peaceful activism opposing Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank. The speakers discussed the relationship between their Jewish identity and their present activism, as well as ways in which students going on Birthright could encounter a more diverse array of perspectives on their trip.

Originally, PJA planned to hold this event within Harvard Hillel, believing that the center for the Jewish community on campus would be an ideal location for an event featuring Jewish speakers and dealing with a very salient topic for young Jewish Americans. However, Hillel’s leadership forced us to relocate the event, explaining that according to Hillel International’s “Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities,” Hillel will not “partner with, house, or host organizations that... support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions…against the State of Israel,” which PSC does. This policy prevents not only PSC but also Students for Justice in Palestine, the major Palestinian group on U.S. campuses with chapters at 50 colleges and universities around the country, from ever co-sponsoring events or even speaking in Hillel buildings. While Hillel International claims to “welcome a diversity of student perspectives on Israel” and to “create an inclusive, pluralistic community,” its guidelines encourage exclusivity rather than inclusivity and conformity rather than diversity.

As progressive Jews working for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, we believe that a Hillel policy that encourages dialogue and collaboration with Palestinian groups is an essential step on the path toward peace. If we cannot reach across the divides of ethnicity, religion, and politics on our own campuses, how can we ever expect Israeli and Palestinian politicians to do so?

Many of those who defend Hillel’s current policy claim that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement—or BDS for short—is anti-Semitic. However, while some who advocate for this position may be anti-Semitic, the movement as a whole is not. If Hillel allowed its members and the members of PSC to engage and work together, more Hillel students might come to understand, as we have, that PSC members support BDS not out of prejudice but as a non-violent political strategy that aims to change Israeli policies that they find unjust. While PJA does not endorse the international BDS movement—we believe that there are better ways to promote a two-state solution and the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians—the fact that we or others disagree on a political position is hardly grounds for banning that view from Hillel.

Hillel must embrace the values of open discussion in order to be truly pluralistic and serve all Jewish students. As we explained in an open letter to the Hillel community, Hillel International’s current policies exclude not only Palestinian perspectives, but also many progressive Jewish viewpoints, including a wide variety of opinions that are more moderate and mainstream within the Jewish community than the International BDS movement. For instance, Brandeis Hillel rejected an appeal for affiliation from Brandeis Jewish Voice for Peace, because the group had held an “Israeli occupation awareness week” and advocates selective divestment from companies that profit off the occupation. Prominent liberal Zionist Peter Beinart, who supports a boycott of the Israeli settlements as a strategy to pressure Israel to preserve its democratic character, could also be prevented from speaking at Hillel under these policies. Jewish student groups that support his position could be excluded from organized Jewish campus life. As progressive Jews, we do not feel comfortable in a religious and cultural community that maintains such political litmus tests.

In the coming days and weeks, we will be reaching out to students at Harvard and other colleges and universities to petition jointly Hillel International to remove these ideological requirements for affiliated groups, organizational partnership, and invited speakers. We hope that the wider Jewish community will support us as we advocate for a more open and inclusive Hillel.

Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash ’15 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Sasha Johnson-Freyd ’15 is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Emily S. Unger ’13 is an organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator in Quincy House. They are on the board of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance.

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