This summer, the world watched as over 2,100 Gazans and 71 Israelis were killed in the latest war in Israel-Palestine. As bombs and rockets flew over Gaza and Israel, tensions ran high within the American Jewish community, and particularly among American Jewish college students. Some supported Israel’s operations, while some condemned them, and others fell somewhere in between.
Yet Hillel International, the umbrella organization for Jewish life at colleges and universities around the country, has failed to reflect the diversity of opinion among Jewish students. In a news update, Hillel International wrote that “the entire Hillel family” stood in support and solidarity with “the nation of Israel … [as well as] the government and people of Israel” during the war.
Yet, there was no consensus among “the entire Hillel family” on this issue, just as there is no consensus within “the entire Hillel family” on any issue relating to Israel-Palestine. Indeed, according to the 2014 Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students, while Israel was by far the issue of most importance to young Jews, only 35 percent of those surveyed felt that supporting Israel was very important. If an issue is highly important, but also highly contested, as these data suggest, then open discourse on that issue is essential. As the self-proclaimed “Foundation for Jewish Campus Life,” Hillel has a duty to create a space for such open dialogue.
Yet Hillel fails to do so.
Two years ago, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance planned an event, “Jewish Voices against the Occupation,” intended to be held within Hillel. The event featured two Jewish speakers—one American and one Israeli—who had participated in protests against the Israeli Defense Forces’ demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank. Yet because the event was cosponsored with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, the event was barred from Hillel. Hillel deemed any official association with PSC, Harvard’s only Palestinian student group, as a violation of Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. These standards bar Hillel from working with any speakers or organizations that “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” or support any form of boycotts, divestments, or sanctions against Israel.
Hillel’s standards introduce a political litmus test that precludes any meaningful engagement between Jewish and Palestinian student groups. Furthermore, at schools around the country, the standards severely limit the ability of Jews and Israelis deemed too critical of Israel to voice their concerns. The standards also exclude Jewish students from the Jewish community on campus. Ultimately, the Standards guidelines make any open and meaningful debate on Israel-Palestine within Jewish campus communities impossible.
In response to the banning of this event from Hillel, PJA joined with students at a few other Northeastern schools to launch the Open Hillel movement, petitioning Hillel International to abolish its Standards of Partnership and embrace political pluralism and open dialogue. The movement quickly gained momentum and grew to encompass dozens of active organizers and thousands of supporters around the country. In December 2013, the student board of Swarthmore Hillel unanimously voted to defy Hillel International’s Standards and become the first Open Hillel; Vassar and Wesleyan soon followed.
This weekend, Open Hillel will make history in yet another way. From October 11 to 13, we are hosting a conference here at Harvard, bringing together 300 college students and recent alumni from across the country. The conference will create a space for conversations not bogged down by Standards of Partnership or the political whims of Hillel’s major donors. It will feature leaders in Israel-Palestine-related academia and activism, including many who have been barred from Hillel and other Jewish institutions in the past, such as Judith Butler, Rashid Khalidi, and David Harris-Gershon.
It will be a place for participants of all perspectives to share their thoughts and ideas on Israel-Palestine. We’ll look beyond Israel-Palestine as well, discussing issues facing our Jewish communities here in the United States. In addition to panels on topics ranging from human rights in Israel-Palestine to race, gender, class, and sexuality in the Jewish community to competing historical narratives, our conference will feature opportunities for students to meet together and strategize about how to create change on their campuses and in their local contexts.
At this conference, young people from around the country will come together to create the open American Jewish community that we want to see.
We hope you will join us this weekend. Some students are trekking across the country to attend—you only need trek to the SOCH. Make your voice count.
Ann H. Finkel ’15 is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Dunster House. Nancy Ko ’17 lives in Lowell House. Justin Z. Szasz ’17 lives in Pforzheimer House. They are all Open Hillel organizers.