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At Open Hillel conference, Jews demand their spot at the communal table

By demanding their voices be heard, Open Hillel students are making dissent within the Jewish community impossible to deny.

By Sarah Anne Minkin

Hillel is the Jewish home for college students. With more than 550 Hillels worldwide, mainly in North America, it is one of the primary sites where young Jews express, explore, and cultivate their Jewishness. So a few years ago when Hillel International, the parent organization, imposed strict guidelines around engagement with Israel, many students were upset to find themselves facing formal prohibitions.

After years of struggles within Hillels over who was in the “big tent” of Jewish community, the guidelines were supposed to clarify the boundaries of what was acceptable within the Jewish community. They prohibit hosting or cosponsoring an event with any organization or person who support BDS or commit Natan Sharansky’s “3 D’s” – demonizing, delegitimizing, or applying a double standard to the state of Israel.

Participants in the Open Hillel Conference, Harvard University. (photo: Gili Getz)

Participants in the Open Hillel Conference, Harvard University. (photo: Gili Getz)

The guidelines epitomize the marginalization and exclusion of dissent from within the confines of formal Jewish community on college campuses. Just look at the attempt to establish a JVP chapter at Brandeis, for instance, or the Breaking the Silence controversies at Penn and other places, or the brouhaha over Jews and Palestinians wanting to co-host former Knesset Chairman Avraham Burg at Harvard.

Frustrated students responded by getting organized. In 2013, under the “Open Hillel” banner, students launched a campaign and petition calling on Hillel to cancel its guidelines. Starting at Harvard, the effort caught on; Swarthmore Hillel declared themselves Open in December 2013, followed by Vassar in February 2014 (timeline here).

Open Hillel held its inaugural conference on October 11-13, gathering more than 350 people, mostly students and young alumni, representing a range of backgrounds, interests, and connections to Israel/Palestine. Some arrived as committed BDS-ers planning campaigns on their campuses. Some oppose BDS and align with J Street. Others arrived without a firm position.

The point of Open Hillel is to flex the muscles of inquiry and analysis rather than constrict debate. This aim will lead some to political action and others to inquire more. But in an age in which conversation is preemptively sterilized – speakers barred, ideas silenced – just convening an open conversation is a political act.

Five takeaways from the conference:

1. Students reject the idea that the Israel they are supposed to “love” is somehow separate from the system of ethnic privilege that they reject. That is, the mainstream approach of featuring Israel “beyond the conflict” does not work with this crowd. They want to unpack the ways in which occupation, discrimination against non-Jewish citizens, and the Nakba are central features of this Israel that they are instructed to support. In pursuing the debate, Open Hillel airs big questions with no clear answers.

2. Israel/Palestine is not just a Jewish issue. Organizers invited Palestinians to lead workshops and asked Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi to give a keynote. Where most Jewish organizations might hold “dialogue” sessions with Palestinians behind closed doors, Open Hillel made it clear that hearing from and engaging with Palestinians is an imperative.

Penny Rosenwasser and Judith Butler speak during a panel at the Open Hillel Conference. (photo courtesy of Open Hillel)

Penny Rosenwasser and Judith Butler speak during a panel at the Open Hillel Conference. (photo courtesy of Open Hillel)

3. Intersectionality is a fact. One student shared that her Hillel director said their campus couldn’t deal with Israel in a more complex way because “then we’d have to deal with race and gender, too.” The Open Hillel conference made clear that race, gender, sexuality, and intermarriage are critical issues in the Jewish community overall and in relation to Israel/Palestine.

That the personal is political is a given. Open Hillel made space for articulating, investigating, and surfacing some of the contradictions, challenges, and implacable struggles of being a Jew in America. These struggles are intertwined with, but not limited to, the debate over Israel/Palestine.

4. Fear matters – but it is does not get the final word. The pain of isolation from Jewish family, friends, and institutions; the threat of being sidelined or cast out of Jewish spaces; the heartbreak at hearing yourself called a self-hating Jew or being told you’re not a Jew at all – these are common experiences among Jews who criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. For many, especially those who work in academia or for Jewish organizations, speaking out can lead to the loss of a job, a grant, a promotion. At the same time, anti-semitism is a real and frightening phenomenon that no one wants to abet.

Yet conference organizers committed to holding an open conference, inviting participants and speakers from opposition organizations (including the Zionist Organization of America), welcoming the press and encouraging tweeting. It is a tactic of the right to try to undermine critics of Israel by spying and reporting, threatening exposure to ensure silent compliance. People who have used these measures were at the conference. But instead of closing the conference off and trying to make it safe behind closed doors, organizers welcomed transparency. This powerful decision declares the legitimacy of dissent.

5. Two parallel and enmeshed struggles are at work here: Ensuring justice in Israel/Palestine and expanding and changing the discourse in the U.S. These are both big battles. The Jewish struggle to open up Jewish spaces to candid, wide-ranging, no-holds-barred conversations about the state of Israel is a key factor in both.

Open Hillel students are forming alternative communities, as every dissenting movement does. But in their demand to be allowed a place at the Jewish communal table, they make dissent within the Jewish community visible and impossible to deny.

Only time will tell how this effort will unfold as these students graduate and move on from their college years. But if this inaugural conference offers any guidance, Open Hillel is creating a community for whom serious debate, challenging conventional wisdom, struggling for justice, and wrestling with Israel are the Jewish values to which these committed Jews subscribe.

*For more on the Open Hillel conference, see these articles by Dina Kraft, Batya Ungar-Sasson, Peter Beinart, and conference organizers Naomi Dann and Evan Goldstein.)

Sarah Anne Minkin is a post-doctoral fellow at University of California-Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies.

‘Open Hillel’ seeks to redefine U.S. Jewish debate on Israel-Palestine
Israelis in the U.S. urge the Jewish community to take a closer look at Gaza

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    1. Noe

      If this pseudo-JVP movement calling itself “Open Hillel” is open to “serious debate” why did it only invite staunch Israel-hating, anti-Zionist, one-staters to be the speakers at its “inaugural” conference?

      They couldn’t find a single speaker who would present an alternative point of view?

      And please, if you have the courage to respond, don’t insult our intelligence by claiming that such speakers already get to campuses. The fact is that on most US and European campuses the vast majority of speakers invited to speak about the Israeli-Arab conflict are people hostile to Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Rafi

        As a matter of fact, 15 right-wing organizations were invited and ALL said no. Here is something written in the booklet given to all those who attended the conference for reference:


        Moreover, there were those who did not espouse only “staunch Israel-hating, anti-Zionist, one-state” views.” Peter Beinart, Steven Cohen, David Rosen from the New Israel Fund, and many participants described themselves as Zionists. This was about broadening the conversation.

        Though as a participant I’d be lying if I said I was disappointed at the response some of the Liberal Zionist speakers received, please do not slander the conference and diminish its importance by implying there was no effort to find a speaker with another view. Nothing could be further from the truth.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ginger Eis

          1. You lie. The link you posted does not support your claim in any way:

          (a) it does not contain the names of the “15 organizations” you claim,
          (b) it does not contain the letters of invitation to said “15 organizations”,
          (c) the paper on the twitter page does not bear the name of the writer and is neither dated nor signed, etc.
          (d) it contains a claim that “nearly a dozen organizations” were invited to send “representatives” NOT “speakers”! Beyond that the link claims nearly “a dozen organizations”, while you claim “15 organizations”, etc.

          2. “Peter Beinart, Steven Cohen, David Rosen from the New Israel Fund, and many participants described themselves as Zionists.”

          Many post- and anti-Zionists describe themselves as Zionists. That’s no secret and expecting them to describe themselves as anti-Zionist would indeed be breathtakingly stupid! BTW, Norman G. Finkelstein is also a Zionist Jew.

          3. “This was about broadening the conversation.”

          Right! Would you be so kind and post us the invitation letters to folks like Caroline Glick, Allan Dershowitz, (c) Gerald Steinberg, etc.

          4. “Though as a participant I’d be lying if I said I was disappointed at the response some of the Liberal Zionist speakers received,..”

          And you expect heavy weights in the fields of academics, economics, science, etc. to mingle with ragtags like yourself? Oy vey!

          5. “please do not slander the conference and diminish its importance by implying there was no effort to find a speaker with another view. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

          What “slander”? What “importance”?! “Another Jew supporting Divestment” from Israel and endangering the personal safety of Jews both in Israel and around the world? Is that your “importance”? is that what you call “slander”? Or is it the fact that you can show no scintilla of proof/evidence whatsoever that you invited one single fellow you consider “right wing” as a speaker? Et cetera. You decide!

          Reply to Comment
      • Mark LeVine

        If you would have read any other reports on the conference you would learn that in fact Open HIllel invited many people associated with both HIllel and more right-wing Jewish positions on Israel. Not a single person or organization accepted. The reason is, of course, obvious: their position fall to pieces as soon as they are challenged, particularly by a bunch of very smart Jewish ivy league college students who are sick of being told what is and isn’t legitimate criticism of israel. I wouldn’t hold my breath for them showing up for the next conference either because as Open HIllel grows, they will ramp up the attacks on anyone associated with it, just as they’ve done to other Jewish critics of Israel.

        Reply to Comment
        • Noe

          Oh please guys, you have to be joking. Is Mark LeVine affiliated with a left wing or other organization that sent him? Is Rashid Khalidi? Is Judith Butler?

          Give me a break. If you want speakers, you get speakers. Calling the ZOA and getting ignored so you can claim you “contacted right wing organizations” is a bad joke intended to dupe others. If they had wanted other voices, there would have been other speakers there.

          As for LeVine’s claim that some people were afraid to contend with some Ivy League students, I wasn’t aware there were no pro-Israel voices in the Ivy League. What, you can’t find those either?

          JVP and SJP, the two groups with primary representation at this “conference” and their friends (for example, Mondoweiss) are extraordinarily exclusionary organizations. For example, you cannot belong to JVP if you don’t sign on to BDS or the non-existent “right of return.” That takes some chutzpah. On Mondoweiss, it takes very little time to get banned if your views are even mildly pro-Israel. On Muzzlewatch, JVP’s organization (how many does it have?) prevents comments on their articles, lest, you know, someone as smart as an Ivy League student, or a fourth tier college for that matter destroy their arguments.

          It’s a little joke on the world that the same people affiliated with these closed groups created “Open Hillel” in an attempt to insinuate themselves further into the already severely damaged Jewish community on campus (damaged because of the hostility they bring into campus) by complaining that this community was closed.

          Next time, try to hold a conference with a real broad sweep of voices. Otherwise, just admit that you’re simply JVP and SJP in disguise.

          Reply to Comment
        • GilGamesh

          You’re joking right? If there is any group that appears to be afraid of open honest debate it’s JVP. They allow no comments on there web site. The radio show they appear on regularly with JREJ never take calls. When their representatives publish articles in publications like the Forward they never take part below the line unless it’s a one shot remark. There are no shortage of those who take a moderate position on Israel that are willing to debate in any fair forum. The fact of the matter is Open Hillel repeated their claims that these supposed invites had been rejected multiple times and have not provided any evidence whatsoever that these invitations were made.

          Reply to Comment
      • Lisa

        I am surprised at how little support is shown in these comments. Most of what I hear is pro -Israel. American government is all pro- Israel. AIPAC is the biggest lobby in America. Please stop acting like the un represented victims here. This discussion is long overdue. Why denounce talking ? Isn’t it better than killing? Other organizations were invited. Why is this the fault of the organizers that they refused to attend? There is so much stubborn Victimhood in the identity of Israel, a supremacist attitude combined with a denouncement of
        Anything contrary to a nationalistic, blind following. it is the perceptual identity crisis that keeps resolution and equal rights at Bay.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ginger Eis

          “This discussion is long overdue. Why denounce talking ? Isn’t it better than killing?”

          a. This discussion has been going on for ages. To pretend otherwise is just making stuff up and plain ridiculous.
          b. The only ones who denounce talking are they who want only (far) leftist voices to be heard, while dishonestly and systematically stifling what they call “right wing” voices. That way you perpetuate the problem. If you want to know who supports the killing (“right wing”) Jews, Lisa Goldman (I see you, for peculiar reasons, have multiple identities now), look in the mirror!

          “Other organizations were invited. Why is this the fault of the organizers that they refused to attend?”

          a. Other organizations were invited” as what? “To send representatives” or “as speakers”? And why not invite individuals? Again, you decide.
          b. Show us your evidence that “other organizations” (i.e. “right wing” organizations) were invited.
          c. You yourself has been abusing your position on this site banning those whose voices you do not what to be heard and forcing folks like our good Bar to assume several names to evade your raging anger against “right wingers”. What a shame, Lisa.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ginger Eis


            “If you want to know who supports the killing OF (“right wing”) Jews”…..was meant. The word “of” is missing in the particular sentence. My apologies.

            Reply to Comment
      • Noe

        Thanks for the Beinart article. It demonstrates how clueless he is. First of all, he’s one of the reasons that some young Jews have turned against Israel, considering the vile, one-sided anti-Israel junk he published for a couple of years under the name “Open Zion,” not to mention his support of boycotting Israel (yes, boycotting “settlements” when the settlements to which the Palestinians are referring include Jerusalem, is boycotting Israel).

        He acknowledges that the conference felt anti-Zionist, but can’t figure out exactly why that would be. Sitting on a panel next to the founder and head of JVP doesn’t clue him in. Instead he spouts her propaganda. Her marginal group is a key mover behind Open Hillel and he can’t figure out why he’s the right-most person at the conference. Amazing.

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard Lightbown

          Is this an obscure acknowledgement that invitations were made to people/organizations with opposing views or just a load of irrelevant, ad-hom drivel because you know your complaint has been shown to be false, but you can’t possibly admit it?

          Reply to Comment
          • Noe

            Acknowledgement of what? If they had wanted speakers of a certain vein, they would have gotten them. This isn’t complicated.

            Reply to Comment
      • Ginger Eis

        a. Post to us a copy of the letter of invitation Peter to the “right wing” organizations you claim;

        b. Post to us a copy of the invitation letter you sent to a single individual “right winger” to come and give a speech;

        c. Peter Beinart whom you reference writes: “The Israel conversation American Jewish leaders aren’t willing to have. Don’t ignore or demonize the young American Jews flirting with anti-Zionism. Argue with them.”

        Even your leadership admit that your are anti-Zionists!

        d. Your members wear T-shirts reading: “Another Jew supporting divestment” from Israel.

        Now, sir, regardless of whom exactly you “invited”, tell me why any self-respecting Jew will want to have anything to do with hooligans who not only want to bring about the demise of Israel through BDS, but promote the demonization, abuse and murder of ordinary Jews around the world?

        You guys need serious reality check!

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard Lightbown

          Bor/Ginger: Why would anyone bother complying with you ridiculous and arrogant demands? You’re never going to concede that anything positive occurred at this conference no matter what they do or say. By taking paranoia to a whole new level like this you merely underline what an important new initiative it was. Thanks for the endorsement.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ginger Eis

            It is perplexing, isn’t it, that you read and see “paranoia” in everything. That might satisfy some momentary emotional needs, but don’t get carried away, sir. Indeed, one of my greatest joys is that the opponents of Israel are nothing more than noise making empty drums. I am very confident that we can always manage them – and where necessary comprehensively defeat them (remember when Belgium enacted a law with the goal of indicting Arik Sharon and the rest of the Israeli military echelon? Belgium was brought to its knees and forced to retract said law in it’s entirely. If Belgium runs scared when Zion roars, what do you think will happen to those empty drums if we ever decide to go after them?).

            I do not see that it is at all difficult at all to provide evidence that “15 right wing organizations” were invited as claimed. I see all the links provided here but no one is able to provide evidence to support the claim made. No such evidence exists, maybe?

            Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            My my, are “Ginger Eis” and her companions the Jewish Secret Police, or something? The Jewish Geheime Staatspolizei? Utterly obnoxious the way they come on here interrogating as if the others here are under a bare lightbulb. Really, how dare you, Ginger Eis, with the hard core interrogation and threat schtick? NOBODY here or with Open Hillel has to prove anything to you. You wanna start making arrests? You gonna start sending people away? Absolutely ridiculous.

            Reply to Comment
          • GilGamesh

            In other words you can’t back up the claim that OH made these invites.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Richard

      No, showing up to a debate is a sign of respect. People who properly understand how the Middle East works don’t respect the sanctimonious brats of “Open Hillel” because those brats are ignorant and naive. Mark understands this perfectly but he pretends not to, because he has fans and you can’t disappoint the fans.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Tomer

      The reality is that more and more American Jews are no longer “Jewish” in any meaningful sense.

      How many understand basic Ivrit? How many can explain the difference between Ancient & Modern Hebrew? How many understand the idea behind most Jewish Festivals or basis of Jewish calendar? How many can say “Shema Israel”?

      30 or 40 years ago, most young American Jews could at least partially answer these questions.

      Today, you have a bunch of ignoramuses. They don’t know where they are coming from or going to. About 50% will intermarry and another 25% will never marry anyone. The whole structure is rotten from inside. No wonder many support “Fakestinyan Rights”

      Reply to Comment
    4. One problem with inviting opponents to a conference — how hard do you have to work, in face of many refusals to participate.

      Think of all the conferences on Palestine when universities have been urged to have “balance”. But no-one tells the organizers how to find the right opponent!

      Here, there are TWO items for disagreement: [1] I/P, [2] freedom for Jews to discuss I/P outside the Hillel guidelines. Who is the appropriate/acceptable opponent? Only someone who opposes Open Hillel on [2]? And will someone who doe NOT wish to allow open discussion come to a conference about OPENNESS to explain why openness is a bad idea? I mean, why would such a person even bother?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Victor Arajs

      Hillels have no place on campus. They are handmaidens of oppression. Confiscate their headquarters and give it to Jewish voices for peace

      Reply to Comment
    6. chezi

      Giving land away to the Arabs is a terrible sin that will have grave consequences, as we have already seen. As for Hillel, it has become a soap box for the fascist, leftist kofrim, malshinim, and zaydim

      Reply to Comment
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