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‘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.

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    1. Bruce Gould

      Information: this new website catalogs films about life as a Palestinian – it’s a bit incomplete right now but it’s being worked on:


      Reply to Comment
      • Richard Lightbown

        Thanks Bruce

        Reply to Comment
    2. Richard

      Hillel doesn’t want to finance you – that doesn’t mean they are “silencing debate.” Its sad you are too naive to understand how incredibly played out your entire attitude is. The hypocrisy and dishonesty of a pro-BOYCOTT individual repeating the crap in this piece gives me feelings of pity. If you want to be a Mondoweiss-level hack as a career you’ve got a community of mostly imbeciles and anti-Semites who’ll finance your minimum wage blogging, but that’s about it. Nobody else is going to take you seriously from now on and nobody cares about your conference. Does anyone even remember Norman Finkelstein? Confused and ignorant weirdos who hate Israel come and go. You’re just next in line.

      Reply to Comment
      • Felix Reichert

        More and more people are buying “Mondoweiss-level, minimum-wage” blogging. Because they can see that most of it is true.

        Thanks to the Internet!

        You and your colleagues are seeing it, and that’s why you’re pannicking and spamming on this and other so called left-wing sites (when in actuality they’re just liberal and democratic).

        Reply to Comment
      • Nina Fonoroff

        Richard’s invective:
        “Naive,” “played out,” “crap,” “pity,” “imbeciles,” “anti-Semites,” “minimum wage blogging,” “nobody else is going to take you seriously,” “nobody cares,” “confused and ignorant weirdos,” etc. etc. etc.

        Wow, Richard. Can you contribute something informative and substantial to this issue—for instance, a well-reasoned argument as to exactly *why* Hillel shouldn’t invite speakers who are critical of the State of Israel and its policies?

        Or is insult and ad-hominem attack the best you can muster?

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard

          Nina- The first sentence of my comment comprehensively sums up the stupidity of this piece on its merits, so your ad hominem claim is a straw man. Regardless, I’m not interested addressing your concerns and there’s no reason I should be. I’m genuinely saddened by the fact that bright American college students who could be making productive use of their brains are being taken in by chauvinistic nationalists and Islamists posing as liberals. A lot of really smart young people who are looking for purpose and a sense of self get sucked into a lot of nasty cults that are run by cynical creeps. If you don’t think that’s a problem worth talking about we have nothing to discuss.

          Reply to Comment
      • Aaron

        “If you want to be a Mondoweiss-level hack as a career you’ve got a community of mostly imbeciles and anti-Semites who’ll finance your minimum wage blogging, but that’s about it.”

        – And yet, Hasbara simpletons like yourself can’t even win ONE single debate against the regular posters on the Mondoweiss website because they have history and facts on their side ! LOL !

        Reply to Comment
    3. Avdim

      Judith Butler’s letter is very amusing. You can’t both support a boycott of a state and then complain when you are being boycotted (in a sense) yourself.

      I mean, you can’t if you’re honest with yourself. Turns out some people can.

      Reply to Comment
    4. noe

      I didn’t realize until now that “Open Hille” is an offshoot of JVP. So really what we have here is the same activists under another moniker. Clever, if not exactly honest.

      By the way, hosting a BDS evening with three speakers who wish to dismantle Israel has nothing to do with what Hillel is about. Although it seems you don’t know much about Hillel in the first place: “If I am not for myself, who is for me?”

      Reply to Comment
      • Nina Fonoroff

        Have you (conveniently) forgotten the next portion of Hillel’s comment?

        “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
        But if I am only for myself, who am I?
        If not now, when?”

        Reply to Comment
        • noe

          Um, which part of that statement could be interpreted to have people who wish Israel to be destroyed come to campus?

          None of it.

          Reply to Comment
    5. Gustav

      “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
      But if I am only for myself, who am I?
      If not now, when?”

      Hillel our sage was a great man. His words are a testimony to his down to earth humanity. We should all try to emulate him.

      The so called modern Hillelis in this article though are something else. Their motto is:

      “We are only for others. Never for ourselves”

      At best that is naivete. At worst, it is criminal stupidity because most normal human beings do not ignore self interest. Good people try and help others but not if those others fall over backwards to try and hurt them.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Nina Fonoroff


      Here is how I interpret this statement by Hillel.

      We are all mutually interdependent; the fate of one person (or people) is profoundly connected to the fate of others. Obviously, we’re all interested in our own survival and well-being, and that of the people around us with whom we “identify,” and upon whom we rely in the most immediate way.

      Yet when we hurt members of another group (who are often denounced as “Other,” in that they are not—as you put it—-like “most normal human beings”), then, over a period of time, should we be surprised when there is some form of reprisal? And when the violence of state power is enacted upon people in a continuous and protracted manner, that power will eventually see the withering of its own sense of collective, moral purpose, and can ultimately expect its own collapse—from within.

      In my view, “criminal stupidity” consists in failing to recognize this reality, and to disavow the hurt we do ourselves when we hurt others. It’s against this stupidity that people like Judith Butler and the others at Open Hillel are taking a stand.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        “Yet when we hurt members of another group”

        For the last 100 years we, the Jews and Arabs have been hurting each other. But let there be no mistake about it, Nina, we have been hurting THEM because they have been fighting a war against US in which THEIR aim is to assert THEIR supremacy over this land. THEY want everything and they want US to have nothing.

        “(who are often denounced as “Other,” in that they are not—as you put it—-like “most normal human beings”)”

        Did I put it that way? I would put it more like, they are like SOME human beings. They are besotted with their own supremacy to the exclusion of everyone else’s rights, including our own rights to independence in our own state.

        “then, over a period of time, should we be surprised when there is some form of reprisal?”

        You are absolutely right. We have been retaliating to their 100 year old terror campaign against us. And we have been trying to protect ourselves from them as best as we can.

        Reply to Comment
        • samir khan

          I think it is wrong.Like Ireland it needs peace, two sides, equal shares.Not a bad apartheid system.Sorry call it as it looks.It has violated so much.It is a joke, USA has been using this to sell test weapons for years.

          Reply to Comment
          • Liron

            Funny you mention Ireland, where they also have a wall keeping terrorists out.

            Reply to Comment
    7. Omar Amin von Leers

      What a great conference. I wish I could attend.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Gustav

      “Yet when we hurt members of another group (who are often denounced as “Other”

      You know, Nina? I need to say this as a separate message which is important because some lefties like to pretend that we are the only ones who are self interested.

      But the reality is that the term “OTHER” is relative. Yes, to us they are the “OTHER” but that is not a crime. You know why? Because to THEM, WE are the “OTHER”. And they too are self interested.

      Reply to Comment