Bringing the Values of Open Hillel Into Postgraduate Life: An Open Letter
Two recent events reassured me that younger Jews are actively questioning the system of control, humiliation, and violence that the Israeli Occupation imposes on Palestinians: the Open Hillel Conference of 2014 and the #IfNotNow movement’s demonstrations against Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge.”
Organized to take place on the Jewish holiday of Tish’a B’av, #IfNotNow’s acts of civil disobedience drew attention to the American Jewish establishment’s callous response to the disproportionately destructive impacts and loss of life of Palestinians in Gaza. Taken together with the Open Hillel Conference, these protests reassured me that there are young Jews who still care enough about Israel’s future to critically engage its policies.
I can empathize with the feelings of exclusion that gave birth to the Open Hillel movement. When I was a law student at UC Berkeley, my fellow Jewish law students and I were effectively barred from hosting a visiting Jewish Israeli scholar whose research exposed Israeli government policies that discriminated against Arab municipalities in budget allocations. We could not host this scholar because we declined to subject him to Hillel’s questionnaire regarding his loyalty to the State of Israel.
As much as I found the events of this summer inspiring, I am not very hopeful that Hillel affiliates across the country, let alone Hillel International, will accede to Open Hillel’s demands. At best, the movement will succeed long after its earliest participants have left campus. This left me to wonder: where will all the Open Hillelnikim go once they’ve left campus? What will become of this movement? How will you engage the Jewish community beyond campus—among family, friends, fellow synagogue members, and people you see at community events at your local Jewish Community Center? Where will you find Jewish and/or Zionist homes (if you identify as a Zionist of a particular stripe) that reflect the values of Open Hillel? In short, how will you engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an American Jew?
As I will propose below, this is very hard to do in American Jewish communities, where there are far too few hospitable spaces to have open dialogue. There is, however, a tremendous amount of room for personal growth and for inventing such communities if you carry the spirit of the Open Hillel movement wherever you go.
Ways to Stay Engaged Past Graduation
Using my own engagement with the conflict over twenty years as a guide, allow me to humbly suggest a few ways forward as you begin to map your own engagement with this issue.
First, seek out meaningful, revelatory experiences with Palestinians, whether in the Diaspora or in Israel/Palestine. This is essential for personal growth, as it can help breakdown whatever latent biases you may have (whether you know you have them or not) from simply growing up in the echo chamber of the American Jewish community. It is arguably also essential as a precursor to engaging with the conflict in other ways, since it will give you a sense of personal involvement and an authenticity to your experience that so many others lack for having never pushed themselves beyond the intellectual and social ghettos of Jewish America.
Second, seek out organizations that cohere with your values—you’ll need the sense of community they provide. But if they don’t exist where you live, become a Jewish values entrepreneur and help catalyze change in the broader Jewish institutional apparatus as you have with Hillel; hold these institutions’ nationalist ambitions accountable to the Jewish and American values of free speech and human dignity. Instigate debate and force others to recognize your viewpoint as part of the discussion, just as you allow them a space to have their views.
Stay True to Your Values
As you start out on your journey beyond Open Hillel, don’t ignore Gandhi’s wisdom:
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.
While not sufficient on its own, change does begin within us, and slowly the world will respond. It will also be essential to keep in mind the empowering words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”
I know from experience that it is very uncomfortable to be outspokenly critical of Israel’s policies in the Jewish community. There are social costs to staying true to your values when others disagree with you. But it is equally painful to stay silent or to passively join with those with whom you do not agree.
During my senior year at Columbia University, during Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, Israel began attacking the town and adjoining refugee camp of Jenin in the West Bank. At the time I found I could neither join the ranks of the pro-Palestinian protestors who were condemning Israel’s incursions into Jenin, nor the ranks of the pro-Israeli counter-protestors who were defending these incursions. As a result I sat awkwardly—but at peace with myself—in the middle of the quad. Not everyone has found that uncomfortable middle, but it’s your ground to claim if you seek it out.
As it turned out, while the fighting in Jenin was gruesome and there was tremendous damage to the city, the scale of the loss of Palestinian life was inaccurately portrayed by the media. This experience reinforced my commitment to seeking out the facts myself rather than settling for easy jingoism and comfortable “truths.” At the same time, I am wary of efforts to use this isolated instance of biased reporting to deflect attention from current abuses or the foundational power imbalance lying at the heart of the conflict.
Turn the Revolution Inward
I urge current members of Open Hillel to stay engaged past graduation by turning the spirit of Open Hillel inward. Inform your actual engagement with the physical place called Israel/Palestine. Make conscious decisions about whether to visit Israel, and if you do, where you will visit and what you will do. Will you settle for nostalgic strolls on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, eating ice cream on Dizengoff, and pilgrimages to the Wailing Wall and Yad Vashem, or will you challenge yourself to be exposed to the daily lives of severely underserved communities of Arab Israelis in East Jerusalem and other cities in Israel or to Palestinians living in the West Bank? Will you dare to look beneath contemporary Israeli society to the history of Palestinian villages that once stood there? You can, it is readily available at your fingertips through Zochrot’s iNakba app on your smartphone.
And while you are marveling at the various architectural wonders scattered throughout the land, will you also take a moment to try to understand the architecture of the Occupation? Will you take tours with MachsomWatch to explore the complex of checkpoints that limit Palestinians’ freedom of movement? Will you seek out presentations by Breaking the Silence, the organization started by IDF combat veterans who have collected their testimonies about their experiences serving in the occupied territories? Or will you engage with activists and learn about the legal battles of organizations like B’tselem, Yesh Din, Gisha, Adalah, or the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which work tirelessly to keep the Israeli government and the IDF accountable to Israeli and international law and the rights of all of the people subjected to Israeli control?
This, too, is easier said than done. First, there are only a handful of Birthright trips that will even begin to broach these subjects; for almost all of the free trips, these narratives, topics, and contested places are not on the itinerary. And second, it is just hard to change old patterns of thinking and overcome learned biases.
My Own Journey to Palestine
I am ashamed to say it, but after visiting Israel four times on family trips and Jewish youth educational tours between 1987 and 1998, and a semester abroad in 2001, I only finally found my way to the West Bank in 2009. It had been eight years since I lived in Israel—the longest time I had spent away in my life—and I only considered returning because my younger brother was then in medical school at Ben-Gurion University. Once I decided to make the trip, I realized that I had to do something different in the way I visited: I had to put my money where my mouth was as a “peacenik” and truly encounter “the Other” on the other side of the Green Line.
My outreach was facilitated by making a personal connection months before in a safe space removed from the conflict: while living in The Netherlands, I met two Palestinians from Jenin who were showcasing the film, The Heart of Jenin. The deeply moving film follows Ismael as he tries to meet the children in Israel who received his eleven-year-old son Ahmed’s organs after Ahmed was killed by an Israeli soldier. After our dinner in The Hague, I was invited to see their project of restoring Jenin’s classic but non-functioning movie theater to serve as a community cultural center.
After being dropped off in downtown Ramallah in the hopes of connecting with friends of distant friends and then making my way by public transportation to Jenin, I was definitely nervous. I had only known of Jenin from CNN as a “hotbed of terrorists,” (because a significant number of the large spate of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians in 2002 had been launched there) so in my sheltered mind, I was entering a lion’s den where I could be attacked, kidnapped, or something worse. In reality, it was more like wading into an ocean to surf and being overwhelmed by a fear of sharks, even though the actual chances of encountering one are miniscule beyond expression.
Where did these irrational fears come from? The reality is that they had grown organically and festered from decades of growing up in an insular Jewish community, shrouded by a narrowness of experience and perspective bestowed by life in a predominantly Jewish suburb and by attending Jewish private schools and summer camps. It is of course most often not so much an active propaganda against Palestinians that I was subjected to as much as a willful blindness to the realities of their existence and an unchallengeable assumption that Israel could do no wrong.
My fears, in the end, were just that—irrational. I was welcomed into homes and embraced by my hosts and their families. I was glad I went for another reason: I was the first Jew many of these people met. The only other Jews they knew were settlers and soldiers. I didn’t fit either category (I didn’t come toting a gun) so they didn’t quite know what to make of me. I’m sure not everyone in Jenin would have embraced me as my hosts did; just as Jews and Israelis differ widely in their readiness to give individual Palestinians they’ve never met the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure many in Jenin held grudges against Jewish Israelis and perhaps even Americans for their respective roles in perpetuating the Occupation. It can be hard to escape the various roles the conflict has assigned us to play, whether we asked for it or not. But we’ll never escape those roles or allow others to escape theirs without making an attempt to come to know people as individuals.
An Eye-Opening Visit to Bil’in
My trip to the village of Bil’in was also facilitated by friends: a human rights lawyer from law school who works for Yesh Din connected me with the family and friends of Bassem Abu Rahmah, an activist who had been killed after being struck in the chest by an extended-range tear gas canister fired by the IDF during one of the village’s famous weekly nonviolent protests against the separation barrier’s route through the village. Construction of the separation barrier in Bil’in began in 2005 and since then, approximately 55 percent of the village’s 988 acres of land had been used for construction of the Modi’in Illit settlement, one of the largest and fastest growing settlements in the West Bank (due in part to its convenient location for both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv commuters).
Bassem was only a few months older than I, but his life was cut short at the age of thirty in April 2009, just a few months before I arrived in Bil’in. His story was later immortalized in the film Five Broken Cameras. Despite petitions and appeals to the Israeli Supreme Court, the Military Attorney General’s decision to close its investigation without an indictment (after having been forced to open one in the first place) remains in place and no soldier or commander has faced accountability for Bassem’s death over four years later. The villagers have had partial (and I stress, partial) consolation in the 2011 Israeli Supreme Court decision that declared the route of the separation barrier illegal where it extended beyond the Green Line and ordered the IDF to move the barrier closer to the Green Line. I say “partial” because the much-delayed subsequent placement by the IDF left over 300 acres on the Modi’in Ilit side (most of the village’s initial land), so the weekly protests in Bil’in have continued.
The most eye-opening and depressing part of my twenty-four hour trip to the West Bank, however, was re-entering Israel through the border crossing on foot. It was a weekend, so there was relatively light foot traffic, but we were still subjected to a considerable wait. At one point, I was crowded along with about eight other people into a pen smaller than most Manhattan bedrooms. We didn’t have to wait terribly long, but it certainly could have gone more quickly (there was no one ahead of us) and I know on busier days at this and other checkpoints designated specifically for Palestinian workers with Israeli work permits run by private contractors, the time would have been considerably longer and the crowd levels and control create humiliating and even fatal conditions. The border patrol officers did give me a thorough questioning before letting me go, however. They told me I had no business in the territories; I told them I was an American citizen and I could go where I pleased.
Just hours later, a scene that had previously been mundane to me became surreal: I stood on the balcony of my friend’s apartment in northern Tel Aviv, with Israelis and Americans all enjoying good food and drink, completely oblivious to the “facts on the ground” only miles from their doors. In many ways, they were like U.S. Jews in the insular Jewish suburb in which I grew up. The invisibility of the Palestinian experience to these young Jews was a product of segregated education, lack of attentive media coverage and, since the early 2000s, the sheer height and breadth of the separation barrier which keeps the Palestinians out of sight and out of mind. It was no wonder that the “peace process” had floundered so long ago—the average Israeli was not suffering under the status quo, so why should they advocate for change?
It was in those moments in the West Bank that I realized we will never truly coexist if we cannot overcome this blindness to the Palestinian experience. Ironically, this blindness is in part cultivated from our millennia of struggling to preserve our culture and project it into the future, to create insular communities in the Diaspora that can serve as the perfect incubators for cultivating Jewish identity and, in the twentieth century, unwavering support for the State of Israel. The Jewish community does not need to stop running our millennia-long marathon for the survival and perpetuation of our culture, but we cannot continue to do so with blinders on. We must rediscover that empathy is a primordial Jewish value; as Hillel himself taught the prospective Jewish convert, the whole of Torah, of Jewish tradition, can be summarized as, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor.”
Find a Jewish Home That Reflects Open Hillel’s Values
Returning to the question that motivated this essay, where will you find your Jewish home? The question arises not only because the time it will take to achieve this victory may be considerable, but also because, unfortunately, the problem you faced at Hillel on campus is replicated in the wider Jewish community—there are far too few Jewish homes—whether private, houses of worship, Jewish community centers, or other organizations—that are hospitable to the type of open conversation you want to have about Israel.
But fortunately, there are a few. My principal Jewish and Zionist home over the last decade has been the New Israel Fund. No other organization so completely matches my aspirations for the society of the State of Israel. Since 1979, the New Israel Fund has jumpstarted the civil society sector in Israel, seeding over $250 million to create and sustain over 850 organizations. Many of these organizations have become the vanguard of protecting minority rights in Israel in its courts and through social advocacy on every issue of concern to Israeli citizens, including Palestinian-Israeli and other minorities’ rights, women’s rights, religious tolerance, and protection of various forms of Jewish religious observance and family law rituals, environmental protection, combating racism and monitoring human rights violations in the Palestinian territories. I’m also deeply committed to how the New Israel Fund does this work: in partnership with and by empowering Israelis to create the civil society institutions and organizations they see as necessary to ensure Israel remains committed to the values of equality and justice inherent to the promise of its Declaration of Independence that it be a Jewish and democratic country.
I have also been active with the Alliance for Middle East Peace, which was founded by my older brother. The alliance is a network of over eighty organizations that conduct civil society work in conflict transformation, development, coexistence, and cooperative activities on the ground in the Middle East among Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Jews. Its approach is to create peace and coexistence on the ground as a means of preparing a foundation for any eventual final status agreement. This alliance has doggedly lobbied Congress to support this important work on the ground by setting aside $10 million annually for it in appropriations bills. And now, with the alliance’s help, a bipartisan bill has been introduced in U.S. Congress to establish a $200 million per year International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace modeled on a similar fund that was established to help fund reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland. Like the New Israel Fund, the Alliance for Middle East Peace’s work will remain relevant regardless of how the political processes evolve (or devolve) in the coming years.
I don’t know where I would be in my relationship with Israel without the New Israel Fund and the Alliance for Middle East Peace. But these two organizations do not have a presence in most Jewish communities, so I would propose that the spirit that motivated Open Hillel also has a significant role to play in opening mainstream Jewish organizations to allow more open debate about Israeli policies and to allow into their ranks those groups and individuals in the Jewish community that take a critical stance and don’t just offer blind, unquestioning support.
Become a Jewish Values Entrepreneur
Wherever you find yourself, you are likely to find a familiar Jewish institutional infrastructure: the Jewish Federation’s local and national manifestations; local synagogues and their sectarian organizational affiliations (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Orthodox Union, the Reform Movement, and the Reconstructionist Movement), the Jewish community centers, the day schools and after-school Hebrew schools, and many others. There are also familiar Israel-focused charitable giving opportunities, such as the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Israel Bonds. Most Americans Jews have been brought up to see these only as one-way streets through which to connect to Israel through donations without recognizing how central some of them are—principally the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly, the Jewish Agency, and the World Zionist Organization—to the settlement enterprise, which arguably makes Israel less, not more secure now and in the long run.
Organizations like the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federation, and the World Zionist Organization were created to forward the Jewish people’s nationalist ambitions wherever they might lead us. But what is the point today of forwarding those ambitions if realizing them comes at the expense of sacrificing the values of the Jewish identity they were created to preserve?
Keep this “fit for purpose” test in mind as you come to know these and other institutions. Ask challenging questions of their leadership regarding Israel. Demand accountability from these institutions to the values of America, Judaism, and the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which include, among others, freedom of expression and respecting the dignity of all human life. If the current Jewish institutional infrastructure does not meet this fit for purpose test, then “disrupt” it as you have so many other forms of social interaction. Don’t treat your Judaism or Zionism any differently—if this system needs disruption (which it does), then become a Jewish values entrepreneur. Some will say that politics has no place in some places, like a synagogue. I would concede that the acrimony of some discussions should be kept out of times of prayer and other ritual observances, but I would also say that there few things more appropriate to discuss in Jewish communal spaces than the struggle over the soul of our people and the security of Jews in Israel and elsewhere. Indeed, there are very strong political ramifications in allowing communal conversations to continue on the same old terms, as this gives tacit consent to politicians to perpetuate the status quo.
Above all, be conscious of what is really going on and be conscientious about making sure others do as well. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, then-President of the American Jewish Congress, said it well when he explained to the crowds at the March on Washington in 1963 that hatred is not the most pressing problem, but rather “the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” One day, your grandchildren will ask what you did in the face of the Occupation—what will be your response?
Open Hillel: Just the Beginning
The sum of my experiences with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the woefully narrow engagement with it of the American Jewish community suggest that the true success of Open Hillel will not be whether Hillel accedes to your demands to open itself up to a wider spectrum of discourse. What you have started should not be seen as the end itself, but as the beginning of a much broader conversation, that you, the future leaders of the Jewish community, can continue to initiate wherever you make your Jewish home—and within yourselves. The silence is broken. Where will you go next?
(To read more about the Open Hillel movement, return to the Open Hillel table of contents.)