Tikkun Magazine

Dispatches from the Open Hillel Movement: An Introduction

The phrase “If Not Now, When?” has been thrown around a lot lately. Over the summer of 2014, it became a rallying cry for Jews uniting in protest against the War on Gaza and was even cited by Emma Watson in her speech at the United Nations about feminism. This timely and timeless question, first posed by the first-century sage Rabbi Hillel the Elder, exemplifies an age-old Jewish tradition of introspection and interrogation of our fundamental assumptions about ourselves as individuals and as communities. At once a meaningless rhetorical question and a provocative, radical call to action, the phrase “If not now, when?” speaks to the core of those seeking urgent and long-overdue political and personal change. For those reasons, it was also invoked as a theme to frame the eponymous, first-ever Open Hillel conference in October 2014. In the spirit of communal self-reflection and galvanizing action, the conference drew together young Jews seeking to reshape their community into vibrant spaces of political debate and dissent.

The Open Hillel Conference was a needed intervention in the contemporary echo chamber of Jewish American discourse about Israel. Over the last decade, Jewish American communities have closed ranks politically. The monolithic way of being “pro-Israel” that today’s Jewish communal leaders seek to impose actually constitutes a break from the Jewish tradition of disputation, intellectual engagement, and disagreement. The Jewish community’s much-celebrated diversity of opinions on all subjects, captured in the phrase, “two Jews, three Opinions,” suddenly vanishes when it comes to discussing Israel/Palestine. This is not an accident, but the result of an organized attempt to enforce a political agenda that does not reflect the multiplicity of Jewish perspectives.

Following precepts put forth by the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, many Jewish institutions have drawn red lines to limit the kind of criticism of Israel that is permissible within their walls. In 2010, Hillel International, the home for Jewish life on American college campuses, instituted its Standards of Partnership which declare those who “demonize or delegitimize” the State of Israel and those who support boycott, divestment, and sanctions tactics to end Israel’s Occupation to be beyond the pale. These rules effectively create a political litmus test for inclusion in Jewish communities, and limit the spectrum of opinions that Jewish college students are exposed to in Jewish spaces. Hillel is not the only institution to have instituted these kinds of political red lines, but Open Hillel is the first organized campaign to open Jewish communities to political ideas beyond the red lines.

The concept of Open Hillel began around a dining hall table, with a few students in the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance who were frustrated that the educational event they had planned in partnership with the Harvard Palestinian Solidarity Committee had been cancelled by Hillel. They tapped their friends from Jewish day school, summer camps, and youth groups at other universities, and a group soon formed with members on campuses across the Northeast. The campaign emerged on the national political stage when Hillel student leaders at Swarthmore College declared their Jewish community to be open to Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists, and tired-as-hell-of-the-word-Zionists, landing them in the New York Times. Similar declarations at Vassar College and Wesleyan University soon followed.

In the last year, Open Hillel has grown from a small group of student activists to an internationally recognized movement that many see as representing the future of American Judaism. The movement has resonated deeply across generations because it speaks to the need to redress the silencing and exclusion that is ruining American Jewish communal life. While older generations of communal leaders have been wringing their hands over the future of American Jewish leadership, our emerging movement represents the future of American Jewry—a future that celebrates the diverse political, religious, economic, racial, sexual, and intermarried realities of our Jewish communities.

Members and supporters of Open Hillel come to the campaign from various political backgrounds and for various personal and political reasons, but we are united in a strong belief that political litmus tests are destroying our communities. Whatever our personal views on Israel, we agree that our Jewish communities should be places where we can be our full political selves and have our opinions respected and listened to, despite disagreement.

In October 2014, Open Hillel hosted its first conference at Harvard University. The event was hugely successful: over 350 attendees, largely students from over 60 different campuses, packed into lecture halls and seminar rooms to hear prominent Jewish speakers debate the breadth of the Jewish tent, argue about the relationship of American Jews to the State of Israel and their role in the Israel/Palestine conflict, and discuss contemporary anti-Semitism and other issues facing American Jewish communities.

At 9 a.m. on Sunday, October 11, Palestinian-American scholar Rashid Khalidi strode to the podium at the Open Hillel Conference. Looking out at the gathered crowd of students, young alumni, scholars, and activists, Khalidi noted that he had never seen a group of people so eager to listen and learn so early in the morning. Indeed, there was an electric buzz in the crowd because all in attendance knew that they were witnessing history: a prominent Palestinian historian finally being welcomed as a keynote speaker in a Jewish American forum. On that crisp Cambridge morning, it seemed that a new horizon in Jewish politics was finally in sight: the possibility of uninhibited conversation about Israel/Palestine.

This collection of pieces was born out of the debates modeled by the Open Hillel conference. Some essays represent voices or ideas that are currently excluded by the Standards of Partnership, some discuss the challenges presented by the Open Hillel movement, some tell personal stories of political transformation, and some discuss the historical diversity of Jewish opinions about Zionism. The collection represents a taste of the vibrancy of Jewish opinion, ideas, and debate that the Open Hillel movement is working to revive. These essays represent the beginning, not the end, of a new kind of conversation.

(To read more about the Open Hillel movement, return to the Open Hillel table of contents.)

Naomi Dann and Aaron Madow are organizers with the Open Hillel movement, and co-edited this collection of contributions to Tikkun by and about Open Hillel.
tags: Israel/Palestine, Judaism, Vision for Israel/Palestine