Safe Space? Hillel’s Policies Drive a Wedge Between Queerness and Judaism

I’m at Yale University, attending an intercollegiate conference for queer students. It’s 2013, and the concept of intersectionality—the idea that all structures of power interrelate and no one axis of oppression can be fought in isolation—pervades almost every session. I attend a seminar on queer Jewish ritual, then one on gender and queerness in Native cultures, then one on socioeconomic class and femme identity. It’s a diverse group of students. Together, we engage in critical thinking about how our queerness relates to our other identities and how to counter oppression in all contexts.

Sign in window that reads "Harvard Hillel Safe Space."

At Harvard Hillel, a safe space sign indicates that all students are welcome, regardless of gender or sexual identity. But when students are excluded on the basis of their political views, can queer students really be at home? Credit: Emily Unger.

Lunch is held in Yale Hillel. I’m happy to be going there; Hillel is my home at Harvard, where I attend college, and Yale Hillel feels safe and familiar. I barely notice the Israeli flag flying over the entrance of the building.

The two students walking in front of me stop. “Should we be boycotting this place?” one asks the other, indicating the flag.

I’m stunned. My instinct says to shout “no.” I want to tell them that this is a Jewish organization, not an Israeli organization—that a Jewish religious and cultural institution shouldn’t fall under a boycott intended to protest policies of the Israeli government. I want to tell them that Hillel is pluralistic, home to many non-Zionist and critical-of-Israel Jews. Yet at the same time, just a few months earlier, I helped launch the Open Hillel campaign because I know that Hillel does have explicitly Zionist policies in place. I can’t, in good conscience, tell them not to boycott Hillel when I know that Hillel is instrumental in promoting a rigid pro-Israel viewpoint on campus.

In that moment, I felt torn between my identity as a Jew and as a queer person. As a Jew, I felt at home in Hillel; I wanted to stay for Shabbat dinner and sing zmirot with the Yale Jewish community. Yet as a queer person, I understood the importance of fighting oppression in all its forms; when challenged, I could not deny Hillel’s complicity with the perpetuation of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

Though I often feel this tension, for me, it’s never been quite severe enough to push me out of Jewish communities entirely. But for many LGBTQ students, especially those who identify as queer, Hillel’s current policies—which forbid Hillel chapters from bringing in speakers or cosponsoring events with organizations that “delegitimize or demonize” Israel or support boycotts, divestment, or sanctions—force them to choose between their queer identity and their Jewish identity.

Queerness doesn’t only involve questioning and breaking down oppressive gender systems; it involves questioning and breaking down all systems of oppression. When this leads queer Jewish students to support anti-oppression efforts in Israel-Palestine, they suddenly find themselves no longer welcome in Hillel.

Judith Butler speaking on a microphone

World-renowned queer theorist Judith Butler speaks at the first Open Hillel conference. Due to her affiliation with Jewish Voice for Peace and support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, Butler is banned from speaking about Israel in Hillel. Credit: Alli Gofman.

Evidence of this exclusion is not merely anecdotal. At the Open Hillel conference—intended in part to provide a safe space for those excluded under Hillel International’s current policies—we surveyed participants about their identities and organizational affiliations. Though institutionalized exclusion of queer students wasn’t the focus of the conference, the survey results were astounding. Over 25 percent of the Jewish students who attended the conference identified as LGBTQ. Moreover, the results showed that queer students are far more likely to have the kind of left-wing politics that get them excluded from Hillel. Of the Jewish students who attended our conference, students who identified as LGBTQ were nearly 50 percent more likely then their straight/cisgender peers to affiliate with groups—like Jewish Voice for Peace or Students for Justice in Palestine—that are currently banned from affiliating with or cosponsoring events with Hillel.

In the past several years, Hillel has, commendably, made a great effort to improve outreach to and inclusion of LGBTQ students. Hillel International publishes a resource guide to help local chapters engage LGBTQ students, and they recently announced a partnership with Keshet, a major Jewish LGBTQ organization. In my personal experience at Harvard, Hillel staff were nothing but supportive when I asked for their help in reviving BAGELS, the Jewish queer group. Hillel has made it clear that in a pluralistic Jewish community, queer Jews are “in the tent.”

Yet ultimately, these efforts can only go so far so long as Hillel International maintains its exclusivist policies on Israel/Palestine. Telling queer students that they’re welcome regardless of their sexuality or gender identity won’t help if they’re still unwelcome due to their political views. Banning organizations that are disproportionately queer, like Jewish Voice for Peace, will perpetuate the underrepresentation of queer students and queer perspectives in Hillel. And as long as our queer Jewish communal heroes like Judith Butler are forbidden from speaking in Hillel, many queer students will never feel entirely at home there.

Queer students who are absent from Hillel aren’t absent because they don’t care about Judaism. They showed up to the Open Hillel conference in droves. But my experiences as a queer Jew and our survey data show that Hillel can’t separate cultural and identity-based pluralism from political pluralism. Hillel will never be the truly pluralistic community it claims to be until it makes a commitment to including all Jews, regardless of their political views on Israel/Palestine. Until then, it will continue to leave disproportionate numbers of queer students without a Jewish home on campus.

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


4 thoughts on “Safe Space? Hillel’s Policies Drive a Wedge Between Queerness and Judaism

  1. Regrettably, Ms. Unger and others who have contempt for Israel have joined forces with those who wish to eliminate Israel entirely and who oppress their LGBT communities (including capital punishment for gay men). Notwithstanding Ms. Unger’s tremendous sense of self righteousness, the BDS movement along with JVP are informed by their own racism and motivated by extreme anti semitism.

  2. This is beautifully written and I am grateful for Ms. Unger for her efforts in Open Hillel.
    As a LGBT Jew, I have felt many of the things that she writes and same sense of separation between myself and many in my community, including Jewish organisations like Hillel.
    BDS is not going away, despite the very concerted efforts of those in leadership positions. It is growing and many of us, who have a commitment to human rights, are not willing to give up that part of our identity to be part of a group that cannot respect us enough to acknowledge our viewpoints.

  3. Why is Ms. Unger attributing the oppressive and homophobic policies of the US-propped kleptocracies of fatah and hamas to Israel, which is neither oppressive nor homophobic?

    Why doesn’t her fight against oppression (or that of so many identical thinkers) include fighting for the liberation of Arabs from fatah and hamas?