The Forbidden Conversation: A Photo Essay from the Open Hillel Conference

I was in Israel throughout the span of the summer 2014 Gaza war, dividing my time between Tel Aviv and Southern Israel where my family lives. Afterward I came back to America frustrated and worried. The constantly shrinking space for Israelis, journalists, and public figures to criticize the Israeli government was extremely vivid during the war. Empathizing with Palestinian suffering or even mentioning the names of Palestinian children who died in Gaza crossed the emerging red lines of permitted debate. So I was very excited to learn that a group of Jewish students were leading a movement demanding the expansion of the conversation about Israel within Hillel, the largest Jewish organization on American university campuses.

View from behind the crowd at the inaugural conference of Open Hillel.

A full spectrum of opinions were represented at the inaugural conference of Open Hillel, which brought together Zionists, Anti-Zionists, Non-Zionists, two-staters, one-staters, and everyone in between. Credit: Gili Getz.

These Jewish students have rejected the assertion that the Jewish establishment can dictate whom they can listen to and with whom they can collaborate. They have revived the distinguished tradition of open debate upheld by Jewish and talmudic values.

I first learned about Hillel’s guidelines (which forbid certain speakers and organizations from participating in Hillel) when I worked as the web editor at Yedioth Ahronoth (an Israeli paper). I came across a story where the guidelines were used to cancel an event with an Israeli activist at Harvard Hillel. I was surprised to learn about further instances in which other Israelis were prevented from speaking. Most notably, Avraham Burg (a former chair in the Knesset) was barred from Harvard Hillel, and there was adamant opposition against letting Israeli army combat veterans from Breaking the Silence speak at the University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel.

So what does the conversation between Jewish students, activists and scholars look like without these guidelines? What is so scary about an open and honest Jewish debate?

I volunteered to cover and photograph the “forbidden conversation” at the inaugural national Open Hillel conference at Harvard for Yedioth Ahronot. The debate at the conference was the same debate that rages inside of me. The reality of a perpetual military occupation of the Palestinians in the name of Zionism and Judaism is fragmenting my Israeli/American/Jewish/liberal identity.

It’s time to face this reality, and have the difficult debate. Because if not now, when?


The Conversation about the Conversation

Judith Butler standing at a podium speaking to Open Hillel conference audience.

Judith Butler and David Harris-Gershon, who have been banned from speaking at Jewish institutions, talk with Shaul Magid at the opening plenary titled “The Open Tent.” “There is no Jewish dinner table with a consensus on Israel,” Butler says. Credit: Gili Getz.



Open Hillel audience during opening plenary.

The opening plenary of the Open Hillel conference was so packed that some participants had to stand in the back. This was a historic moment: progressive Jews engaged in open conversation, unconcerned about pressures from big donors. Credit: Gili Getz.



View of speaker at podium rom behind packed crowd.

Judith Butler, David Harris-Gershon, Steven M. Cohen, and Shaul Magid discuss the “red lines” that constrain discussion on Israel. “Our job is to examine the question of boundaries and to challenge the self appointed guardians of those boundaries,” Magid says. Credit: Gili Getz.



Professor Rashid Khalidi talks to a Jewish student

Professor Rashid Khalidi talks to a Jewish student after his discussion on Palestinian nationalism. “What we have currently is a de facto, brutal one-state formula in which one people has rights, and others don’t,” Khalidi says. “The Palestinians have their own narrative, which distorts history just as much as Zionism.” Credit: Gili Getz.



View from above of Open Hillel conference audience and panel.

Sa’ed Atshan, Suhad Babaa, Nadia Ben-Youssef, and Anat Saragusti discuss a rights-based approach in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Students raise their hands in response to the question: “Who has been to the occupied territories?” Atshan says, “To those offended by term apartheid, I ask you to be more offended by the oppression on the ground.” Credit: Gili Getz.



Sa’ed Atshan talking to conference attendees.

Sa’ed Atshan talks to conference attendees about promoting BDS and LGBTQ Palestinian rights after a panel on the status of human rights in Israel-Palestine. Credit: Gili Getz.



Debating BDS and the U.S. Jewish Community’s Role in Ending the Occupation 

Conference panelists speaking to attendees.

Author Peter Beinart and Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace speak on a panel titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” The panel zeroes in on the progressive debate about the BDS movement and Jewish nationalism. “Supporting two states has become code word for supporting status quo,” Vilkomerson says. “I think BDS is the best tactic that we have to build a grassroots movement for change.” Credit: Gili Getz.



Peter Beinart talking to students.

Peter Beinart talks to students after a debate on the role of the Jewish community in ending the occupation. “We are failing the great Jewish test of our time,” Beinart says. “We need to break the American Jewish cocoon that shields us from seeing the Palestinian humanity which is crushed under occupation.” Credit: Gili Getz.



Judith Butler Is in the House

Taped up notes on a display board.

Many students expressed great excitement to hear UC Berkeley professor Judith Butler. Here, taped-up notes record some of the reasons why students came to the conference. Credit: Gili Getz.



View from behind audience at Open Hillel conference.

Judith Butler and Penny Rosenwasser speak about anti-Semitism. “Don’t be afraid to speak out against real anti-Semitism, even if that means agreeing with the Anti-Defamation League,” Butler says. Credit: Gili Getz.



Judith Butler speaking to audience.

Judith Butler shares her pain at being labeled anti-Semitic and discusses the danger that Zionism poses to Judaism. “Our Jewish institutions should not tell us to fear our own thoughts,” she says. Credit: Gili Getz.



The Organizers 

Conference organizer.

Conference organizers work to make history in Jewish life on university campuses. Credit: Gili Getz.



Jewish Voice for Peace activist standing in Open Hillel conference audience.

Jewish Voice for Peace activists were a vocal presence at the conference, demanding to be part of Hillel, the organization that claims to represent the entirety of the Jewish community on campus. Credit: Gili Getz.



Open Hillel organizers sitting on the floor while taking a break.

Open Hillel organizers take a short break during one of the sessions. Guided by a strong commitment to Jewish values, the student organizers had been working long hours. Credit: Gili Getz.



From Mississippi to Jerusalem

Gili Getz with Jewish civil rights veteran Dorothy Zellner.

I had the great honor of meeting Jewish civil rights veteran Dorothy Zellner after the plenary about Jewish civil rights activists in the South in the 1960s. “It’s not a privilege to fight to change our community,” Zellner says. “It is a moral imperative.”

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


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