Historic Moment Signals a Revolution Brewing in the American Jewish Community


On Saturday night, I looked out upon a standing-room-only audience, people fidgeting and giddy, barely able to conceal the significance of what was about to occur. I was onstage at Harvard University electric and buzzing, flanked by three distinguished professors – Judith Butler, Steven Cohen and Shaul Magid – the four of us representing various streams of Zionist, post-Zionist, and anti-Zionist thought.
At first, I was awed by the company I had been asked to join, thinking, What on earth am I doing here? That thought was quickly replaced by another as the room erupted with boisterous cheers when a student organizer stepped to the microphone; this is a historic moment, a thought I Tweeted when the feeling came over me, and five days removed I still deeply believe.
So what occurred that was so historic? On Saturday night, a grassroots-led and student-driven movement called Open Hillel launched a three-day conference, determined to create what Jewish institutions have largely refused to permit: dynamic spaces where both Zionists and anti-Zionists can come together and discuss Israel as equals, and with equally valuable perspectives as respected members of the American Jewish community.

Open Hillel organizers, a few powerful voices who represent a growing segment of the young American Jewish landscape.

The Open Hillel conference certainly succeeded in creating such spaces, where for three days rooms were packed to hear Jews and Palestinians discuss Israel openly and honestly. However, the conference also ended up creating something even more powerful than just spaces: a representative community of 350 committed, questioning Jews who demonstrated not just how out of step institutional Jewish organizations have become by exiling critical and post-Zionist voices, but how those organizations are going to have to change to remain viable, whether they like it or not.
Right now, these organizations are refusing to change, refusing to acknowledge that Jews who fervently critique Israel’s policies, who consider themselves post-Zionists or support BDS, are not anti-Semites, but valuable members in a growing segment of the American Jewish community. Hillel International is one such organization, and the one around which the Open Hillel movement is organized. Hillel is the world’s largest umbrella organization for Jewish life on college campuses, supporting over 550 student centers on campuses in North America and beyond. It purports to be a pluralistic organization, with a tent large enough to house every Jew and every perspective imaginable. Unfortunately, for Hillel, one’s Israel politics trumps its pluralistic ideals, for it has established Israel Guidelines which direct student centers to refuse partnership or cooperation with any student, speaker or organization which, among other things, apply a “double standard” to Israel, support BDS, or have post-Zionist political leanings.
It’s why students from Jewish Voice for Peace, which embraces both anti-Zionist and Zionist students who wish to dialogue openly about Israel and happens to be the one of the fastest growing Jewish organizations in America, have been barred from Hillel. It’s why Jewish scholars have had book events cancelled at museums and Jewish musicians barred from JCC events. It’s why even someone like myself, a Jewish studies teacher and two-state Jew who supports Palestinians’ right to boycott Israel, has had book events cancelled on multiple occasions.
This isn’t new. For over forty years, Jewish institutions have attempted to define one’s Jewishness and value to a community based solely on one’s politics on Israel. In 1974, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published The New Anti-Semitism, which attempted to redefine anti-Semitism as criticism of Israel rather than the vile hatred which has led to so many horrors visited upon my people, including the Holocaust, which took half of my family. The goal of this redefining was to shield Israel from critique by designating Israel as the “Jew among the nations,” conflating all Jews with the country and turning anti-Israel critiques into anti-Semitic sentiments.
What’s interesting is this: in 1974, supporting a two-state solution would have earned the charge of anti-Semitism and blacklisting. Today, the two-state solution is considered a dogma in the American Jewish community, with shifting politics propelling ‘new anti-Semitism’ proponents to smear those who empathize with Gaza, support Palestinian human rights, or question Zionism as anti-Semitic.
But anyone who was at the Open Hillel conference knows that such charges are false. Indeed, this is precisely what Peter Beinart noted after speaking there on Sunday:

The young American Jews at Open Hillel who are flirting with anti-Zionism are not anti-Semites. (Although, of course, some anti-Zionists are). They are merely doing what young people always do: Challenging settled assumptions based on a different life experience. They don’t need the American Jewish establishment’s legitimization; that establishment is illegitimate to them. What they need, in the best Jewish tradition, is to be argued with.
But I’m not sure the American Jewish establishment knows how. For years, mainstream American Jewish groups have short-circuited discussions about Zionism by accusing its critics of anti-Semitism. They’ve grown so dependent on that rhetorical crutch that they rarely publicly grapple with how Zionism — a movement that privileges one ethnic and religious group — can be reconciled with the pledge in Israel’s declaration of independence to offer “complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of race, religion or sex.”

Indeed, many of those who were at the Open Hillel conference this past weekend are among the most committed Jews in America. And they bristle (as do I) when someone charges them with anti-Semitism for questioning institutional assumptions about Israel and Zionism. What’s different about what happened this past weekend, and what made it such a historic moment, is that student activists coalesced for the first time in memory to explicitly and directly challenge the American Jewish community from within, as opposed to from without.
These Jewish Americans, who represent significantly growing numbers, symbolically knocked on the door of institutional Jewish organizations and yelled, We are the Jewish community, and you will either embrace us or embrace a fear of dialogue — the least Jewish of things — and the shrinking numbers such a fear will bring.
Why does this matter? From a political perspective it matters because, as Professor Steven Cohen said from the stage on Saturday night, American Jewish opinions on Israel deeply affect American policy which in turn affect Israeli policy, something I have been trumpeting for years. From a communal perspective, it matters because the face of the American Jewish community is changing. Jewish institutions have demanded, for decades, that Israel be placed at the center of Jewish life, and at the center of one’s Jewish value to a community. Today, at a time in which Israel’s policies, from the continued occupation to settlement expansions, are generating increasing critiques from American Jews, Israel has become just that – the center of Jewish life for many. Only, not in the way the ADL envisioned in 1974. Instead, Israel is being placed at the center by those who do not support its misdeeds, and who demand a change for the sake of both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.
Jewish institutions have gotten what they asked for: Israel as the communal fulcrum point. But the balance is shifting. And the Open Hillel conference signaled that such shifting isn’t just reactive, but coordinated and communal.
People are shifting together with intentionality.


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

16 thoughts on “Historic Moment Signals a Revolution Brewing in the American Jewish Community

  1. It doesn’t seem as though this conference was all that welcoming to those whose views on Israel fall on the right wing of the political spectrum. As such, the term “Open Hillel” is misleading. “Hypocrite Hillel” would be a more accurate name for this conference.

    • You couldn’t be further from the truth. The conference had Zionists and post-Zionists, and invited people from both the right and the left. However, as Peter Beinart notes in his piece, most Zionists refused to show up.
      It’s the Jewish establishment which is unwelcoming and uninterested in dialogue, as opposed to what you claim.

  2. I’m sure those on the right were not encouraged or made to feel welcome as those on the left. Methinks thou doth protest too much.

    • .
      Methinks thou …
      1) … doth not know how to use “protest too much” correctly
      2) … doth not know from any knowledge base whether or not right-wing organizations were encouraged. Indeed, some where there (such as Camera).
      Easy to speak authoritatively on things about which you know little, though, isn’t it?

  3. And methinks you are having trouble using “were” correctly. Is CAMERA your best example of participation on the right? That’s your proof that Open Hillel is a welcoming and tolerant place for individuals whose views on Israel fall within the right wing of the spectrum? How many of the individuals pictured above are right-wing zionists?

  4. Hugo, perhaps the answer to your charge of no Right wing representation is to have you actually attend the next conference and represent! It is then that you will have standing to discuss whether those who agree with your perspective are made to feel welcome or not.

  5. Hugo,
    Please PLEASE show up at the next event then, and present your views to the world in front of knowledgeable people! You and anyone who wishes to come is welcome. I will personally throw in $20 for your trip and I’m a leftist and we want to hear your view, but you also need to hear ours. Click
    Come, the days of armchair Internet anonymous activism and sound bites are over! Do your service to Israel and get all the zionists, Likudniks, and ultra nationalists to come. The more you bring the more we get to see your views which typically turns off centrists anyways. Please do this if you have the courage to act outside of your chair.

  6. I am a little put off by the use of the term Post Zionist. In Israel it has been used to describe the left, that it those who still believed in the some of socialist ethic of zionism during the era of privatization and liberal economic policies, and thus were still ‘zionsist’ in this sense. Why not come up with a new term, instead of using one that has so many contradictory meanings.

  7. The goal of Open Hillel is to change Hillel, not form a separate organization. Right-wing, right-center, and even center Jewish organizations were absent, even though invited. So the question becomes how successful the Open Hillel Conference (regardless of the quality of the discussions) will be in advancing the goal of changing Hillel. Time will tell……
    I am making a practical point, NOT an idealogical one. My understanding is that even Hillel itself did not show up.

    • Perhaps so-called Open Hillel needs to do more to reach out to those who are not on the left, so as to make them feel as welcome and respected as the anti-Zionists they have welcomed to their community.
      The fact that OH fails to recognize this shows how far removed they are from the open community they purport to be.

  8. Read Freda Kirchwey’s work as editor of the Nation Associates. It’s clear that OH is deliberately supporting a fictional narrative of the palestinian Arab aggression and animosity toward Jews.
    Why does it do so?

  9. I have been rereading the Torah in an attempt to understand Hillel The Elders observation that “Do not unto others what is hateful unto you. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary”, in light of current day Israel. I believe that it is a correct interpretation of Hillel to recognize that Hillel was a supporter of internationalism-while maintaining the integrity of the Jewish laws and traditions of social justice.
    I am heartened to have found out about Open Hillel. As long as the goal is dialogue and ego deflation-NOT EGO INFLATION-then it is an important vehicle. Where the attempt at dialogue is honest-both by Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, then there is no chance for knee jerk fundamentalism to hijack the purpose, and we can achieve greater understanding and capacity to live and act together. As another non-Zionist American Jew who was born in 1950, I sense that the prophetic traditions of social justice and the wisdom of Hillel were casualties of the Cold War for U.S. and Zionist-not Jewish-policy regarding Israel.
    I wish to acknowledge that the response to Ali’s comments-about losing heads in Iraq and Syria were an example of cruel, insensitive, and small minded ego inflated blabber that do not do justice to the issue.

    • If Hillel was arid to see what happened to Jews over the course of 2000 years, what would he think about “internationalism. What would he have though about the need for a Jewish national home.There is nothing wrong with the existence of a Jewish national home, just lie there is nothing wrong with a Palestinian national home beside it. Zionism is merely a national movement, nothing more, Israel is not the cause of all problems in the Middle East or the world. It occupies a small sliver of the Middle East and currently has a territorial dispute. It is not evil, Nazi or what\ever you want to call it.But there are those in the Middle East who wish to challenge its existence and it seems the likes of you support it. In other words, supporting the destruction of Israel really means supporting a new Holocaust.
      As for comments directed at Ali, well unfortunately that is the cruelty that is occurring in a corner of the Middle East where nearly 200,000 have perished in juts over 3 years. Put that in the context of Israel’s existence.

  10. One point David is wrong about is that one size clearly does not fit all. I have had occasion to visit a lot of college campuses over the past couple years, and have learned first-hand about the Jewish communities that exist at each of them. Clearly, there are some Hillels where the programming discourages dissenting views about Israel. Those Hillels do a great disservice to their community and need to be more open. But there are also college campuses where the level of anti-Israel vitriol is very high, so much so that Jewish students who are openly pro-Israel are verbally and — occasionally physically — harassed. Clearly, those campuses need their Hillels to allow a safe space for Jewish students to and explore their connection to Israel and Judaism without feeling vulnerable or harassed.
    Another point lost in this piece is that Hillel is not the only place on college campuses for BDS and anti-Israel advocacy. And some of the frustration about the lack of “critical dialogue” on Israel stems from the fact that SJP chapters on many campuses do not want to engage in constructive and respectful dialogue with Zionists; they want to shout (and shut) them down. Hillels should not be obligated to promote that activity. Another point lost on the author is that, on some campuses, the level of open dialogue, and tolerance for differing views, is much greater in the Hillel House than that it is in the local SJP chapter.
    One size does not fit all.

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