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.
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.
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.