“Open Dialogue” on Israel/Palestine Is Not Enough

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Vassar College professor Hua Hsu wrote in the New Yorker recently that “There should be nothing controversial about everyday kindness; civility as a kind of individual moral compass should remain a virtue. But civility as a type of discourse – as a high road that nobody ever actually walks – is the opposite. It is bullshit.”

Open dialogue, very much like civility, exists as both a venerable ideal and a carrot-on-a-stick style tool of discipline. When it comes to critiquing Israel, particularly from a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist approach, open dialogue becomes a mechanism that avoids the acknowledgement of underlying power imbalances and the foundational inequality of our respective ideologies.

The idea of “open dialogue” sets up a framework that requires balancing ideologies of Zionism with anti-Zionism. However, anti-Zionist and Zionist ideologies are not on an even playing field. To be clear, anti-Zionism carries with it no semblance of the same amount of institutional power as Zionism. Particularly as articulated by Palestinians, whose voices ought to be considered with primacy, anti-Zionism has historically been (and remains) the target of political repression and disenfranchisement. Trying to gain a balanced view from both an anti-Zionist and a Zionist perspective would imply those two ways of seeing the world having the same kind of organizational backing; this is simply not the case.

Moreover, conversations between anti-Zionists and Zionists, even liberal Zionists, never play out on equal ground. The fact that Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, states it “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that have explicitly non-Zionist politics provides one very important instance in which an institution represses challenges to Zionism. Unsurprisingly, Hillel invokes Hsu’s concept of civility in prohibiting those that “foster an atmosphere of incivility” in campus Hillels. With such exclusive rules in place, an anti-Zionist student pursuing an open dialogue is only ever entering a Hillel house on the prescriptive terms of the institutional power. How open is that dialogue, then? Not at all. As soon as any one part of a conversation refuses to acknowledge the power differentials that exist between itself and the other parts, open dialogue becomes chimerical.

Anti-normalization activists reject this mainstream erasure of the power differences between Zionist and anti-Zionist voices – especially when those voices belong to Palestinians. Instead, they advocate for the open acknowledgement of these power imbalances and a commitment to justice and equal rights for all. Normalization, defined originally by a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups, involves “participating in any project, initiative or activity … designed to bring together Palestinian and/or Arab youth with Israelis (whether individuals or institutions) which is not explicitly designed to resist or expose the occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression inflicted upon the Palestinian people.” Normalization does not apply to internal Jewish conversations between Jews with varying opinions on Israel and Palestine, although in those cases there is still a power difference at play.

Open Hillel, a student-led campaign to remove Hillel International’s exclusive and alienating policies, has invited BDS advocates and anti-Zionist activists to be a part of the conversation, acknowledging that theirs are the voices Hillel International and many other powerful institutions continue to marginalize, demonize, and restrict. Open Hillel does this not because it subscribes to normalization or anti-normalization. As a Jewish group interested in changing Jewish community conversations, it takes no position on these ideologies. Some members of the Open Hillel movement, including myself, have strong opinions about these issues of power differences and have asked that our community have a conversation about them. Such demands have been met with the claim that Open Hillel has “indoctrinated people to hate Israel.” In reality, Open Hillel seeks only to reframe the conversation surrounding Israel/Palestine in a way that is more honestly open. If Hillel International wants its claims of “open enough” to be taken as genuine or effectual, it must start from an understanding of the problems surrounding power differences in dialogue, especially in conversation between anti-Zionist and Zionist voices.

Such acknowledgement must include a commitment to considering the ways that existing power imbalances between Zionist and anti-Zionist voices, particularly when those anti-Zionist voices belong to Palestinians, can continue to silence and limit the exchange of ideas even when there is a pretense of openness. Despite efforts by Hillel International to drive a wedge between groups that criticize Israeli policy by inviting groups such as J Street into its fold while still barring Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace chapters, Open Hillel advocates for the right of these more marginalized voices to be heard.

Open Hillel has committed to continuing the difficult and important work of transforming Jewish spaces from monolithic echo chambers of unquestioning support for the State of Israel to spaces of vibrant debate that will enable us to grapple with the most urgent moral and political questions facing our Jewish communities today.

A sophomore at Vassar College, Henry Rosen majors in film studies and participates actively in the Vassar Jewish community. He counts cooking on Fridays for Vassar Jewish Union Shabbos dinners among his favorite activities at school. Henry lives in Los Angeles when not at Vassar.