Is Inclusion the Highest Principle? Open Hillel Raises Troubling Questions

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A pro-BDS student at an Open Hillel Conference.
A pro-BDS student at an Open Hillel Conference.Credit: Gili Getz

On the issue of Jewish belonging, I have always pushed for as wide a tent as is necessary to accommodate the range of Jewish experience. Inclusion, rather than ideational boundaries, has been my watchword.

But now, in the wake of the Open Hillel conference held at Harvard — billing itself as helping create a “Jewish community that all Jews can feel included in, not just those who pass a political litmus test,” I’m feeling a little bit more prescriptive around what values should matter, especially around the centrality of Israel to Jewish life.

On one hand, I’m instinctively positively predisposed to a movement like Open Hillel. Previous reports of a Hillel student board member stating he was forced to step down because he sought to host a Palestinian solidarity activist speaker following the screening of a Palestinian documentary give me chills. And I find Hillel’s guidelines about rejecting speakers who hold Israel to a “double standard” frustratingly enigmatic. There is good conceptual reason to hold Israel, a democracy, to a different standard than Syria, for example. And there is an understandable reason to “single out” Israel when we, as Diaspora Jews, devote more emotional, financial, and political resources to the Jewish state than to almost any other.

But now my doubts. First was LGBTQ and Palestine solidarity activist Sarah Schulman’s Facebook remarks about the conference. In her post, she railed against the “bullshit of LGBT Birthright,” accusing it of being a forum for “pinkwashing.” I’m partly sympathetic to the pinkwashing charge, awareness of which Schulman herself helped propel in a 2011 New York Times op-ed. There is much to be criticized in Israel’s hasbarah efforts, especially in light of the government’s apathy towards the morally corrosive occupation. But there is a gap: Where *is* the desired opportunity among Open Hillel activists and participants like Schulman to encourage a deep and textured cultural and political engagement with Israel? Birthright may not be the answer. But what is?

Echoing my thoughts were Steven M. Cohen’s reflections, also posted publicly on Facebook. There, Cohen praised the Open Hillel conference for opening up a much-needed debate on Israeli policies, including criticism of the occupation. But he lamented the apparent “abjuring of the primacy of Jewish or Israel attachment” among participants.

And now comes an essay by Holly Bicerano in the Times of Israel where she criticizes Hillel International’s “Vision for Israel” which states that "Hillel desires that students are able to articulate why Israel plays an important role in their personal Jewish identities and how Israel continues to influence Jewish conversations, global Jewish peoplehood, and the world."

Bicerano is concerned that “This particular vision is predicated on the supposition that having a Jewish state must be an integral part of every deserving Jew’s identity.”

My personal, liberal variant of Zionism abhors the occupation, desires to redress political inequalities among the state’s ethnic groups, and opposes the general trend towards illiberal legislation in the Knesset. But at the very least I see an important role for Israel’s existence in the life of the Jewish people. While theological commitments are subject to the debates of rationalists, Israel helps secure a sense of peoplehood. Where Jews now speak the languages of their host societies, Israel’s Hebrew revival reminds us of our shared heritage. Where Diaspora Jews must negotiate a minority identity within a majority culture, Israel enables a sense of collective Jewish autonomy.

It follows that were I to find myself in the position of coordinating a campus-based, non-denominational Jewish organization such as Hillel, I would surely encourage students’ right to wrestle with, criticize, and protest the policies of Israel. But I would rue the day that the notion of Israel as a component of collective Jewish identity was simply left at the curb.

So since I support the diversity of political views around Israel which were given an airing at the Open Hillel conference, and if I welcome a much-needed, on-the-record conversation about the indignities of the occupation, but if, like Cohen, I am troubled that some of the Open Hillel’s proponents reject the relevance of sensitive and textured Jewish cultural and political engagement with Israel writ large, what am I to conclude about the fledgling movement?

What I conclude is that we must encourage more Open Hillel gatherings to be held. We must convene discussion not only among the converted. In the marketplace of ideas and attachments, we must realize that the most compelling identity markers will win. Therefore we must seek to understand how, if Israel is so central to the Jewish identity of so many, it is precisely not this way to so many others. And if it happens to be decades of Israeli settlement and occupation that have helped push younger Jews away, we must double down — as if we needed a further reason — to do something about those policies too.

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