Don’t Tell Us What to Talk About, Say Students at Open Hillel’s First Conference

Activists claim ‘red lines’ within established U.S. Jewish community, such as BDS, stifle genuine debate on Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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

Cambridge, MA – At a hall at Harvard packed with Jewish students from around the country for the first “Open Hillel” conference, Iona Feldman, a sophomore at Brandeis University, puzzled over where to place his new “I support Palestinian Human Rights” bumper sticker on his laptop, already covered in political stickers.

“If one has empathy for the Israeli people for their suffering,” he said, finally smoothing the sticker in place, “ You can also have empathy for Palestinian people.”

But students like Feldman, almost 300 of them, came to Harvard over the long Columbus Day weekend precisely because they say expressing such sentiments and holding critical discussions about Israel in general feels impossible within today’s Jewish establishment and at their local Hillels, intended as home base for Jewish students on campus.

Among the participants and speakers were those for a two-state solution, others for a one-state solution, both Zionists and anti-Zionists. Conference organizers tried to include right-wing speakers, but, they said, none of the dozen organizations and speakers they reached out to agreed to speak or send representatives.

Open Hillel activists say they want to change what they call the status quo “red lines” within the established Jewish community which they complain choke genuine debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The concept of Open Hillel was originally a response to Hillel International’s “Standards of Partnership” that exclude hosting speakers or events that they view as delegitimizing Israel or support calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions, known as BDS.

Hallways and meeting areas were crammed with students, many of whom had been organizing and exchanging ideas for months online and only now met in person. Confident, articulate and almost giddy over the size of the conference, they are the face of a segment of young Jews who say it’s their turn to be heard without being ostracized or rebuked. In discussions several students framed their activism as belonging to a larger tradition of Jewish activism in past struggles including the civil rights movement in the United States. One of the sessions was titled “From Mississippi to Jerusalem: A Discussion with Jewish Civil Rights Veterans.”

“Unless they, (the Jewish leadership) start being accountable to us they will lose us,” Sarah Turbow, the director of J Street U, said at a debate on the American Jewish community’s role in Israel-Palestine. “The occupation is a stain on the soul of the Jewish people. It’s terrible, offensive and has to end where we differ is how to make it end.”

Next to Turbow on stage was Rebecca Vilkomerson, director of Jewish Voices for Peace, which, unlike J Street, does support BDS.

“We see BDS as a really vital non-violent tool to pressure Israel when our own government will not. And as a way to encourage people to take action on their own,” she said.

“The Jewish institutional world has made BDS a red line or read anti-Semitism into its principles. But how can it be anti-Semitic to say a state should be accountable for its human rights violations?”

In an op-ed published in JTA last week, Eric Fingerhut, director of Hillel International, defended the organization’s policies and said it welcomed and includes, “students of all backgrounds, all political positions and who have an exceptionally wide array of relationships with their Jewish identities and with Israel. They do so within an environment that is intellectually rigorous, respectful of difference and committed to honest conversation. Hillel is among the most religiously, intellectually, culturally and politically pluralistic organizations in the Jewish world — a testament to both the diversity of Jewish experience and of the college campuses we serve.”

Harvard Hillel sent out an email ahead of the Open Hillel conference explaining why it does not support Open Hillel. It read, in part, “Harvard Hillel is committed by mission to connection and dialogue with Israel. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement urges severing all ties with Israel, including intellectual and academic interaction, as demonstrated in the recent American Studies Association academic boycott resolution against Israel. Harvard Hillel promotes constructive engagement with Israel, not alienation and ostracism.”

Among the conference speakers were those who had been excluded from speaking at Jewish institutions because of their views on Israel, including prominent professors Judith Butler and Rashid Khalidi and David Harris-Gershon, author of a memoir, What do you buy the Children of The Terrorist who Tried to Kill Your Wife?

“I think there is a trope in the established Jewish community which says that if you hear one voice critical of Israel like Breaking the Silence, you will turn on Israel immediately or get a bad picture of Israel. But what other issues do we talk about this way? Students are smart and they know (a specific speaker or group) is not representative of an entire issue,” Turbow told Haaretz.

“One of the things I think is really behind a lot of the rhetoric about how we engage young people is (this idea) that we have to message Israel in a particular way because the genie is out of the bottle and they realize they cannot put it back in. And they don’t know what to do about that,” she said.

It was last December at Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, that the Open Hillel movement began. Amelia Dornbush, now a senior, was one of its organizers there.

Looking around her as students raced between sessions, she seemed happily surprised by the conference’s large turnout.

“We want to model the kind of community we want to have. Ninety-nine percent of us could not have these conversations at our Hillels and we wanted to have them. It’s not just about Israel-Palestine. We also want to talk about other things, questions about race, class and intermarriage in the Jewish community,” said Dornbush. The program included topics like that as well.

She continued, “My hope is that students will be empowered to know they can create these spaces. Hillel is our Jewish space on campus and it should be what we want it to be. If donors don’t want that we will find a way around that.”

Both speaking at the conference and observing the interactions and sessions was Sarah Anne Minkin, a post-doctoral student at University of California-Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies. Her recently completed dissertation is about the boundaries set around how Jews engage with Israel.

“Ten years ago [these type] of students would create an alternative Jewish community. But now they are doing it literally inside their Hillels. That’s an interesting way of saying ‘We will not be pushed out,” said Minkin.

“This is about a movement of young Jews who say ‘We are not going to talk about Israel without wrestling with the occupation,’ what they find in the mainstream Jewish space is that they are taught that the occupation is something separate,” said Minkin. “You hear this all the time when people say, ‘Let’s talk about hi-tech and Israeli art.’ And I think students are saying this is the most burning issue here and we have to talk about it.’’

For Dorothy Zellner, a veteran of the U.S. civil rights movement who took part in the 1964 Freedom Summer, the conference was inspiring. “This is thrilling to me because we are going to win. Everyone, especially after the Gaza war was so distraught. Winning means we’re going to end this occupation, it’s not going to be easy. But the opposition is going to get more hysterical, not because we are not losing, but because we are winning,” Zellner said.