Rebel Jewish Student Movement to Hold First National Conference

Open Hillel hopes to highlight opinions and voices on Israel that have been made taboo by mainstream Jewish groups.

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Rashid Khalidi (L) and Judith Butler are scheduled to speak at Open Hillel national conference.
Rashid Khalidi (L) and Judith Butler are scheduled to speak at Open Hillel national conference. Credit: Alex Levac and Lior Mizrahi

The budding Open Hillel movement of Jewish college students, which has rebelled against mainstream Hillel's ban on non-Zionist and pro-BDS speakers, announced on Thursday it will hold its first national conference in the fall.

Organizers said in a statement that the conference – to be held October 11-13 at Harvard, where the movement began in November 2012 – will endeavor to highlight speakers who have been barred recently from addressing Jewish groups.

Open Hillel has cited three intellectuals who have been excluded from speaking at Jewish institutions: Philosopher Judith Butler, a BDS supporter recently pressured into canceling a talk at the Jewish Museum of New York; author David Harris-Gershon, who was forced to scrap an appearance at the University of California at Santa Barbara Hillel because he refused to condemn all boycotts of Israel; and Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American scholar barred from speaking at New York's Ramaz Jewish high school.

“One conference – the Conference of Presidents [of Major American Jewish Organizations] – has put most of its effort lately into the exclusion of Jewish voices,” says Lex Rofes, an Open Hillel organizer. “Our conference will instead focus on inclusion. We are inviting all who are interested to attend a communal event that will deepen and broaden our knowledge of crucially important issues facing our world and of one another.”

The Open Hillel movement has caught on among Jewish student groups at elite Eastern universities such as Vassar, Wesleyan and Swarthmore. They have broken with Hillel International's guidelines, which hold that campus chapters may not "partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.

Today the movement claims "over a thousand supporters and nearly 50 student organizers from dozens of schools across the country."

Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut, who opposes Open Hillel, has said that while “Hillel should and will always provide students with an open and pluralistic forum where they can explore issues and opinions related to their Jewish identity … [it] will not, however, give a platform to groups or individuals to attack the Jewish people, Jewish values or the Jewish state’s right to exist.”

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