Open Hillel holds first conference at Harvard

A representative of Jewish Voice for Peace speaks with a student at the Open Hillel conference at Harvard University on Sunday. Photo by Gili Getz
A representative of Jewish Voice for Peace speaks with a student at the Open Hillel conference at Harvard University on Sunday. Photo by Gili Getz

Open Hillel, which surged into national headlines last year as a student opposition to Hillel International’s guidelines on Israel, held its inaugural national conference last weekend at Harvard University.

Some 350 people attended the two-day conference, which included lectures, panels and workshops on topics such as “Israel/Palestine Politics of College Campuses,” “Race in the American Jewish Community,” “Intermarriage: Good, Bad, or Neutral for the Jewish People?” and “Philanthropy and Power: How Big Donors Shape the Agenda in the Jewish World.”

Open Hillel formed to push for Hillel International to abolish its rules that prevent campus Hillels from collaborating with people or groups that it says delegitimize the Jewish state, or support efforts of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeted at Israel.

The Hillels at Swarthmore College, Vassar College and Wesleyan University have declared themselves “Open Hillels” and said they would not conform to Hillel International’s guidelines.

While Washington-area Hillel activists say it’s unlikely local universities will declare themselves Open Hillels, the new movement does have people talking.

“People definitely talk about the issues Open Hillel brings up,” said Benjy Cannon, a University of Maryland senior and national board president of J Street U., a dovish pro-Israel student group.
Those issues include broadening the discussion about Israel within Hillel’s walls, something that will not happen with Hillel’s guidelines in place, said Caroline Morganti, a junior at MIT and a member of both MIT Hillel and the Open Hillel steering committee.

She said Hillel’s policy hinders students’ ability to have the open dialogue they desire about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Being prevented from hosting people of different views prevents students from hearing the complete discussion.

Hillel International spokesman Noam Neusner said his organization remains firm in its stance on the guidelines and has received overwhelming support for them. Hillel is open already and recognizes there is going to be a plurality of views, Neusner said. But Hillel is pro-Israel and any affiliation with anti-Israel organizations will not be tolerated.

Mil Dranoff, a Washington-area resident who attended last weekend’s conference, is bothered by that position. “The fact that we [Hillel] can’t have a panel of speakers with different views is highly problematic, especially in the academic setting.” The fact that “any affiliation with anti-Israel organizations will not be tolerated” is a “cop out” according to Dranoff, who believes that “Hillel needs to open its doors to a diverse view on Israel.”

Observers say there has been no local push for open Hillel because campus Hillels here have done a good job providing programming that includes a broad range of political perspectives.

“I like to think that our Jewish students feel like they’ve got a range of opportunities, to explore, to think about different issues related to Israel and express themselves in safe settings,” said Jason Benkendorf, executive director of American University Hillel.

But this issue is not going to go away, Cannon said, “so everyone needs to keep being really proactive and addressing it and talking about it, first and foremost accommodating the students and their passions and their thoughts rather than trying to set a top-down agenda on what’s permissible.”

An array of organizations had tables at the event. They included educational institutions such as  the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and dovish advocacy groups such as J Street U and the New Israel Fund, as well as groups more sharply critical of Israel, such as Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Students and activists affiliated with Jewish Voice for Peace had a strong showing.

So, too, did students who are explicitly Zionist and personally oppose BDS efforts, but disagree with Hillel’s partnership rules.

Among them was Josh Wolfsun, a Swarthmore junior, who helped draft and promote the declaration that his campus would house the first Open Hillel.

“I don’t violate any of the Standards of Partnership,” Wolfsun said. “But a lot of it was friends of mine weren’t part of Swarthmore Hillel because they felt that the views that Hillel was drawing a line around and saying ‘these are OK’ didn’t include their views.”

Whether Open Hillel will influence Hillel International in any way is unclear. Morganti is pragmatic. “We think that even if the guidelines don’t change immediately, we want people to take a serious look at them to see if they are hindering dialogue,” she said.

Batya Ungar-Sargon of JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

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