Forward Thinking

Did Open Hillel Just Score a Real Victory?

By Aryeh Younger

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Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student / Flickr: Hillel News and Views

As members of Open Hillel’s steering committee, my fellow organizers and I commend Hillel International’s recent announcement to create the “Hillel International Israel Strategy Committee,” which will review the organization’s current approach to dialogue on Israel and Palestine and make recommendations for improvement. According to a letter written by CEO Eric Fingerhut on Hillel’s website, this committee “will include a diverse group of students from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences.”

This announcement, along with other potentially hopeful ones made by Fingerhut, proves that Hillel International is starting to listen to students’ concerns. Open Hillel’s campaign to change Hillel International’s policies is working. Three college campuses have already declared their Hillels to be “Open,” and several more have issued petitions to change their current policies. Plus, there’s evidence that these Open Hillels have experienced increased attendance at their events because more students now feel welcome.

In addition to participating in Hillel’s Israel Strategy Committee, the Open Hillel campaign is interested in engaging the staff at Hillel International directly. Our goal is not to damage Hillel International, but to make it better. To improve Hillel, all students need to know that they’re welcome regardless of their political beliefs. Open Hillel is not an anti-Zionist organization, and many of its most ardent advocates identify as Zionists. But, Zionist or not, we are united in the belief that open dialogue should be promoted within the Jewish community. And what better place for those discussions to occur than on universities at Hillel, “the foundation for Jewish life on campus?”

As an Orthodox Jew and as a Zionist, I recognize that my voice is only one of many in the American Jewish community. The Open Hillel campaign has given me the ability to interact with Jews with all different types of political opinions. In the future, I hope that similar opportunities will be open to Jews in colleges across the country.

Hillel International’s recent announcements show that its leadership cares about its students, though there’s still a lot of work to be done. Moving forward, it’s critical for Hillel to ensure that the new student committee is genuinely comprised of students with a wide range of political and religious beliefs, in order to guarantee that everyone in our community is represented fairly.

The topic of Israel and Palestine is one of the most contentious foreign policy issues in the world, and it’s perfectly acceptable for younger Jews to hold different opinions on the subject. But by restricting free speech in the Jewish community, Hillel is tragically telling scores of younger Jews that their opinions prevent them from participating in our broader Jewish community. The future of the Jewish people will be determined by the relationship forged between today’s older and younger generations of Jews. For that relationship to be healthy, we need open dialogue on even the most divisive of issues.

While it’s important to recognize Hillel International’s recent call for change as a step in the right direction, the extent of that change is still unknown. The organization now has the opportunity to take the necessary steps to improve its relationship with its student community, which will only happen once it agrees to officially end its discriminatory policies. Until then, Open Hillel will continue its campaign to promote open dialogue within Jewish campus communities around the globe.

Aryeh Younger is Open Hillel’s publications coordinator.

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