Rebecca Vilkomerson speaking at the Open Hillel conference / Gili Getz
“I bought my ticket right after my rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah sermon. I knew I needed this community,” a student participant at the Open Hillel conference told me today.
The student went on to thank Open Hillel for providing a long overdue space for young Jews to come together and question the institutions, frameworks and viewpoints we have been taught. The message rang out loud and clear today at the inaugural Open Hillel conference: My generation is not content to be spoon-fed talking points, courted by free trips to Israel, or talked down to from patriarchal institutions that advocate policies at odds with our values. We want to proactively grapple with the hard questions that define the political and moral choices facing our community today.
Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership construct a political litmus test that prohibits the ability of students to engage with these questions. For Hillel, openness is an only-if-you-agree-with-our-funders kind of deal. The line is drawn at support for nonviolent resistance to occupation through boycott, divestment and sanctions — beyond that you become a “demonizer’” or “delegitimizer.” These are the rules of the conversation as dictated by Hillel, but the students are not content to stop there.
It was clear today, after hours of packed workshops, panels, speeches, and conversations in the hallways, at lunch and in the elevator, that the Open Hillel conference had struck a nerve. The floodgates have been opened and they aren’t shutting anytime soon. Over 350 people participated in this weekend’s conference — a far cry from the “small group of activists” Hillel International president Eric Fingerhut dismissed in his recent op-ed.
Judith Butler speaks at the inaugural Open Hillel conference in Boston/Photo by Gili Getz/Open Hillel
(JTA) — Four rabbis are engaged in an animated debate about Jewish law. Three of them agree, but the dissenter is adamant that he’s got it right. He cries out: “A sign, God, I beg You, a sign!”
It begins to rain, but the three in the majority are not swayed. “Another sign, please God!”
The rain picks up and lightning strikes near the rabbis, but still the three refuse to budge. After another plea from the one rabbi, a voice thunders from Heaven: “Heeeee’s Riiiiight!” The three rabbis look at each other, not sure how to react. Finally, one responds: “Well, all right. So it’s three against two.”
This lighthearted parable — an adapted version of the Talmud’s “Oven of Akhnai” story — highlights one of the foundational truths of Judaism: We do not always agree on our foundational truths.
Our disagreements are not a hindrance to communal existence but rather the source of an intellectual diversity. No matter the subject, it is precisely in and through these disagreements that Judaism finds its richest expression.
Open Hillel — a student-led campaign to change a Hillel International rule that, among other things, precludes it from partnering with groups that seek to change Israeli policies through nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) efforts — is hosting our first conference this week at Harvard. We are gathering because we believe that the principle of intellectual diversity ought to apply to our politics as well as our theology.
Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student / Flickr: Hillel News and Views
Once again the love affair between the Jewish people and higher education is back in full bloom. The start of a new school year, and the Jewish New Year, marked the beginning of robust programming for Jewish college students across the globe.
As students dig into their studies, the events in Israel and Gaza this past summer are a hot topic on many campuses. In response, Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world — its growing network now serves some 550 campuses in North and South America, Europe, Central Asia, Australia and Israel — is drawing on its expertise in promoting deep and thoughtful discussion. Hillel is sponsoring a broad range of programs to help students understand the issues and how they will affect Israel and its neighbors in the future.
Hillel professionals have heard presentations from both the Israeli ambassador to the United States and the leader of the opposition in the Knesset. Hillel student leaders have organized interfaith gatherings and intercultural dialogues. Hillel educators have offered seminars and discussions for students to learn about contemporary Israeli society and culture, to reflect on their own relationships with Israel and to develop skills as dialogue facilitators.
Hillel students have also modeled what respectful discourse looks like: At Cooper Union Hillel in New York City, students countered an effort to boycott a speech by the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and encouraged Jewish students to attend and listen respectfully, which they did. And, of course, the tens of thousands of students who attended High Holiday services at Hillel joined Jews all over the world in praying for a year of peace for all people.
What all these activities have in common is they welcome and include 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.
Inclusivity and broad-mindedness are part of our core values. All students are always welcome at Hillel. And these values guide all of our work. That work includes listening to all student voices, including those of the activists behind the “Open Hillel” campaign and other campus groups.
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.
Writing in Tablet Magazine, Liel Liebovitz — or perhaps Tablet’s headline writer — recently asked the apparently rhetorical question “Why Talk About Israel With People Who Want It To Disappear?”
Here are five answers.
1. Because many of them and their supporters are Jews.
Hillel, the Jewish Museum, Ramaz and other organizations that have lately banned anyone who supports BDS or is otherwise insufficiently pro-Israel all have missions that involve outreach to Jews. Are some Jews simply beyond the pale? Do we give up on Jewish peoplehood when Jewish people aren’t supportive enough of Israel? Perhaps instead of swearing fealty to an ideological position, organizations that do outreach to Jews should do outreach to Jews.
2. Because talking with people who disagree with us is good.
I’m not really clear why this has to be stated, but since Liebovitz argues forcefully that it’s better not to talk to some people, I guess it does. Encountering people we disagree with is part of the process of becoming a grown-up. Thoughtful people listen to people we disagree with, and dialogue with them to see where we disagree and why. This process may not persuade anyone, but that’s not the point; the point is to be thoughtful, reasonable, and well-informed. At Hillel, in particular, this should be an obvious value, since it works in a university context. Should students not read disagreeable philosophers? Should they boycott their disagreeable peers down the dorm room hall? Oh, and saying “you can go hear this anti-Israel speaker somewhere else” is not a reply. What that says is there’s a place for the free exchange of ideas, and then there’s a little Jewish ghetto where we don’t talk of such things.
As the controversy rages over Hillel’s Israel guidelines — which delineate which groups it will partner with or allow to participate in Hillel-sponsored events — observers have started to wonder what effect all this will have on American Jewish identity and Israel advocacy. The issue, though, is about more than just defining Hillel; it’s also about defining the issue itself.
We use language not just to describe things, but to give ideas emotional meanings. People, including policymakers, respond to specific discursive cues. When these cues are associated with a particular meaning or emotional state that matters to the listeners, they are more likely to respond in the way the speaker intends.
So, for example, part of the reason Jewish groups advocating for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship (think AIPAC) have become successful is because of the rhetoric they use in their public statements and private conversations. The U.S. sees itself as a superior form of democracy, a beacon of light and a “good” country. Lobbyists who can tie into those feelings — by using key words like “shared values,” “democracy,” “individual rights,” “common Judeo-Christian heritage,” and “common strategic interests” — can make a stronger case for their demands.
Similarly, when it comes to Hillel, the fight is really about how to define what “pro-Israel” means, a controversy that has flared up in recent years, spurred by the battle over Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense and questions about whether the U.S. Jewish community should pressure Israel on peace talks or not. But in this case, Hillel’s own guidelines have left the door open to multiple interpretations of what “pro-Israel” means.
Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student. Flickr: Hillel News and Views.
Hillel, the ancient sage, was famously impossible to insult. The Talmud portrays intellectuals, rebellious students, passersby and would-be converts as offering jokes, specious arguments, and outrageous claims — all to rattle the unflappable teacher. But in the face of faulty arguments, Hillel prevailed with a calm demeanor, taking it all in and returning volley with an equanimity and integrity that won him wide acclaim as one of Judaism’s greatest teachers.
Elisha ben Abuyah, a first century sage and contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, quit Judaism in a moment of personal crisis, denied the existence of God, and left the Jewish people entirely. And yet, the Talmud preserves his story, too, even sharing tales of his rabbinic colleagues seeking his insights to Torah while riding horseback on the Sabbath. While the Talmud says that Elisha “pulled up the shoots,” uprooting his essential connection to Jewish identity, his story is nevertheless preserved.
In the case of Hillel and Elisha (and many others), the ancient and venerable Jewish literary tradition upholds the value and centrality of debate within the Jewish community.
It is therefore troubling to read about the recent controversy taking place between students at the Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel International over the alleged attempt by Hillel International to censor Swarthmore Hillel for joining the “Open Hillel” movement and allowing for non-Zionist or anti-Zionist campus organizations to debate Israel under the Hillel umbrella.
Despite initially facing resistance from the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, student members of J Street at the University of Pennsylvania were able to host an event at Penn’s Hillel featuring Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli Defense Force army veterans who speak out against Israeli military policy.
Thursday’s event drew about 60 people and there were no protests according to Akiva Sanders, a junior and co-president of J Street UPenn.
Shapiro, who noted that many Penn Hillel students would like to live in Israel after graduation, said that it was, “important for people to understand all the different details of the situation in Israel and the situation produced by the policies of a government that we give a lot of money to and we also support.”
J Street began planning to have a speaker from Breaking the Silence come to campus in October but was soon notified that Hillel of Greater Philadelphia would not allow the event to be held in the Hillel building. In January, J Street created a petition to support the event, which was signed by 27 Penn Hillel student leaders.
Sanders said the petition made the point that, “people across the Jewish community amongst my generation really want to have a kind of conversation that is supportive of Israel, loving toward Israel, but is thoughtful and can deal with the realities of the situation.”
With the Palestinians poised to make their bid for statehood at the United Nations, another diplomatic effort was taking place on Columbia University’s manicured campus five miles uptown.
Hillel, the national Jewish student organization, erected an open-air tent on September 21 with the words “Talk Israel: Join the Conversation” on a blue banner on Columbia’s Hamilton Lawn. Inside, there were two TV screens, one featuring video clips of Israeli bands and movies, and the other projecting Talk Israel’s Facebook page. There was also a large square table, around which half a dozen Hillel members and Columbia and Barnard students sat to, well, talk about Israel.
“The wider message is that stuff should be achieved via dialogue,” said Tor Tsuk, Columbia Hillel’s Israel Fellow, a new position created by the national Hillel to conduct Israel programming on campus.
The Talk Israel tent at Columbia is one of 20 Hillel tents popping up on campuses in the U.S. and Canada this week timed with the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. Columbia is considered a “hot campus” by Hillel officials since it has been the site of clashes between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel student groups.