On Open Hillel, Open Debate and Open Minds


Last November, Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance prepared to sponsor “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation.” One week before it was set to take place at Harvard Hillel, Hillel decided to pull the plug on the program. Why? Because Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee was a co-sponsor.

In defense of its position, Harvard Hillel cited the guidelines of Hillel International that state Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.” And since the Harvard PSC promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions, this was enough for Hillel to kibosh a program sponsored by a Jewish student group.

If this sounds vaguely like deja vu to you, that’s because back in March 2011, Brandeis University Hillel refused to allow student chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace to affiliate under its umbrella, citing the very same guidelines. Then senior Lev Hirschorn commented at the time:

We feel like we deserve a seat at the Jewish communal table, but there is a sense that dissent on the question of Israel is not really acceptable.

As open debate and discussion have been indelible aspects of Jewish culture from time immemorial these attempts at muzzling students’ voices are particularly egregious. Hillel International’s guidelines (which are not obligatory for local Hillels) essentially ensure that there will be no honest and open Jewish conversations about Israel on campuses across the country. They will most certainly exclude growing Jewish student groups such as JVP – and they will also prevent Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, since almost all Palestinian campus groups support BDS.

Trust me on this: this has everything to do with the Jewish establishment’s fear of letting young Jews think for themselves on the subject of Israel. Not convinced? Just read this recent piece in the Washington Jewish Week, in which Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt (chairperson of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinical Council) offered up this choice observation:

I think it is important to begin to help prepare our children for what they are going to encounter on college campuses in regard to pro-Palestinian groups, the anti-Israel groups on Israel and radical fringe groups like Jewish Voices for Peace.

These are not J Street. Our kids are relatively sheltered, and they go to college and are confronted with hostility and misinformation. I want them to be equipped with the knowledge and understanding of the historical justification for the existence of the state of Israel.

Well that certainly says it all. We need to protect our poor, vulnerable, non-critically thinking young people from Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups that advocate for the rights of Palestinians.  Since we can’t trust college students to think for themselves, we must “equip” them with what we deem to be the acceptable historical Jewish opinions on Israel. This profoundly patronizing, pseudo mind-controlling approach to Jewish outreach explains why the Jewish establishment is fast making itself irrelevant to young people – and why it feels compelled to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars yearly to send college students on all expenses paid Birthright junkets and free trips to the National AIPAC Convention.

Please join me in advocating for a Jewish student community that respects a plurality of Jewish student voices on Israel/Palestine. Please sign this petition by Open Hillel, a coalition of students that seek to change the “standards of partnership” in Hillel International’s guidelines and encourages local campus Hillels to adopt policies that “allow for free discourse on all subjects within the Hillel community.”

From the Open Hillel website:

We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International’s mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.

In addition, we believe that inter-community dialogue and free discourse, even on difficult subjects, is essential in the context of an educational institution and a democratic society. Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.

Sure doesn’t sound like the words of “sheltered,” “unequipped” young people to me…

5 thoughts on “On Open Hillel, Open Debate and Open Minds

  1. Steve Hinman

    I don’t understand the frequent broadsides against the “Jewish establishment” on this blog. I grew up in a Reconstructionist synagogue where Reconstructionism was the establishment. We had little exposure to any of the groups that might be considered “the establishment.” Looking back there was a decided lack of open mindedness or open debate regarding those more religious, those moderate to conservative in their politics, and those with their own view of Israel. Let’s focus on reversing the decline in the liberal branches of Judaism rather than verbal broadsides against other Jewish groups.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

      When I refer to the “Jewish establishment,” I’m referring to the institutions of the so-called organized Jewish community – Jewish federations, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the JCPA, the ADL, the AJC, Simon Wiesenthal Center, and (to a certain extent), AIPAC. These are not membership organizations like the religious denominations – they are institutions that purport to represent the Jewish community, but in reality have very specific agendas and are not accountable to anyone but themselves. When it comes to the issue of Israel in particular, the Jewish establishment has a certain orthodoxy that it enforces in a heavy-handed way to say the least – resulting, in my opinion, in the alienation of a significant percentage of Jews who consider themselves (or would otherwise consider themselves) as part of the Jewish community.

  2. i_like_ike52

    It’s all a question of where you draw the line. The lines you draw are just as arbitrary as anyone elses. Many people think that a broad-based Jewish organziation like Hille should not allow its facilities to be used to propagate boycotts or hate against any group of Jews or Israel as a whole (where almost half of all world Jewry lives today).
    You, on the other hand, believe that the line should be drawn to allow discuss of BDS in Hillel. I will show you how you are being arbitrary and restrictive no less than you claim Hillel is. In your previous posting regarding the Women of the Wall, you maintained that they were a certain amoungtof hypocrisy in the WOW’s demanding “human rights” for themselves at the Western Wall, but they don’t seem to be involved in worry about “Palestinian rights”. But why not go one step further…..at this very moment, the human rights situation in Syria on a day-to-day basis is far worse that whatever problems the Palestinians are having. Yet you yourself have stated that the US can not get involved there, and I don’t see American ‘progressives” calling for boycotts of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, all of whom are feeding the killing machine on both sides with weapons and support, all of which is causing a fratricidal slaughter with thousands of dead every month. One human rights problem (the Palestinians) disturbs the “progressives” human rights club, the other (Syria) doesn’t. Pretty arbitrary, primarily based on emotional considerations.
    Back to Hillel….again, you are demanding “free speech” for groups hostile to Israel. Well, if you want freedom of speech , then you have to allow it for eveyrone, and so if some “right-wing” group were to come in force one day to Hillel and they wanted to impose an ideological test on everyone who participates there, excluding, say Reconstructionst Rabbis and Jews from carrying out activities at Hillel, the “progressives” would protest. Or why not bring in Hebrew Christian groups advocating mass Jewishg conversion to Christianity? Freedom of speech!

    I think it is outrageous to expect a pan-Jewish organization like Hillel to openly give platforms to anti-Israel groups who support BDS. This is nothing more than advocating hate against different groups of Jews. Free discussion of the whether there should be a Palestinian state is fine….but encouraing boycotts of any groups of Jews or Israel as a whole is outside the pale.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

      I’ve written numerous times about the question of other “more worthy” boycotts. Either you are willfully engaging in misdirection on this issue, or else you simply don’t understand the basic concept of solidarity. I’ll explain one last time: it is not for American “progressives” to call for boycotts of countries who engage in human rights abuse. Boycotts are tools used by those who suffer from these abuses – and who choose to appeal to the world for support and solidarity. Solidarity means treating the oppressed as agents of their own destiny and not deciding for them what the means of their liberation should be.

      In the case of BDS, we have a call that has come out from the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society to support their cause in resisting a very brutal occupation. The question before us, quite simply, is whether or not we choose to answer the call. There are many thoughtful quarters of the Jewish community that believe BDS is a legitimate form of nonviolent resistance – and that since the US government is unable or unwilling to create the necessary pressure to change the status quo, BDS is an important means to leverage popular support to create change. Now we can certainly debate whether or not it is an effective or appropriate tactic – but I believe it is shameful for self-appointed guardians of the Jewish community to shut down debate completely and refuse to even countenance the conversation.

      Your point about Messianic Jews is another red herring. This is not a religious issue – it is a political one.

  3. Isaac Galili

    Do you know if any Arab-American or Palestinian-American or American Muslim groups would co-sponsor an event in one of their facilities in which representatives from a Zionist group would give their perspectives? If it is valuable for Jews to hear the Palestinian ‘narrative’ is it not equally valuable for Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims to hear the Israeli ‘narrative’ as well? Or, do you believe the Israeli perspective has no validity therefore Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims should not be exposed to it?

    I ask this as an Israeli who is opposed to occupation, supports two-states, but am opposed to BDS because I see through their smokescreen (just like Finkelstein) and know it seeks to eliminate Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.


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