‘Open Hillel’ Is a Much Bigger Problem Than You Think

Aiden Pink

Aiden Pink

Assistant Editor, The Tower Magazine; Coordinator, Tower Tomorrow Fellowship

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From the Blog

A new movement started by college students seeks to dramatically disrupt Jewish activities on campuses. How the community responds will have a large impact on the future of American Jewish life.

There’s a story about the Dalai Lama, who was looking for advice on how to keep his community united after being exiled from Tibet. Knowing that the Jews have had centuries of experience living as a minority in diaspora, he asked for a meeting with the two Chief Rabbis of Israel. One chief rabbi said, “Before we begin, your Holiness, you should know that we Jews never agree on anything.” Immediately, the other chief rabbi yelled, “That’s not true!”

I thought of this joke a lot when I attended the first ever “Open Hillel” conference, which took place October 11-13 at Harvard University. The Open Hillel phenomenon is a largely student-led effort devoted to eliminating the standards that guide Israel-related programs at Hillel houses, seeking to legitimize and include groups that advance anti-Israel (and sometimes anti-Semitic) agendas in mainstream Jewish campus life. Hillel houses, which host religious, political, and cultural events, and provide resources for many Jewish- and Israel-related campus student organizations, are the most important (and sometimes only) centers of Jewish life on college campuses, providing Jewish students with a safe environment at a time when hostility and violence is being directed at them with disturbing frequency—aggression that in some cases is being perpetrated and encouraged by the very groups Open Hillel says Hillel itself should now legitimize.

As I discovered at their conference, while Open Hillel phrases their intentions in the context of a free and unfettered debate (hence “open”), their events, speakers and partners actually seem to be far more interested in institutionalizing a set of radical opinions—and browbeating the mainstream into accepting it: That far from being a lonely liberal democracy facing daunting challenges from without and within, Israel is actually an illegitimate, oppressive, colonial state that might be better off not existing; and that Jewish students cannot truly understand it without teaming up with extreme pro-Palestinian groups.

Open Hillel says it wants a diverse conversation about the face of Jewish identity. But does it really?

Open Hillel was founded in 2012, when members of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance wrote “An Open Letter to the Hillel Community” on their website. In their letter, the students criticized Harvard Hillel for cancelling an event they had planned called “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation,” because it was cosponsored by the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, the local equivalent of the national campus organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). As an exposé in The Tower Magazine revealed last month, SJP is not merely a strong supporter of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—it also has an unfortunate tendency to promote anti-Semitic hatred and campus violence. Because the Palestine Solidarity Committee supports BDS, its cosponsorship meant that the event ran afoul of the formal standards on Israel-related events set by Hillel International, the parent organization of Hillel houses around the world.

Though they were able to hold their event at a different campus facility, the Progressive Jewish Alliance demanded changes that would allow such events to occur at Hillel houses in the future:

In response to these recent events, we conclude that Hillel should have no policy on the political affiliation of groups, organizations, and speakers that it partners with, houses, and hosts. We ask that Hillel International remove its guidelines for Standards of Partnership for campus Israel activities, which currently work to exclude groups and individuals with particular political views from campus Hillels.

Two years later, Hillel International has not bowed to the pressure of what is still a small number of radical activists. Instead, the organization has maintained a challenging but important balancing act. On the one hand, Hillel maintains the position that support for the Jewish state should be a foundational pillar of Jewish communal life—it states on its website that it is “steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations,” and that it “desires that students are able to articulate why Israel plays an important role in their personal Jewish identities and how Israel continues to influence Jewish conversations, global Jewish peoplehood, and the world.” But at the same time, Hillel is dedicated to openness and inclusiveness. In an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that was published shortly before the Open Hillel conference, Hillel International’s President and CEO Eric Fingerhut wrote that “every student is welcome at Hillel regardless of his or her personal views on Israel or any other topic in Jewish life.”

To that end, Hillel’s Standards of Partnership, which were written in 2010 in collaboration with students and campus professionals, proscribe a small category of groups from being associated with Hillel:

Hillel will 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.

Such limitations on Hillel activity do not represent anything unusual when considering the whole range of mainstream Jewish positions on Israel—it does not silence Zionist Jews who take issue with Israeli government policies over the peace process or housing construction. What it means, rather, is that groups that seek to isolate and delegitimize Israel, such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), cannot partner with or hold events at Hillels, and that groups that are already partnered with Hillel, like the Harvard Progressive Jewish Alliance, must abide by boundaries on the programming and partners they can bring in.

Since the movement’s founding, Open Hillel has evolved into a small but energetic cadre of students and young alums who are agitating to change Hillel’s policies. In the past year, of the hundreds of Hillel affiliates nationwide, student leaders at three schools—Swarthmore College, Vassar College, and Wesleyan University—have announced that they will no longer abide by Hillel International’s official policy on anti-Israel partners.

Such developments, at three small liberal arts schools with tiny active Jewish populations, may not sound that significant, but given the trends on campus and in the broader Jewish community, the potential for the movement to spread is significant and merits close attention.

Open Hillel’s first annual conference took place over Columbus Day weekend in Boston this year, and was attended by over 350 people, approximately 200 of them students from various campuses across the U.S. and Canada. The conference was designed simultaneously as a gathering place for like-minded anti-Zionist, non-Zionist, and Zionist-but-highly-critical-of-Israel students and young adults; a weekend-long brainstorming session for how to turn themselves into a full-fledged movement; and a demonstration of what, in their mind, a truly open Hillel would look like.

Open Hillel conference attendees listen at a plenary session. Photo: Gili Getz

Open Hillel conference attendees listen at a plenary session. Photo: Gili Getz

Though the conference was officially titled “If Not Now, When?,” its unofficial title may as well have been “Two Jews, Three Opinions,” such was the frequency that I heard that cliché when interviewing conference attendees and listening to guest speakers. Open Hillel says it takes no official stance on BDS, a one- or two-state solution, or any other matter related to Israeli-Palestinian issues—their mantra is that they want all voices to be heard in the internal Jewish debate, including those that have previously been deemed off-limits.

Except for one problem. For all their complaints about their feelings of exclusion and limited discourse, my clear sense at the conference was that they—rather than Hillel International—are the ones attempting to forcibly impose a monolithic discourse. And it is the promotion of this kind of discourse—disingenuous, postmodern, radical, and often hateful—that is one of the biggest threats facing the future of Jewish communal life.

Of the 350 attendees at the Open Hillel conference, about 60 percent of them were current students, with the remainder made up of young alums, guest speakers, Boston community activists, journalists, and at least three employees of a Zionist organization operating undercover. That organization, along with about a dozen others, was invited to participate in the conference—they officially declined, ostensibly out of fear of giving legitimacy to the movement or the views espoused throughout the weekend, which included breakout sessions on “Unpacking Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions”; “Deception or Oversight? The Problem with Israel Education in American Jewish Institutions”; and “Philanthropy and Power: How Big Donors Shape the Agenda in the Jewish World.”

Those were not the only conference events that might have made a lot of mainstream Jewish groups think twice before attending.

Among the keynote speakers was Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University who has long been accused of working as a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization during the 1980s.

Prominently featured at the conference was Mark LeVine, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who spent the weekend pitching his idea that Israel and Palestine could be “parallel states” where both countries would exist between the river and the sea, and each country would have sovereignty over its own citizens—an idea so utopian that it makes Altneuland look like Lord of the Flies.

The writer Sarah Schulman, who invented the term “pinkwashing” to explain how Israel’s granting of equal rights for its gay population is actually just a pretense for continued crimes against Palestinians, said at the conference’s opening plenary that the events of Operation Protective Edge, during which “we watched the Israeli government violate international law, commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, and murder over 2,000 civilians with U.S. money,” were “the product of Jewish supremacy ideology.”

Representatives from the NGO B’Tselem were present at the Open Hillel conference. Photo: Open Hillel

Representatives from the NGO B’Tselem were present at the Open Hillel conference. Photo: Open Hillel

Schulman also made the case in a later session that campus groups screening a film about Israeli Jewish and Arab children learning to coexist through ballroom dancing was a form of “normalization”—a crucial red-flag term for anti-Zionist activists, one that deems all forms of coexistence, or even suggestions that the Palestinian and Israeli narratives are somehow parallel, as illegitimate and unacceptable for anyone supportive of the Palestinian cause. When pressed on this point by a conference participant, she said she was unsure if the ballroom dancing classes themselves were a form of normalization, and therefore treif. Later on, she proffered that in some circumstances, mentioning the wave of anti-Semitic violence in France could also be “normalizing.”

During lunch on the first full day, brochure-filled tables were set up by a panoply of anti-Zionist and otherwise controversial organizations, among them Jewish Voice for Peace, which was instrumental in getting the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from companies that do business in Israel; B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO that monitors the state of human rights for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but more recently made news after it was discovered that one of their researchers was a Holocaust denier; and Haymarket Books, which sponsors speaking tours featuring the anti-Zionist demagogues Max Blumenthal and Ali Abunimah, the latter of whom once tweeted that “Supporting Zionism is not atonement for the Holocaust, but its continuation in spirit.”

It’s unclear whether Open Hillel organizers and conference attendees would agree with Abunimah’s statement—not once at the conference did I hear Israel being accused of “genocide” or “apartheid,” two words that I had assumed would have helped me win Open Hillel Bingo. But then again, not accusing the Jewish state of genocide seems a pretty low bar to clear.

If Open Hillel actually believed in a diversity of opinion, you couldn’t tell from the way they run their conference.

Yet if this group actually believes in promoting diversity of opinion, it would be difficult to tell from the way they run their conference. While I couldn’t attend every session—multiple sessions occurred at once, and some of them were closed to the press—it was striking to see how little variety there was on offer when covering certain aspects of Israeli and Palestinian politics. The most obvious example was the ubiquitous use of the phrase “Israel/Palestine” when referring to the region—especially curious considering that many conference participants do not want an Israel and a Palestine to simultaneously exist. The majority of participants seemed to fall, as one Open Hillel leader described herself and many of her peers, “between J Street and JVP,” but while there were definitely some views expressed that were even more extreme than JVP, I never heard a single opinion expressed that could be called more ardently Zionist than J Street—which itself has a very problematic relationship with Zionism. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, I suppose, but the fact that the conference’s most vociferous defender of Israel was the writer Peter Beinart, who himself has advocated a complete boycott of Israel beyond the 1949 armistice lines, is indicative of the groupthink that seemed to permeate the conference.

Of course, that was to be expected, considering the nature of the conference and the underlying issue of inclusion—students whose opinions are unambiguously Zionist do not feel excluded from Hillel because of their opinions on Israel. But the real test will come when Open Hillel and its members are confronted with speakers whose level of disagreement with the movement is stronger than “not wanting to boycott Israel.”

It’s really a shame that there were no (non-undercover) unabashedly Zionist groups represented at the conference—I would have gladly paid money to see JVP’s executive director, Rebecca Vilkomerson, who participated in panel discussions at the conference, debate Howard Kohr, the executive director of AIPAC, which turned down its invitation to attend. Such an event would show how committed Open Hillel really is to true intellectual diversity, rather than, as cynics might suspect, merely wanting a more prominent platform for their radicalism. Indeed, what would be even more instructive would be to see what would happen if the audience for the Vilkomerson-Kohr clash was not composed solely of the exceedingly polite students who attended the conference, but also included the campus activists of SJP, who are notorious for disrupting pro-Israel speakers and yet refuse to constructively engage with them on the grounds of “anti-normalization.”

Peter Beinart, columnist for Haaretz, and Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, debate at the Open Hillel conference. Photo: Gili Getz

Peter Beinart, columnist for Haaretz, and Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, debate at the Open Hillel conference. Photo: Gili Getz

Which is to say that Open Hillel was originally founded to allow the creation of partnerships with SJP, a group that refuses to openly partner with nearly every other Israel-related organization, and it’s unclear how Open Hillel can or will square that circle.

Also unclear is how an organization that prides itself on openness will be able to justify sponsoring speakers from groups whose primary political agenda is denying other people (Israelis) the right to speak publicly.

Not to mention the fact that the SJP chapter at Vassar, where the Hillel now declares itself open to all, literally tweeted Nazi propaganda a few months ago.

Still, despite the conference’s aggressive agnosticism toward not only Zionism as a theory but of an entire country’s right to live and defend itself; despite the frequent citation of the “Jewish values” of “openness,” “debate,” and “the pursuit of peace” without any apparent recognition that other “Jewish values” might also be “communal solidarity” or “the right to self-defense”; despite the fact that letting conferences like this one be held under the auspices of major Jewish groups would be effectively mainstreaming a radical and dangerous set of ideas—despite all this, what struck me most about the conference was the degree to which conference organizers and participants seemed to genuinely care about the state of Jewish life on their campuses. And this is where things get tricky.

Open Hillel activists say they want to feel as though they are a part of the campus Jewish community. As Holly Bicerano, a senior at Boston University and Open Hillel’s Campus Outreach Co-Coordinator, told me, “There are a lot of people that feel excluded because of [Hillel International’s] guidelines. There are a lot of people who won’t go to Hillel just because they don’t feel welcome.” Many of them feel disaffected or unwelcome from Jewish communal life because of their alternative views on Israel (or at least have friends who feel that way), and want a space where those ideas can be shared without fear or scorn. At the same time, they want to remain within the Hillel umbrella itself.

For people whose ideologies fall so far outside the Jewish mainstream, Open Hillel seems to care an awful lot about changing institutions like Hillel.

This would seem to be a counterintuitive choice for people whose political ideologies fall so far outside the Jewish mainstream, as seen in many members’ individual support for BDS and enthusiasm for a “one-state solution” (which is code for the destruction of Israel and the end of Jewish self-determination). After all, there are lots of other methods by which Jewish students can express their Jewish identities outside of Hillel’s aegis. Chabad is there if you want to engage your Jewish identity through homemade meals and Shabbat schnapps shots. Sunday schools at local synagogues are there if you want to engage your Jewish identity through helping pass on our rich religious and cultural heritage to the next generation, and make some extra money in the process. Jewish fraternities are there if you want to engage your Jewish identity through brotherhood and beer pong. Why can’t Open Hillel be there as a separate entity if you want to engage your Jewish identity through radical activism? Why can’t they just organize themselves into an alternative Jewish community, as so many splinter groups and breakaway minyanim have done in the past?

The answer, Bicerano told me, is that “people see Hillel as their Jewish home on campus, and so it’s like going to your home and not feeling totally welcome.” And indeed, Hillel International does market itself as “The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.” Instead of abandoning Jewish communal life due to Hillel’s perceived exclusionary policies, the Open Hillel activists care enough about their Jewish “home” to work to fix its perceived errors from within. And so you end up with something paradoxical and bizarre: a group that longs for acceptance while advocating rejection, that wants Jewish life but not the version of it embodied in Jewish self-determination and statehood, that acts radical but pines for belonging.

Indeed, many of the student conference participants were graduates of Jewish day schools and summer camps, are members of their campus Hillel student boards, and are otherwise active in Jewish communal life on and off campus. At the conference, I talked to Becca Rosenthal, a senior at Claremont McKenna College who participated in Nativ, the Conservative movement’s gap year program in Israel, and now teaches at a Hebrew school near her campus.

I care deeply about the Jewish world. I would not be here, I would not be as passionate about opening up the Jewish institutions if I didn’t want to be a part of them….I am not a self-hating Jew. I am here because I care. And it is hard and it is frustrating to have people in my community delegitimize my Judaism, to say “What happened to your Judaism?”

It has to be said, though, that there is a not-insignificant segment within Open Hillel that isn’t so much interested in altruistically “opening the tent” to include anti-Zionist voices, but rather more interested in moving the tent in a specific direction, and the primary movers behind the effort know it well. Joshua Wolfsun, the Israel-Palestine Programming Coordinator at Swarthmore Hillel, admitted as much about the broader movement when I interviewed him:

For an issue like this, there’s going to be a coalition of people. There’s going to be different people with their different views, and I think that’s part of what’s beautiful is that we actually see a lot of different people from a lot of different perspectives working on this. But, what that also does necessitate is that there are certain people, wings, groups within Open Hillel that see this as a way to bring in more lefty discourse and speakers and eventually promote those policies.

Naomi Dann, who was president of the Vassar Jewish Union (as well as Vassar’s SJP club) when it declared itself open, and now works for Jewish Voice for Peace, told me in an interview before the conference that “while Open Hillel is sort of focusing on a campaign to drop the guidelines, it sees itself as part of a broader movement to open up Jewish communities to debate.” And in her speech during the conference’s final session, she made clear Open Hillel’s broader and more ambitious goals: “Now is the time to talk about how we’re going to move power. We are strategizing. We are building relationships. We are planning campaigns. We’re building the power to change our Jewish institutions.” Indeed, in the days following the conference, Open Hillel’s coalition—those who want diversity of dialogue partnering with those who want the promotion of specific kinds of dialogue—may be beginning to fray. As an Open Hillel member told the Jewish magazine New Voices in an article published today, “The conference has drawn people from either extreme who want to turn the group more towards advocacy for their causes, and the campaign is trying to decide how to find balance while being welcoming towards all views.”

This more activist wing within Open Hillel is not the only collection of young Jews who are trying to push Jewish communal institutions to the radical Left. Another is #IfNotNow, which presented at a breakout session at the Open Hillel conference and whose membership overlaps with Open Hillel leadership. #IfNotNow was formed during Operation Protective Edge to protest Israel’s actions in Gaza and to criticize what they saw as Jewish communal institutions’ complicity in supporting the Occupation and Israel’s role in the death of Gaza’s civilians. On July 29, nine members of #IfNotNow were arrested for entering the New York office of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and refusing to leave (among those arrested was Naomi Dann). A few days later, on the holiday of Tisha B’Av, in the middle of a 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas, a group of #IfNotNow protesters gathered outside the Washington D.C. offices of the Jewish Federations of North America, wearing all black and delivering a letter, stating:

We reject your organization’s promotion of the ‘well being of Jews worldwide’ as you support a war that leaves our friends and cousins running to bomb shelters and only worsens the horrific status quo of a stateless and oppressed people, the Palestinians. Occupation and expulsion has left the Jewish community numb to the suffering of others and callous in the face of bloodshed.

(I suppose I should take this opportunity to point out that #IfNotNow—and “If Not Now, When?”, the official name of the Open Hillel conference, both of which derive their names from a partial quote by the ancient rabbi Hillel the Elder—is perhaps the dumbest, least creative, most faux-meaningful name a Jewish organization could possibly come up with. This question can be used to justify literally any possible political viewpoint: “Lift the blockade of Gaza and end the Occupation, because if not now, when?” “Re-occupy Gaza and eliminate the terror threat, because if not now, when?” “I’m hungry, let’s order a pizza, because if not now, when?”)

Even after the end of Operation Protective Edge, #IfNotNow has continued to remain active, holding High Holidays-style tashlich repentance ceremonies outside Federation offices in New York, Washington, and Philadelphia—atoning for “our complicity in upholding the Occupation which has been weighing on the Jewish soul for 47 years. While blindly supporting the war in Gaza this summer, the Jewish Federations of North America claimed to represent us, but instead erased and denied Palestinian death and suffering.” Though the circumstances are different, the claim that the American Jewish establishment doesn’t represent a growing number of young Jews is one that was also heard frequently throughout the Open Hillel conference.

How important is Open Hillel?

According to last year’s Pew survey, a quarter of all Jews ages 18-29 believe that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel. Only 26 percent believe that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort towards peace, a number significantly lower than older generations, while the number who believe that the Palestinians are sincere in this regard are 18 percent, a number significantly higher than older generations. Historic trends would suggest that these young Jews will grow more supportive of Israel as they age, but some leading demographers are doubtful. Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who spoke at the Open Hillel conference, has stated that the cynicism toward Israeli policies shown by young Jews is likely to endure.

Higher levels of skepticism regarding whether the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement are probably more a matter of generation than of maturation. As a general rule, communal identities (like belonging to synagogues) change with family life cycle changes. Political identities are formed in adolescence and young adulthood and remain fairly stable throughout the life course. My sense is that views about Israel’s sincerity in pursuing peace, settlement construction, and related matters is closely tied to political identities which are more stable and enduring.

The trends seem to show that every year in which an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty is not signed is a year in which more young Jews grow skeptical about Israel, its intentions, and perhaps the relative merits of its existence.

Jewish communal institutions will no doubt respond by saying that within certain limits, they do accept dissent from the standard pro-Israel line, and so there is no reason for anyone to feel alienated. And on the whole, their claim of acceptance is largely true, though where that line is drawn can vary—for example, campus J Street chapters have been denied membership at more than a dozen Hillels due to local student and donor opposition, despite Hillel International’s claim that J Street is “more than welcome” at Hillel.

(I should note that I have previously argued that J Street is essentially an anti-Zionist group, because its entire reason for being is rooted in a fundamental disregard for the right of the citizens of the Jewish state to enjoy the fruits of their own democracy. In seeking to get the U.S. government to impose political and security policies on Israel which may be in direct contradiction to those that the citizens and voters in Israel have democratically chosen, J Street is in direct violation of Israeli—and thus Jewish—self-determination. Nonetheless, the organization says publicly that it does not support BDS and proclaims that it wants Israel to remain a Jewish state, and so therefore does not, on the face of it, violate Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership and should not be banned.)

Sarah Turbow, director of J Street U, speaks at the Open Hillel conference. Photo: Gili Getz

Sarah Turbow, director of J Street U, speaks at the Open Hillel conference. Photo: Gili Getz

The real issue, though, is what is going on outside the Jewish community’s self-imposed limits. In an interview with the Times of Israel this August, Cohen estimated that JVP supporters already account for about two percent of the American Jewish population. Though this sounds small, these numbers skew young, and, as the Times explained, “There is an inference that JVP has an ever growing pool of prospective followers, especially on campuses.” Vilkomerson, the executive director of JVP, which was heavily represented by students at the Open Hillel conference, claimed in a panel session that since Operation Protective Edge began in June, her organization has opened 25 new chapters around the country, gained 60,000 new online supporters, and tripled the number of likes on the organization’s Facebook page.

All of these factors, along with the fact that over 200 college students made the effort to travel to Boston from all over North America to attend the Open Hillel conference, are indicative of a trend of a growing number of anti-Zionist and Zionist-but-highly-critical Jews who say they want to play a part in Jewish communal and institutional life, and yet struggle to do so as long as they do not see themselves reflected in the establishment’s embrace of Jewish peoplehood as embodied by its support for the Jewish state. Hillel International is one of the few organizations dealing with this challenge right now, but as the rise of #IfNotNow shows, they will likely not be the last.

This will raise significant challenges for organizations that represent the mainstream American Jewish community, as well as for their counterparts in local communities. Some of these challenges were briefly brought up last year, when the Pew survey first came out, but they were quickly dismissed by some of the more influential officers in the established Jewish community. Steve Bayme, the director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee, was unmoved by the survey’s conclusions in an interview with The Jewish Daily Forward: “The distancing from Israel… among the younger generation is less a reflection of harsh criticism of Israeli policy than it is a distancing from Jewish matters generally. Therefore, Jewish organizations do need to be concerned about this, but they need to be concerned primarily about continuity and assimilation.”

While a huge number of young Jews don’t engage with their communal identity, Open Hillel members are often deeply involved—making the problem of the group’s direction all the more difficult.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, conveyed similar sentiments, much more bluntly: “You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care. This is a poll of everybody. Some care, some don’t care. I think it’s interesting, we need to be aware. But I’m not going to follow this.”

Such attitudes are typical, and may be correct in most cases, but they do not solve the Open Hillel problem. The Open Hillel members I saw and talked to do care about Jewish communal life. They are deeply involved in the construction and continuation of their Jewish communities, on campus and after they graduate. Normally, Jews otherwise divided by politics and religion unite during “rally around the flag” moments, such as when Israel goes to war—but those moments are what this group is rebelling against anyway: Hillel International’s statement during Operation Protective Edge that the “support, solidarity and prayers of the entire Hillel family are with…the nation of Israel as they defend themselves,” was, to Open Hillel’s mind, too “exclusivist” of Jewish students who apparently did not have support, solidarity, or prayers for Israel as it was bombarded with rockets by a genocidal terrorist organization.

At the conference, Cohen explained to me that, in his view, any sort of Jewish communal engagement, especially Israel engagement, is helpful in ensuring that the next generation maintains Jewish identity, affiliation, and continuity. This includes Birthright, whose participants are 45 percent more likely than nonparticipants to marry someone Jewish. This also includes fluffier stuff like Jewish and Israeli film festivals. But it can also include events that are critical of Israeli policies. Jewish communal organizations have the obligation to determine what topics of conversation are helpful and healthy for their constituents to engage in and which are not; but they must make that choice with the awareness that placing a topic on the blacklist will eliminate a possible avenue of engagement for a young Jew who wants to be involved in communal life.

Developments within the past decade have shown that young American Jews are more than capable of building new institutions themselves when they feel like they don’t fully fit in the structures they grew up in—partnership minyanim are the most obvious example, and Open Hillel falls into this group as well. But entrenched organizations assuming that young Jews will automatically find an alternative like-minded community to build a Jewish life around, rather than just dropping out, are placing a very risky bet.

A supporter of Jewish Voice for Peace attends a session at the Open Hillel Conference. Photo: Gili Getz

A supporter of Jewish Voice for Peace attends a session at the Open Hillel Conference. Photo: Gili Getz

Nonetheless, one of the key challenges for American Jewish life in the next few decades will be for Jewish communal institutions to grapple with engaging those Jews for whom criticism of Israel has become a central component to their Jewish identity—if for no other reason than to neutralize the forces that are currently pushing them into the arms of organized radical groups like Open Hillel, JVP, and #IfNotNow.

This generation of Jews is so accepting of diverse viewpoints that nearly 40 percent of them think that believing that Jesus was the messiah does not prevent someone from being Jewish. Doing things like cancelling a play because it is perceived to be anti-Israel, while probably well-meaning, only serve to mark institutions as closed-minded, which is the death-knell for any group seeking Millennial engagement. But open-mindedness must be accompanied by clear statements explaining why, specifically, some ideologies, such as the drive to materially harm the state that houses and protects the world’s largest Jewish population, are not going to be promoted by Jewish institutions.

Striking the right balance between inclusiveness and support for Israel is going to be an exceptionally difficult challenge, especially since what works for one generation usually doesn’t for the next. One of the key places from which Jewish leaders might take a lesson is Harvard Hillel, where the Open Hillel movement began. Rabbi Getzel Davis, Harvard Hillel’s associate rabbi, told me that “all of the Harvard Open Hillel organizers are with us on a weekly basis,” perhaps belying their organizational claim of feeling unwelcome. And Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, the executive director of Harvard Hillel, told JTA that he “was struck by how much at the conference could easily have happened at Harvard Hillel with no resistance whatsoever.” (Rabbis Davis and Steinberg both attended the conference, albeit in a personal rather than official capacity). Rabbi Davis said that he was unsure what it was about Harvard Hillel that made it so welcoming when many other Hillels are apparently not so to anti-Zionist students. But if I had to guess, I would say the fact that Harvard Hillel hosts such a wide variety of speakers on Israel-related topics—including Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, and representatives of a broad spectrum of Jewish views—plays a large part in making Harvard Hillel, and by extension the Harvard Jewish community, feel genuinely welcoming and open.

When all is said and done, the rise of Open Hillel may have some positive benefits for Jewish communal institutions, which tend to ossify unless something happens to force fresh thinking. It should make them think deeply about how to create an open and welcoming environment for groups that are, or even perceive themselves to be, marginalized; about the specific and unique challenges and opportunities that will come with the Millennials’ rise in prominence in the American Jewish community; and about how to renew its focus on the importance of Israel-related education, events, and conversations.

At the beginning of the conference, one of the organizers told me that the Open Hillel conference was a demonstration of machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of Heaven. The Talmud says that such disputes, like the debates over Jewish law between the ancient rabbis Hillel and Shammai, are “destined to endure.” But other disputes, like the biblical Korach’s rebellion against Moses’s leadership, are not for the sake of Heaven, and will fade away in time.

It seems to me that Open Hillel has more to do with challenging leadership than it does with facilitating debate—with pushing Jewish institutions in a direction that is harmful and sometimes hateful, rather than fostering a genuine dialogue about the issues of greatest contention among young Jews. But if they are a growing force, it is because many students are looking for such a dialogue, having found it wanting in the existing frameworks. And in many cases, their own questions are of the type that are likely to endure for many years to come.

Banner Photo: Gili Getz