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“Open Hillel” Opposes More Funding For Hillels—And For the Wrong Reasons, Too

Oftentimes, it’s the organizations that you’ve never heard of that have the most far-reaching impact on your life. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation makes sure that power companies work together to prevent blackouts. The Unicode Consortium approves global standards for electronic text—including every emoji. And the conglomerate AB InBev is responsible for 46 percent of global beer profits. Now, a new organization called Mosaic United may have a similarly influential role in the future of American Judaism.

Mosaic United, a new initiative partially funded by the Israeli government, announced in August that it was giving $7 million grants to three Jewish campus organizations: Hillel International, Chabad on Campus, and Olami, an organization affiliated with Aish HaTorah. For the past few years, the Knesset, concerned about American Jewish continuity, has tried to create a platform to provide hundreds of millions of shekels in support of new Diaspora initiatives, but had long been stymied by political turf battles and bureaucratic infighting. An agreement was eventually reached, and so Mosaic United, despite sounding like a lower-tier soccer team, is now officially A Thing, to be overseen by Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett.

Yesterday, a small but vocal student group called Open Hillel announced that they were opposed to Hillel International receiving the money. This may not seem important for those no longer living in dorms, but their efforts to make Hillel International reject Mosaic United’s money will have implications that reverberate far beyond the quad.

Open Hillel is a national advocacy group that, in its own words, “promotes pluralism and open discourse on Israel-Palestine in Jewish communities on campus and beyond.” It does this by pressuring Jewish organizations like Hillel International, the main center of Jewish life on college campuses, to eliminate its rules that prevent, say, Hamas supporters from lecturing in its facilities. The group believes that only by exposing Jewish students to all perspectives on the Middle East—including perspectives that tacitly advocate the ethnic cleansing of students’ friends and relatives—can Jewish institutions “honestly reflect the diversity of viewpoints found within the communities that they serve.” Open Hillel claims that “we don’t take any positions on Israel/Palestine”—they only want all voices to be heard, including those who campaign for Israel’s destruction.

These students are trying to make two important points, one explicit and one implicit. The first is that adults ought to be able to handle hearing speech that they disagree with, and they find it strange that a people whose history is so infused with argumentation would want to ban certain arguments from being heard.

The second point, however, relates to a larger issue: More and more young Jews are growing more and more skeptical of Israeli government policies, with some even becoming dubious towards Israel’s legitimacy or necessity. Many of these young Jews (a large chunk of whom went to Jewish schools and camps) want to be involved in organized Jewish life, but feel alienated due to what they see as the Establishment’s monolithic view on what is acceptable to say about Israel. And so, the argument goes, if organizations are concerned about Millennials’ connection to Judaism, then those organizations ought to “open the tent” by accepting and even promoting heterodox views.

I covered the first Open Hillel conference for this publication two years ago, and I came away with mixed feelings. Not because I disagree with their principles—in fact, I largely agree; hearing from people with even the most odious beliefs is often beneficial. But as I noted then, a split was already forming within the group’s leadership between “those who want diversity of dialogue … [and] those who want the promotion of specific kinds of dialogue.”

Open Hillel was founded to serve an important need. But it keeps violating its own stated commitment to accepting all opinions, choosing instead to actively and specifically promote anti-Israel rhetoric that alienates the Jewish mainstream. Their latest campaign is no exception.

Open Hillel’s petition calls on Hillel International to “End Your Partnership with Mosaic United and Affirm Your Commitment to Pluralism.” Their argument largely stems from their opposition to Bennett, who they claim has “used his power to shut down political views of which he disapproves.” They go on to list his alleged sins: He censored a school play; he banned a novel about an interracial romance from schools; he advocates for building more settlements; he has a “history of targeting his political opponents and censoring views that could disrupt his political aims.”

All of those things may be true, but Open Hillel offers no proof that Mosaic United’s funds come with any strings attached, or that, as Open Hillel claims, “Bennet and Mosaic aim to censor conversations about Israel.” (Hillel International said in a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency today that “there will be no political influence on Hillel’s work whatsoever.”)

The closest Open Hillel’s petition comes to a smoking gun is when it links to a 2015 Haaretz article, which reported that Mosaic was founded, in part, to deal with “the significant increase in critical discourse against Israel.” But while some funds may be used to counter critical discourse (through, say, political advocacy training), there is no proof that they will be used to prevent such discourse. And it’s unclear how exactly Open Hillel believes Hillel International would use its new funds to do so—by buying white noise machines to drown out Students for Justice in Palestine events? It wouldn’t cost an extra cent for Hillel to maintain its current speech policies, which ban SJP and other anti-Israel advocates from Hillel houses—a state of affairs that Open Hillel wants to upend.

For what it’s worth, Mosaic United said in a press release that the grants “will be used specifically to scale programs centered on Jewish learning and engagement, including new talent initiatives and innovation.” To be fair, that could mean basically anything. But even if all $7 million were earmarked solely for buying bobblehead Bibis, it would have zero effect on Open Hillel’s original stated purpose.

Open Hillel has always made two competing claims: that Hillel International is unwelcoming to anti-Israel Jewish students, and that Hillel International is too pro-Israel. It’s a battle between the idealists and the ideologues, and the latter too often wins. If Open Hillel claims to be agnostic on the Israel/Palestine question, then they ought to be equally agnostic on the political positions of Hillel’s funding sources, so long as the funding doesn’t restrict Hillel’s speech policy (which, again, Open Hillel has no proof of in this case). But if Open Hillel is more interested in scoring political points against Israel than it is in promoting pluralistic programming, then it makes sense for them to bash Bennett and anything associated with him.

Funnily enough, Open Hillel’s litany of grievances against Bennett doesn’t specifically list the fact that makes him most controversial to American Jewish audiences: his opposition to a two-state solution. This may be because Open Hillel was originally founded to protest Harvard Hillel’s decision not to sponsor pro-Palestinian speakers who also oppose a two-state solution (albeit for very different reasons than Bennett). Imagine if Bennett tried to give a lecture at Harvard Hillel tomorrow: We’d be living in a world where the ministry he runs funds an organization whose student base almost unanimously disagrees with him, while the campus group that ought to most vociferously support his presence is arguing that any institutional connection with him would inevitably “censor conversations about Israel.”

More troublingly, Open Hillel claims that Mosaic United “aims to impose a monolithic vision of what it means to be Jewish.” Again, they have no proof for this, save for going after Bennett again, noting that he and his political party “define the Jewish family in a manner that excludes the families of countless American Jewish students; they oppose same-sex marriage and interfaith partnerships, and they support religious laws that forbid married women from initiating a divorce.”

Such views are understandably upsetting for many young American Jews. But saying that Hillel should not accept money from organizations that hold a heterosexual-only view of marriage would set a very troubling precedent. Such a policy would prevent, say, the Orthodox Union from participating in Hillel activities or subsidizing the salaries of campus rabbis. Does Open Hillel really believe that Hillels shouldn’t hire or sponsor events with Orthodox Jews? Would Orthodox student clubs be banned, or would they be okay as long as they don’t study Leviticus? Can a group that seems to be advocating for such a policy really claim to promote pluralism?

But here’s the thing: Open Hillel, despite its own best efforts, is actually right to be skeptical about Hillel International receiving an Israeli government grant (though not for the reasons they think, and they certainly shouldn’t be casting aspersions without any evidence).

Mosaic United’s $7 million grant to Hillel is actually on a contingent, matching basis; Hillel must raise an additional two dollars for every dollar they receive. Which, if they are successful in rounding up the full $14 million, will only go on to raise some deeply troubling questions: Why couldn’t they have raised that money in the first place? Hillel is America’s most visible Jewish educational organization, and quite obviously shapes the country’s Jewish future—if it couldn’t do it without Israel’s help, what does that say about American Jewish philanthropy, and about the health of the American Jewish community?

When Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations for the past thirty years—the guy who basically is the American Jewish Establishment—said earlier this year that the lack of funding for Jewish education, both in K-12 and on college campuses, is leading to “apathy, indifference and ignorance” among young Jews, and called this issue “the biggest danger we face,” and made sure that those comments were explicitly on the record—then something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

An investigation by the Forward in 2014 found that of the $3.7 billion donated to Jewish communal organizations each year, only 16 percent goes to educational institutions like Hillels, day schools, and summer camps (38 percent goes to Israel advocacy and fundraising groups). Studies show that Jewish schools and camps are extraordinarily effective at influencing Jewish kids to grow up to attend synagogue, give to local Federations, marry within the Jewish faith, and feel connected to Israel—even when controlling for their parents’ prior levels of religious practice and education. But enrollment in non-Haredi Jewish schools is declining, while tuition continues to skyrocket, creating a vicious cycle of religious illiteracy and cultural apathy. For those concerned about the long-term viability of American Jewish life, this is, as they say in Hebrew school, lo tov.

That’s why then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (born in Moldova) pledged $365 million of Israeli taxpayer money in 2014 for Diaspora Jewish education. That’s why Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky (born in Ukraine) followed up with a $300 million proposal the following year. And that’s what led to the founding of Mosaic United, which lists Jewish summer camps as the first of five “pillars” on its website. You could read this cynically and see politicians concerned that the decline of American Judaism means a decline in American support for Israel. But it can just as easily be seen as Jews who fled countries with no Jewish future, alarmed by the prospect of American Jews choosing not to invest in their own Jewish future.

Bennett, it should be noted, is the child of American immigrants.

The Mosaic United announcement in August should have set off alarm bells for American Jewish leaders. Absent drastic changes in priorities, American Jewish education will be increasingly subsidized by the State of Israel, a prospect that is frightening not because of what Israel promises, but because of what American Judaism doesn’t. Open Hillel is right to be alarmed by this development—even if it’s not for the right reasons.

[Photo: Gili Getz]