The University Jewish community recently announced its support of the Open Hillel movement, which is devoted to abolishing the guidelines regarding Israel-related protocols within the Hillel International (Hillel) organization. The official regulations of Hillel reject partnerships with speakers or groups that deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.
Though the Jewish community on campus is student-run, it is considered a Hillel Programming Center (HPC) and has a partnership with the organization’s center in Washington, D.C.
Earlier this month, students at the Swarthmore College Hillel became the first chapter of the organization to declare itself an Open Hillel, refusing to abide by the current guidelines.
“Open Hillel is a student-run campaign to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels,” the Open Hillel website reads. “We seek to change the ‘standards for partnership’ in Hillel International’s guidelines, which exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel. In addition, we encourage local campus Hillels to adopt policies that are more open and inclusive than Hillel International’s, and that allow for free discourse on all subjects within the Hillel community.”
The movement received support from members of the Jewish community on campus.
“It is sort of a no-brainer for me that any Jewish community, particularly on a college campus, should be open to discussion of whatever issues are relevant and important to the people involved,” said Bayit House Manager Talia Baurer ’15. “[This is] about allowing people to express a variety of political opinions in a space and a community that I strongly believe should be available to any sort of connection people may have. I was really excited to hear that people in the Wesleyan Jewish Community who are involved in campus conversations about Israel [and] Palestine chose to write this letter [to join Open Hillel], and after reading it I was so happy to sign.”
J Street U Co-Chair Maya Berkman ’16 explained that the movement has been gaining traction over the years.
“One thing that is unique about Wesleyan is that we have been able to have these conversations and these dialogues,” Berkman said. “We felt that as we were reading about this movement, students deserved to be trusted with their own voices. So then we started circulating the petition.”
Danny Blinderman ’14, another J Street U Co-Chair and an organizer of the Open Hillel movement at the University, agreed, adding that the given guidelines hinder speech, isolate students, and preclude people from accessing the full breadth of the intellectual and ideological alternatives that are present on college campuses.
Examples of such censorship include an incident at Harvard University, when the Hillel there was banned from co-sponsoring a discussion with a Palestinian student group.
“I thought it was important for Wesleyan to join the Open Hillel movement primarily as a way to stand in solidarity with those who share our values,” Blinderman said. “We have an incredibly open and pluralistic community at our campus…. However, at other campus communities, people are not always afforded the opportunity to exercise these values. I felt that it was important to let the Jewish community and the wider world know that these are our values and we support those who are trying to live them out on their respective campuses.”
Jacob Seltzer ’17, a member of J Street U, added that this move has implications for Hillel-oriented college campuses around the country.
“The move shows that campuses no longer need to abide by Hillel guidelines that are dictated by donors,” Seltzer said. “Fortunately at Wesleyan, we already had an inclusive environment for a diverse array of voices in the Jewish community ,so our decision to join the Open Hillel movement was completely symbolic.”
Students involved in the Jewish community believe that this petition is showing support to the movement of an “Open Hillel” as a whole.
“We are entirely in line with what the [Open Hillel] movement is standing for,” Berkman said. “Hillel is a very valuable and important body on many college campuses. But, if they are adhering to guidelines listed [as missions] then there needs to be room for students to have their own dialogues.”
Berkman added that the talks have shown that students are able to cope with challenging topics.
“A big concern is fostering positive sentiments,” Berkman said. “The problem is, people won’t necessarily shy away from Israel or Zionism if they are limited. Even if they do, they need to be trusted to do it themselves…. The point is, [either students] will or will not come to a conclusion, but regardless it will be their own decision to do so.”
Baurer added that she is aware that her views on Israel and Palestine are not identical to the views of everyone who has signed the petition; rather, those who signed the Open Hillel concur that the community must be open to the debate and various opinions on all issues that are imperative in the Jewish community.
“Being pro-Israel and being Jewish do not have to coincide…and in the end, that is what Open Hillel is addressing,” Baurer said. “For me, criticizing Israeli policies and violations is actually an important part of my deep connection to Judaism. The individuals and organizations who equate being pro-Palestine, anti-Israel, and/or anti-Zionist with being an anti-Semite exclude Jews like me from their narrow definition of ‘Jewish.’”
Blinderman noted that the launch of the movement should not have much impact on campus life.
“Not a whole lot is changing on campus,” Blinderman said. “I will say generally that a student who wishes to engage with the Jewish community but is told that he or she must be silent on the issue of Israel cannot help but feel alienated and excluded from that community. My view is that if we believe passionately that there is more than one way to talk to God, then we should admit that there is more than one way to talk about Israel and the people who live there.”