Open Hillel

A New Campus Politics on Israel

by Mimi Kirk
published in MER280

Lodge 5 at Swarthmore College is a dignified building in gray stone, the aesthetic match of much of the rest of the bucolic campus located 20 miles outside Philadelphia. The structure houses three floors supporting Jewish student life: a kosher kitchen, a lounge and a library whose walls are heavy with such texts as the Talmud and Midrash. It is the natural place for Kehilah, Swarthmore’s Jewish student group, to meet in order to plan events and attend to other business.

Kehilah, which means “community” in Hebrew, acquired its name only recently. Before it disaffiliated in 2015, it was called Hillel, part of Hillel International, the “largest Jewish student organization in the world,” which has more than 550 chapters on campuses in North America and abroad. Hillel International promotes Jewish life at universities through programming such as Shabbat services and panel discussions.

In December 2013, Swarthmore’s Hillel declared itself an “open Hillel,” following an initiative by Harvard University students in 2012. That year, when Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance (which is affiliated with Harvard Hillel) scheduled an event titled “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation” with the university’s Palestine Solidarity Committee, the Hillel director informed the students that the panel could not proceed. “He told us that Harvard’s Hillel chapter would lose $1 million [withdrawn by the Boston Jewish Federation and angry donors] if we went ahead with the event,” says Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a board member of Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance at the time and now the national organizer for Open Hillel. [1]

Hillel International, it turned out, had in 2010 established “standards of partnership,” which bar Hillel chapters from inviting groups or individuals who “demonize” Israel or support the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)—an effort to pressure Israel through economic and cultural isolation to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and follow international law in its treatment of Palestinians. What Hillel International’s rules mean is that Hillel chapters are effectively not allowed to invite or co-host events with Palestinians, as almost all Palestinian groups support BDS. Progressive Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace (which endorses BDS) are also banned.

In the end, the co-sponsored event did take place, but not under the auspices of Harvard Hillel. “It seemed deeply wrong [for Hillel] to exclude Palestinians from the conversation,” says Sandalow-Ash. “If you have a university event about racism in the United States, you would include black students.” Sandalow-Ash and others at Harvard then petitioned Hillel International to change its standards of partnership, calling their campaign Open Hillel. Hillel International declined.

About a year later, the Swarthmore Hillel chapter decided by consensus to become “open”—that is, to join the campaign to persuade Hillel International to alter its rules about invited speakers. Then, in 2015, the Swarthmore group planned an event featuring four Jewish veterans of the civil rights movement in the American South in the 1960s who likened that work to today’s struggle for Palestinian rights. “I guess Hillel International got wind of the event,” says Amit Schwalb, who at the time was a junior at Swarthmore. “We got a letter threatening legal action if we were to continue using the Hillel name.” [2] Students like him then voted to call themselves Kehilah.

Other than Swarthmore, the Hillel chapters at Guilford College, Vassar College and Wesleyan University have declared themselves open. (Harvard’s did not, due to donor pressure.) Hillel International also threatened Guilford with a lawsuit for using the Hillel name, and accordingly the Guilford chapter now calls itself Chavurah (Hebrew for “fellowship”). [3] Vassar and Wesleyan have yet to be so admonished. When asked about Hillel International’s policy toward Open Hillel, spokesperson Matthew Berger simply e-mailed, “Hillel International welcomes all students interested in being a part of the global Hillel movement.”

Challenging the Status Quo, Delicately

The Open Hillel movement has evidently struck a nerve with the pro-Israel establishment in the US. One likely reason is that it demonstrates that two powerful ideas about Jewish identity, Israel and anti-Semitism are being questioned among youth on American college campuses. The first is the notion that being Jewish automatically means supporting Israel, and the second is that being critical of Israel makes one anti-Semitic. These rigid equations have historically helped maintain the status quo in American discourse on Israel, making many Jews and others who would challenge the Israeli government for its policies toward Palestinians fearful of being labeled as “self-hating Jews” or anti-Semites. The Open Hillel campaign aims to decouple the linkages by sponsoring discussions that include Palestinian and more critical Jewish voices.

Because Open Hillel’s goal is inclusivity and diversity—a welcoming of all ideas and opinions about Palestine and Israel—it does not take political stances. But many of the students who are involved lean to the left, some taking a pro-BDS position such as that of Jewish Voice for Peace. “This makes sense, as those are the people who were excluded previously,” says Jeremy Swack, an alumnus of Oberlin College who is finance coordinator for Open Hillel. [4]

But it is clear that Open Hillel is indeed open. Some members express skepticism about BDS, if not outright opposition—though they support the right of their fellow young Jews and others to back it. Anna Fox, a junior at Wesleyan University who serves on Open Hillel’s Steering Committee, says that she is glad her movement is not affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine, for example. “I don’t always agree with them,” she says, “but I think it’s important to make space for pluralism. For Hillel to be, like, ‘If you’re supportive of BDS, you’re anti-Israel,’ that oversimplifies the conversation. Just because someone supports a tactic you don’t agree with doesn’t mean they don’t have something of interest or value to say.” [5]

With such a variety of opinions coming together in one space, Open Hillel seems to be about community building first—and Israel-Palestine activism perhaps later, or in collaboration with external groups. Indeed, many students involved in Open Hillel are also involved in other, more activist groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace or If Not Now, which consists of young Jews organizing to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation.

Origins of a Shifting Outlook

While the students involved in organizations like Open Hillel or If Not Now represent a fairly small sample of Jewish youth, at the same time they signify a broader shift in public opinion—or at least certain segments thereof. A 2016 Pew Research Center poll showed an increase in sympathy for Palestinians among liberal Democrats and millennials, and in a 2014 Gallup poll, only 25 percent of respondents 18-29 years old found Operation Protective Edge—Israel’s attack on Gaza in the summer of that year—to be “justified.” Fifty-one percent called it “unjustified.” Results among the group aged 65 and over were the reverse, with 55 percent finding the assault justified and 31 percent unjustified.

How has this shift come about? Growing youth awareness of the inequities in Israel-Palestine, combined with more heavy-handed tactics for curbing this consciousness, seem to have spurred it on. By trying harder to suppress public criticism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians, organizations like Hillel International may in fact be lending it a megaphone.

Open Hillel members often speak about the omissions in their early education, such as at Hebrew school. Rachel Sandalow-Ash was an eighth grader in 2006 when Israel bombarded and invaded Lebanon. She asked her teacher in Jewish day school why most of the school supported that war but not the US war in Iraq. “I got silence in response,” she says. “After that, I felt like I didn’t want to touch issues around Israel and Palestine. It put everyone on edge.”

At Harvard, Sandalow-Ash became involved with the Progressive Jewish Alliance—initially, out of interest in doing domestic social justice work—and through that group began to learn about such issues as Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. “I was, like, ‘Oh my God, there’s so much stuff I was never taught,’” she says. “I felt kind of betrayed by my Jewish community—that I had been told a lot of partial truths.”

Other Open Hillel students spoke of similar lacunae leading to later epiphanies. Rachel Brustein, a graduate of Goucher College who served on Open Hillel’s Steering Committee, recounts how she began to realize that she was not being told the whole story. “I noticed that every time we talked about Israel [at my Jewish summer camp], it was about culture—seemingly apolitical things.” Brustein’s camp employed about 30 Israelis, and she and her fellow counselors were told in so many words to “be sensitive” in conversations pertaining to Israel so as to “protect their emotions.” “That made things personal and didn’t create an open discourse,” she says. [6]

And Jeremy Swack notes that while his parents urged him to be critical of Israel during his childhood, they were less enthusiastic about him asking questions at Hebrew school. “They were part of the Jewish community in our town [in suburban Boston],” he says. “They didn’t want to push any buttons.” Swack feels that people of all ages are now learning more about the occupation than when he was growing up. “As much hasbara [propaganda] is being shoved down your throat—‘Israel is defending itself’—anyone who reads the news will ask, ‘What the hell is going on? Why is Israel bombing Gaza, an open-air prison? Why is this happening every two years?’”

Palestinian-American analyst Ali Abunimah has observed that Israel’s defenders in the US fear this growing awareness, particularly among students and youth, as “something that looks very solid can crumble very quickly.” As with the decades-long effort to legalize same-sex marriage, it is among millennials where the crumbling is most apparent. “The Israel lobby and Israel’s supporters know that if there is a sea change on college campuses, it’s unstoppable,” he said. [7]

Challenges

It is thus not surprising that powerful devotees of Israel like billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson have been fighting BDS efforts and other criticism of Israel on college campuses with massive donations. Adelson held a summit in 2015 in which he helped raise $50 million to “get all pro-Israel actors on campus to work together against BDS.” [8]

It is not entirely clear how this funding is being deployed. Sandalow-Ash says that the tactics are secretive. She notes that Adelson does not fund Hillel International, though he does bankroll Birthright, the organization that sponsors ten-day trips to Israel for young Jews “to strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel.” Hillel International is a major proponent of Birthright. Sandalow-Ash further points to “sketchy job postings” seeking recruits to fight BDS and listing no employer, and to focus groups in which college students are paid $100 to identify the anti-BDS arguments they find most persuasive.

Pro-Israel donors are also intervening on campuses by giving money to student government campaigns. In 2014, it came to light through leaked e-mails that Israeli-American philanthropist Adam Milstein had donated $1,000 to a UCLA student’s 2013 campaign. The student, Avi Oved, was subsequently elected. His words to Milstein in a message were telling: “I [am] prepared to make sure that UCLA will maintain its allegiance to Israel and the Jewish community.” Oved also promised to fight BDS on UCLA’s campus. [9]

Pro-Israel groups have even sent a robot to an event they considered too left-leaning. At a Brown University panel discussion on Palestinians in March 2016, the Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs dispatched a wheeled automaton with an iPad for a head. The iPad transmitted the face (and voice) of StandWithUs’ northeast executive director. While StandWithUs claimed the remote-controlled emissary was there to “enrich” the discussion, since in its view the panel lacked diversity of opinion, Open Hillel countered that the robot “harassed [students] about why they were attending the event.” [10]

These maneuvers are but a few, some more obvious than others, from a long playbook. The pressure to make being part of the Jewish community contingent on adopting a pro-Israel stance has likely helped to impel those Jews who disagree to create new spaces for themselves—spaces in which they can remain part of the Jewish community but diverge in their political views. The more these tactics are used—and the more oppressive they are—the more students and others are likely to balk.

Funding, the Achilles’ Heel

Yet, in the view of Open Hillel leaders, the most powerful means of blocking criticism of Israeli policies is something both subtler and more entrenched—the fear of losing funding. As a result, Open Hillel is focusing its efforts on ensuring that financial support for Jewish organizations is not conditioned on ideological grounds.

It is noteworthy here that the only Hillels that have successfully become “open” are those that are mainly run by students and have guaranteed funding from their respective college or university. As such, they do not have a staff on salary or a dependence on outside donors who might cut off their gifts based on the content of the group’s events.

Sandalow-Ash notes that the number of Hillels that have tried to become open but failed is “too many to count.” She says, for instance, that MIT’s Hillel debated hosting an event that violated the standards of partnership, but decided to give up the idea after considering the backlash and the difficulty that Harvard students faced for scheduling a similar panel. “There’s a chilling effect,” she says.

Open Hillel members also emphasize the importance of holding events such as cooking classes and Passover seders that aim purely to build Jewish community on campus. They recognize that the prospect of losing funding for such endeavors is a real deterrent to standing up to Hillel International’s standards of partnership. “Organizing a Shabbat dinner is a lot of work and costs a lot of money,” says Swack. “Almost any campus Hillel gives you a free dinner. Everything’s provided for, and there’s a structure in place. It’s hard to compete with that.”

Off-campus, Sandalow-Ash reports that discussions with leaders of Jewish institutions such as the Workmen’s Circle have revealed that these organizations’ financial backing is also being threatened due to donors’ preferences with regard to discourse on Israel-Palestine. “There’s a lot of support for Open Hillel and similar movements within lefty Jewish non-profits,” adds Swack, “but those who support us can’t be vocal due to fear of losing funding.”

Much of this money, says Sandalow-Ash, comes from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). JFNA, which according to its website distributes more than $3 billion to Jewish organizations each year, has funding policies that are similar to those of Hillel International—though not explicitly so. “In practice, they do the same thing,” says Sandalow-Ash.

In the fall of 2015, Open Hillel organized a mile-long march from the Jewish Community Center in the District of Columbia to the Washington Hilton, where JFNA was holding its annual general assembly. The demonstrators called for JFNA to stop conditioning financial support for Jewish organizations on their adherence to what large donors have decided is appropriate discourse regarding Israel. Students carried placards with such slogans as “Just Another Jew Against the Israeli Occupation” and “Jews Who Support Palestinian Rights Are Kosher, Too.” [11]

More recently, Open Hillel has been collecting stories from Jewish students and community members to create an inventory of instances in which JFNA has threatened to withdraw or has withdrawn monies from Jewish institutions because they held “unacceptable” programming on Israel-Palestine. Open Hillel is also in conversation with several JFNA leaders about changing the funding policies.

Trump and the Future of Open Hillel

Despite the victory of extreme pro-Israel Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as well as a good deal of unconditional support for Israel under the Barack Obama administration, in both monetary and rhetorical forms, the American political and cultural climate looks promising for an initiative like Open Hillel.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ more evenhanded stance on Israel-Palestine and his appointment of the more balanced voices of Cornel West and James Zogby to the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee is one such indication. Another is the appearance of polls revealing an increase in sympathy for the Palestinians among certain sectors. Open Hillel’s goal of fostering critical discussion—perhaps leading to more activism—looks achievable.

Connections between Open Hillel and other civil and human rights campaigns—Palestinian, Jewish and other—also strengthen its hand. Indeed, Eric Fingerhut, president of Hillel International, has said that emerging bonds among rights movements are a “large problem” that give him and his colleagues a “lot of work to do.” [12] After all, the event that prompted Hillel International to threaten Swarthmore with a lawsuit featured four Jewish activists who compared their work for African-American rights in the 1960s to today’s struggle for Palestine. [13] As Tufts University Students for Justice in Palestine member Leila N. said: “We’re seeing an increasing focus on joint struggle—the notion that all forms of oppression are interconnected and interdependent and therefore our resistance and struggle against them must also be connected.” [14]

In November 2015, Open Hillel posted a Facebook message of solidarity with University of Missouri students protesting racism on campus: “Our institutions of higher education and the organizations that exist within them often function by silencing voices that challenge their own,” the post read. “We support student actions that are exposing injustices and demanding change. #Mizzou #BlackLivesMatter.” Sandalow-Ash says that Open Hillel makes no distinctions between various rights issues. “We’re deeply committed to engaging with all of them,” she says. “It’s our view that shutting down conversations on one issue shuts down conversations on others and promotes Jewish insularity.”

The issue of funding and the conditions upon which it is granted continues to dog Open Hillel. A week before Trump was elected, the movement launched a campaign to protest a $22 million donation to Hillel International from an Israeli outreach initiative dubbed Mosaic International. Naftali Bennett, the leader of Israel’s religious-right Jewish Home Party, leads the initiative, which has described its goal as curbing “critical discourse regarding Israel” on college campuses in the diaspora. “The fact that Hillel International’s annual budget is $25 million gives a sense of the magnitude of this donation,” says Sandalow-Ash. [15]

Open Hillel makes it clear it sees a leader like Bennett as similar to those in the Trump administration. Its open letter to Hillel International regarding the Mosaic donation declares, “As Trump, Bannon and Bennett promote a vision of exclusion and hate, we call on you, Hillel International, to pursue a vision of inclusion, hope and justice.” [16] Says Sandalow-Ash: “In many ways the three men are ideological kindred spirits.”

This affinity between the right-wing movements of Israel and the United States may at first seem puzzling: What does an anti-Semite like Stephen Bannon have in common with Zionists? Yet these leaders not only share intolerance in the form of, for example, misogyny, Islamophobia and homophobia, but they also all espouse a nationalist, ethnic state. As Naomi Zeveloff wrote in the Forward, “Some on the alt-right…admire Israel as a model for white nationalism.” [17]

While more left-leaning Jewish organizations have denounced the Trump administration’s anti-Semitism, including the appointment of Bannon as a White House strategist, most mainstream Jewish bodies, such as JFNA, have chosen to remain silent. Right-wing groups have even defended Bannon. Bernie Marcus, a board member of the pro-Israel Republican Jewish Coalition—who recently donated $38 million to Hillel International [18]—said in November 2016 that he was “shocked and saddened to see the recent personal attacks on [Bannon]…. Steve [is] a passionate Zionist and supporter of Israel.” [19] Sandalow-Ash says that such partnerships between Jewish organizations and anti-Semites show that for some, “It’s more important to work with people who share right-wing Israel politics than to build and protect Jewish life.” And with a recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, including cemetery desecrations and swastika graffiti, it would seem even more important for leaders to prioritize Jewish security. [20]

The overtness of this Faustian bargain makes it increasingly difficult for American Zionist organizations to gloss over the ideological contradictions between liberalism and Zionism inherent in their guiding principles. [21] Despite these partnerships—or indeed, perhaps because of them—Sandalow-Ash remains optimistic. She believes that the growing alliance between organizations like Hillel International and JFNA with the Trump administration will convince more and more people that these organizations must change their policies and practices. “While they might have the money, we can mobilize public opinion,” she says.

Endnotes

[1] Phone interviews with Rachel Sandalow-Ash, March 17, 2016, April 20, 2016 and February 2, 2017. Sasha Johnson-Freyd, Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash and Emily S. Unger, “An Open Hillel,” Harvard Crimson, November 16, 2012.
[2] Interview with Amit Schwalb, Swarthmore, PA, April 13, 2016.
[3] Batya Ungar-Sargon, “How the Israel Lobby Captured Hillel,” Foreign Policy, November 23, 2015.
[4] Phone interview with Jeremy Swack, April 22, 2016.
[5] Phone interview with Anna Fox, April 6, 2016.
[6] Phone interview with Rachel Brustein, March 31, 2016.
[7] Abunimah made these remarks at the 2015 annual conference of the Palestine Center in Washington, DC.
[8] Forward, June 9, 2015.
[9] Alex Kane, “Pro-Israel Muslim Basher Adam Milstein at Center of Storm Over Funding of California Student Elections,” Mondoweiss, July 3, 2014.
[10] Haaretz, March 14, 2016.
[11]Jewish People’s Assembly Called for Open Federations,” Jewschool, November 11, 2015.
[12] Alex Kane, “Eric Fingerhut, Head of Hillel, Says JVP Is ‘Frustrating’ and That Open Hillel Movement Has No Legs,” Mondoweiss, January 10, 2015.
[13] Elizabeth Redden, “Not in Our Name,” Inside Higher Ed, March 18, 2015.
[14] Donna Nevel, “Inside American Students’ Fight for Justice in Palestine,” Alternet, April 13, 2015.
[15] Hillel International will receive $11 million a year over two years.
[16] Public letter to Hillel International, January 19, 2017.
[17] Naomi Zeveloff, “How Steve Bannon and Breitbart News Can Be Pro-Israel—and Anti-Semitic at the Same Time,” Forward, November 15, 2016.
[18] Open Hillel is focusing on fighting Mosaic International’s donation, rather than Marcus’s donation, because Mosaic, unlike Marcus, is explicit in its aim to fight critical discourse on Israel on college campuses. Hillel International will receive the Marcus donation over a five-year period.
[19] Allegra Kirkland, “Republican Jewish Coalition Defends Trump’s Appointment of Bannon,” Talking Points Memo, November 15, 2016.
[20] Eric Cortellessa, “ADL: Arrest of Bomb Threat Suspect Doesn’t Allay Anti-Semitic Concerns,” Times of Israel, March 23, 2017.
[21] Omri Boehm, “Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump,” New York Times, December 20, 2016.

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