The Open Hillel movement: A serious challenge to Jewish institutions’ stifling of debate

From Rebecca Volkomersom:

I had the enormous privilege of participating in the first “Open Hillel” conference at Harvard University this past weekend.

Organized by and for students, Open Hillel is a historic effort to challenge the “red lines” that Hillel International has created, which excludes Jewish students who cross Hillel’s declared boundaries of what is acceptable conversation on Israel and Palestine.

Click here to congratulate the organizers on this historic achievement, and see some of the many highlights of the conference.

The energy was electric.  Everywhere, people were talking—and listening.  In the overflowing halls, clustered around the bagels, before and after panel sessions—you could almost see peoples’ minds expanding.

Is this what the mainstream Jewish organizations are so afraid of? Young people thoughtfully talking to one another?

The conference was unique, especially in the Jewish world, in bringing together different perspectives. 

On the plenary I participated in, we had fundamental differences about the best strategies for change, one state vs. two states, and whose voices should be listened to most closely.  But that was OK.  Not only OK, but it resulted in a conversation that was robust and spirited.

Throughout the weekend, sessions ranging from Palestinian nationalism to anti-Semitism, from Islamophobia to race in the Jewish community, and so many other topics elicited rich and intense  discussions.

Judith Butler, a renowned scholar who has had multiple speaking invitations revoked for her outspoken criticism of Israel, opened the conference by talking honestly about fear, including her own, of being called anti-Semitic when she speaks out for fundamental Palestinian rights.

On my panel, I picked up this theme, saying:  We all struggle with this work, and it is important to feel that struggle. There is fear, and pain, and discomfort, and if you aren’t feeling those things you are probably not doing it right. 

True, there is no comparison to the fear that an 8-year-old in Gaza—the age of my own daughter—feels after being bombarded from the sky at three different times in her life. But the fear is real, and they are also connected, because if we allow our fears to rule our actions, US foreign policy will not change.

If this summer has shown us anything, it is that we need to be bold.

Because on the other side of that fear and pain and struggle is liberation—the liberation of doing what you actually believe and feel.  

This first Open Hillel conference was a manifestation of both the struggle and the potential liberation, and all around me I could feel the joy and amazement of being among people who are going through the same struggle together. 

This is a serious challenge to Hillel International and by extension to the mainstream Jewish establishment. Are they really willing to let go of this smart, engaged, committed cohort of young people, just because some of them want to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations and systems of oppression, and all of them want our community to be able to talk about it?  

Mazel Tov, Open Hillel. May you go from strength to strength.

Click here to join us in congratulating the organizers, and see some of the many highlights from the conference.

With hope,

Rebecca Vilkomersom, Executive Director, Jewish Voice for Peace

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