The Swarthmore chapter of Hillel made headlines recently for declaring itself an "open Hillel," open to diversity of opinion on Israel. They have linked themselves with Open Hillel, a student-run campagn to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels. Open Hillel seeks to change the standards for partnership in Hillel International's guidelines, which exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their views on Israel.
When I was an undergraduate, I attended a small liberal arts college which didn't formally have a Hillel, though we did have a Jewish religious center and student group on campus. I attended Shabbat services there regularly -- until differences of opinion, both ritual and political, drove me to seek my spiritual self-expression through unofficial channels instead. (After that, the Williams College Feminist Seder was my primary mode of communal engagement.) If my student organization had been the kind of "open Hillel" which Swarthmore's organization aspires to become, I might have stayed engaged all the way through.
Here's how the Open Hillel folks describe their position:
Hillel International's current guidelines are counterproductive to creating real conversations about Israel on campus. They prevent campus Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, as almost all Palestinian campus groups support the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel. They also exclude certain Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, from the Hillel community. Although individual campus Hillels are not obligated to follow the guidelines, they have been used to pressure Hillels into shutting down open discourse on Israel...
We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International's mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.
This is very much in line with my own hopes for the post-collegiate Jewish community. I've written before about how frustrating I find it when members of the Jewish community police the speech of other Jews on this issue. (See Wishing for a different communal discourse, 2012.) My Judaism is a pluralistic, inclusive, big-tent Judaism where we interact respectfully and kindly despite our differences -- whether they are denominational, liturgical, practical, or political. Spiritually speaking, I resonate with the haggadah's call "let all who are hungry, come and eat" -- it doesn't say "let all who are Democrats," or "let all who are Republicans," or "let all who support AIPAC" (or JStreet or Jewish Voice for Peace) come and eat.
No one should have to leave part of themselves behind in order to merit a seat at the table. No one should be excluded from the Jewish community because of what they believe -- including their stances on Israel/Palestine. Beyond that, what message do we send when we seek to control the conversation about Israel? What are we afraid of -- that someone might say something with which we don't agree? It seems to me that the correct answer to speech with which one disagrees is not silencing that speech, but rather adding more speech to broaden and enrich the conversation. That's precisely what the Open Hillel movement aims to do.
I know that there are Jewish college students who do not identify as Zionists, or whose relationship with Israel is complicated, or who want to have conversations about targeted BDS (boycotting settlement-made goods.) I want those students to be part of the fabric of Jewish community, not to feel that they have to leave the Jewish community behind in order to ask their questions or articulate their truths. And I know that there are college students whose viewpoints on Israel / Palestine are profoundly Zionist, and I want those students to be part of the fabric of the community, too! (I'm not convinced that those students have as difficult a time safely speaking their truths as do those on the Jewish far left, but that's another conversation.) My point is, I want the Jewish community to be diverse enough to welcome kids with many different opinions, and to include them intentionally and with care.
Tightly guarding the boundaries of who's "in" and who's "out," and policing which opinions are permissible and which are taboo, comes out of old-paradigm thinking. I think that old paradigm has outlived its usefulness. College students today are increasingly aware of intersectionality, of the ways in which different social justice issues and different forms of oppression intersect and interact. Our world is increasingly permeable and interconnected, and so too our Jewish community. A Jewish community which seeks to control the conversation about Israel / Palestine is not going to be vibrant or relevant in this century.
I believe that the Jewish community (like all communities) is strengthened by discussion and debate, as long as that debate is l'shem shamayim, "for the sake of Heaven" rather than for the sake of ego or self-aggrandizement. We should be able to create a container which can safely hold our differences, even our differences on Israel. But I know how difficult it can be to create that container -- and also to be the person who feels excluded from that container and therefore unwelcome within the community, or only welcome if one keeps part of oneself silent and hidden. How wonderful it would be if our campus Jewish communities could model this kind of inclusivity for the rest of the Jewish world. Kol hakavod to Swarthmore Hillel. May others follow!
Also worth reading: my colleague Rabbi Brant Rosen's post On Open Hillel, Open Debate, and Open Minds.