Around this time two years ago, my Facebook newsfeed was flooded with articles about Swarthmore College Hillel breaking Hillel International’s “standards of partnership” and declaring itself an Open Hillel. This was the first time I had heard of Open Hillel, “a student-run campaign to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels.” According to their website, they “work to change the ‘standards for partnership’ in Hillel International’s guidelines, which exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel.”
Since then, Guilford, Vassar, and Wesleyan have become Open Hillels; additionally, Hillel International has attempted to bar speakers who are critical of Israel from speaking at Harvard, Oberlin, and Muhlenberg. A recent article I read on foreignpolicy.com, “How the Israel Lobby Captured Hillel,” explained that Hillel has not always been Zionist. The strong pro-Israel sentiment affiliated with Hillel grew in the 1980s, and the “standards of partnership” were created in 2010.
Hillel International is the umbrella organization for campus Hillels, and its website claims to “welcome a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strive to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner.” Underneath this statement, it states that Hillel will not partner with any organization or speaker that denies Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State, delegitimizes Israel, or supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) of Israel. These statements are inherently contradictory of one another. By holding these “standards of partnership,” Hillel International is not being inclusive to the “diversity of perspectives” it refers to in the previous statement.
This is where I take issue. Throughout my nearly four years at Goucher, I’ve interacted with and befriended a multiplicity of Jewish students who simply do not feel comfortable in our Hillel for one reason or another. For some of these students, Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has little to do with their discomfort, while for others it is the primary reason. I’m going to focus on the latter.
Goucher Hillel has an Israeli flag, a paid Israel Engagement Coordinator, an Israeli committee, organizes Birthright trips, and overall contributes to a Zionist agenda. Voices that disagree with the messages disseminated through this programming are both absent and not welcome. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a space for Jewish students to connect with Israel. One may argue, “If someone isn’t interested in Israel, then that person shouldn’t go to these functions.” However, by complying with the Hillel International standards of partnership and excluding other perspectives, Goucher Hillel fails to be a welcoming environment for Jewish students who are not pro-Israel. This statement is not a be-all, end-all; I am an exception. While I am not a Zionist and strongly disagree with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, I (usually) do feel comfortable in Hillel. However, I do not think there are many non-Zionist or left-leaning Zionist Jews on campus who feel that comfort.
To be clear, I know that there is not just one definition of Zionism. A common definition is “the belief that a Jewish state should exisit in the land of Israel.” But exist in what capacity? Zionism does perpetuate colonialism, forcibly removed Palestinians from their homes in 1948, and continues to descriminate against Palestinians, but this does not mean every individual’s idea of Zionism is the same. There are liberal Zionists who strongly oppose the occupation and settlements. When I say I am not a Zionist, I personally mean that I do not think Israel can exist in the way that it does currently. I currently am struggling with the idea of whether or not there should be a Jewish State at all. It is something I still have to think about; but, we can save that discussion for another time. This is why I choose the term non-Zionist, rather than anti-Zionist, for myself.
Before I continue my critique, I should say that I don’t hate Goucher Hillel; in fact, I actually really like it. I’ve been involved in Goucher Hillel since the beginning of my freshman year. Through Hillel, I’ve served on the student board and the Shabbat committee, and have organized many events. Hillel is a place that has fostered my spiritual growth and where I’ve met wonderful friends and mentors. I deeply care about this organization and that is why I want it to change. Why should non-Zionist Jewish students not feel comfortable experiencing the same spiritual growth and meaningful programming that I have experienced? Hillel is a religious organization, and non-Zionist Jews are not any “less Jewish” or “less religious” than my Zionist peers.
Hillel is not the only part of this problem. American Jewish institutions as a whole perpetuate the status quo reflected in the Jewish Federations, which exist in many American cities as a financial resource for other Jewish organizations. The synagogue where I was raised, the Jewish camp I attended, and the youth movement I was a part of all reinforced the idea that being Zionist is synonymous with being “a good Jew.” The exclusion of non-Zionist Jews and the absence of Palestinian narratives and dialogue about Israel and Palestine are present in Jewish communities across the country. I don’t find this to reflect Jewish values. Jewish texts discuss the needs to pursue justice, to be for oneself, to ask questions, to wrestle with G-d.
I do not see the status quo Jewish institutions named here fully engaging these texts. This past summer, I had the privilege of being a counselor at Eden Village, a Jewish summer camp in New York. This is one of the few Jewish organizations I have been a part of that did not take a stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it was a relief to not feel silenced because of my opinions.
I understand that Open Hillel is very controversial. Becoming an Open Hillel would dissociate us from Hillel International, and many Zionist donors would likely stop giving money. Affiliation with Hillel International has both a social and financial value, but I do not think money matters more than a variety of nuanced perspectives on Israel and Palestine. (Cue “real” adults rolling their eyes upon hearing, “But, it’s not about money!”) Dialogue does not cost money. It would be free to have a discussion in which pro-Palestinian students felt safe voicing their opinions. I also have heard a range of positions on Open Hillel; some say that it is not anti-Zionist and does not prevent Zionist program from happening, and others say that it only cares about promoting a BDS agenda, and nothing else.
Open Hillel may not be the “solution” to creating a non-Zionist Jewish space on campus, but there has to be something. Hillel International should not hold itself to steadfast idealogies about Israel. I would love to see the “standards of partnership” be dropped, enabling individual Hillels more freedom in the discusison. I also do not think Goucher Hillel is totally against having critical conversations about Israel, but because of its current Zionist agenda and its affiliation with Hillel International’s policies, many Jewish students who would offer criticism of Israel would probably not attend a discussion about this conflict that has Hillel’s name on it.
At a school where this conflict is close to many students, and where we encourage open dialogue both in and outside the classroom, I am disappointed with the administration’s attempts to rid the campus of such dialogue for several years. A Jewish space that is free of a solely Zionist agenda is needed here. At this point, it’s hard to judge what this space would look like, but I would love to brainstorm with my peers and mentors.
Lastly, I know I will get flack for writing this. As a potential future rabbi, shouldn’t I know better? Shouldn’t I keep my opinions to myself in order to preserve my image for future employment prospects? However, if current and future leaders of the Jewish community do not speak on the record making these critiques, is the Jewish community ever going to change, progress, or include diverse voices? I hope others who are dissatisfied with the one-sided Zionist discussion in Jewish spaces both on campus and this country speak up as well.