Open Hillel Campaign Stirs the Pot on BDS-Jewish Relations

There’s a saying within the American Jewish community, a common self-effacing in-joke: “For every three Jews, you’ll find four opinions.” Far from being just a way to draw a cute yuck during an open mic night your local shul, the joke harkens back to a...

There’s a saying within the American Jewish community, a common self-effacing in-joke: “For every three Jews, you’ll find four opinions.” Far from being just a way to draw a cute yuck during an open mic night your local shul, the joke harkens back to a long tradition of debate and dissent within Jewish communities, a tradition that has existed for as long as these communities themselves. One might expect this tradition to continue into the present, especially within the largest student Jewish organization in the US: Hillel.

In the last two years, even the staunchly pro-Israel Hillel has been at the center of an increasingly heated controversy over the growing influence of “BDS” groups, which seek to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel in order to force its government to recognize the rights of Palestinians and move along the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In a number of cases members of Hillel have been disciplined for promoting discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in other cases, campus Jewish organizations that were so some degree sympathetic to Palestinians have been shut out of Hillel entirely.

The issue came to a head at Harvard this January when members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA)—a left-leaning political group within Harvard’s Hillel—attempted to co-sponsor an event called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation” along with a BDS-supporting group, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC). According to PJA chair Rachel Sandalow-Ash, despite informing adult advisors within Harvard Hillel and the Executive Director of Harvard Hillel, Jonah Steinberg, beforehand that the event would take place, “as soon as it was known that the words Hillel and PSC would appear on a poster together, Hillel said they could not co-sponsor the event.”

Rescinding sponsorship was a no brainer. Members of Boston’s Jewish community (including folks from Combined Jewish Philanthropies, a philanthropic organization that donated about $240,000 to Harvard Hillel in 2012) called Executive Director Steinberg to voice their concerns that Hillel would allow BDS groups to collaborate with them. But it was Hillel International’s own guidelines for conduct that directly impeded the Harvard students’ effort. The “standards for partnership” state that, in no circumstances, will Hillel “partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice... support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel." This policy was put into place in 2010, just as the BDS movement was kicking off.

In response, members of Harvard’s PJA have launched a campaign called Open Hillel, which seeks to remove these guidelines and “encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels,” particularly as it relates to critical views on the West Bank settlements and violence in the Gaza Strip. The group created a website for the campaign and put up a petition to change Hillel’s polices. The petition has so far garnered over 500 signatures.

Sandalow-Ash is clear when it comes to the ways which Hillel has harmed its stated mission of creating a politically pluralistic community on college campuses. “What you’re seeing, frankly, is a McCarthyist attitude,” she said. “It’s become stigmatized to have what people see as a dissenting view...there’s a general unwillingness to speak with people on the other side.”

Executive Director Steinberg says that’s not the entire story. “Can we speak to our neighbors?” Steinberg asks. “In many ways it is urgent that we do so.” At the end of the day, however, Steinberg says that Hillel is a fundamentally pro-Israel organization, and “cannot declare itself allied with campus groups that seek to delegitimize and, in effect, to end the State of Israel.” While such a generalization may not truly encapsulate the range of goals and views within the BDS movement as a whole, it does nicely paint a picture of Hillel International’s internal contradiction: wanting to promote ideological pluralism, while taking a hardline position on critics of the State of Israel.

Preliminary signs of the collegiate controversy over BDS groups appeared in 2011 at Brandeis University, when a student group called Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was denied member-group status in Brandeis Hillel. JVP supports a number of positions that put them at odds with Hillel’s policies, including the use of BDS tactics in relation to the occupied territories (the Gaza Strip and West Bank). This position, as well as JVP’s sponsorship of an “Israeli Occupation Awareness Week” in 2010, led directly to the group’s rejection.

When the first ever national BDS conference was held at the University of Pennsylvania last February, the university administration and political science department faced a sharp rebuke from both Penn’s Hillel and the Philadelphia Jewish Federation. Penn Hillel proceeded to put on its own event featuring Harvard professor and fierce Israel proponent Alan Dershowitz as the keynote speaker.

In December of last year Benjamin Sheridan, a student volunteer  in  SUNY Binghamton’s Hillel, was asked to resign from positions in the organization after holding a screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras, about non-violent Palestinian activism. Iyud Burnat, brother of Camera’s director and supporter of the BDS movement, also spoke at the event. Sheridan told Binghamton’s newspaper Pipe Dream that Hillel decided to remove him even though he made clear that he “fundamentally disagee[s] with Burnat” about BDS.

Now that the Open Hillel campaign has garnered some attention from both Jewish and non-Jewish groups, Hillel has moved to clamp down on BDS-inclusive activities on college campuses. An email sent after the campaign’s launch by Hillel International Director Ali Rose describes how the organization is working to “support local Hillels in the Israel space,” and ends by linking to an op-ed by Jonathan Tobin in Commentary which all but calls the students in PJA anti-Semitic.

Over the last decade, it has become clear that a generational divide is growing in Jewish communities over the issue of Israel-Palestine, especially with regard to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But this is the first time that a mainstream Jewish organization like Hillel has faced a sharp, internal challenge to its pro-Israel policy.

Part of the conflict may stem from historical changes in Israel, itself. Israel was once seen as a defensible cause to many on the Left; a war-torn, agrarian democracy in the Middle East, where the Labor Party ruled and peace seemed a short time away. In recent years, the increasingly right-wing militancy of the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed many of America’s liberal youth to sympathize with Palestine, and in some cases to directly oppose Israel.

”For people who maybe grew up around the time of the 1967 and 1973 war (in Israel), I think there was much more of a sense of Israel being this sort of embattled nation struggling to survive,” says Sandalow-Ash of her elders. “Some people in my generation have realized that there is this untenable stalemate, and it doesn’t look like a lot of people are that serious about creating a Palestinian state.”