Rachel Sandalow-Ash

Rachel Sandalow-Ash

“There is absolutely no social movement that has done everything right. And we're not going to win by being perfect. We're going to win by building power.”

Peace Activism
2012 – present
Open Hillel

Interview Dates
April 1, 2015
Intergenerational Dialogue on December 21, 2015

Interviewed By
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Rachel Sandalow-Ash was interviewed during her senior year at Harvard in April 2015. Eight months later, she participated in an AJPA-organized intergenerational dialogue. Sandalow-Ash was a co-founder in November 2012 of Open Hillel, a student-run campaign that promotes inclusivity and open discourse in Jewish spaces on college campuses and in Jewish institutions. In her interview she speaks about what inspired her to take a leading role in the Open Hillel movement, and to serve as Internal Coordinator (i.e. student president) during her senior year in college.

Her first trip to Israel was a class trip in eighth grade. As Sandalow-Ash describes it, “We …didn't talk about the Occupation or even Palestinian-Israeli citizens of Israel at all.”  They were taught to consider “the West Bank and Gaza as disputed territories, not Occupied Territories... at best, we learned that this conflict was between two equal powers that needed to find peace, and at worst it was Israel under siege from the 22 Arab nations.”

That same year Rachel questioned why most of her classmates were anti-war when it came to the Iraq War, but not the Lebanon War. Her question was unwelcome. “Any sense of disagreement with the party line on Israel was met with such a strong…and emotional response that it just didn't seem worth it… to touch this issue with a twelve-foot pole.”

During her freshman year at Harvard University in 2011, Sandalow-Ash joined the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), the last remaining chapter of the New Jewish Agenda. She was drawn to the group because of her interest in domestic social justice, but because the group also addressed issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she unexpectedly began to engage after hearing speakers from Israeli human rights groups and talking with Palestinian classmates.

“I realized that I had been lied to for a very long time, that there were whole sides to the story that I had never heard, never been exposed to, never really knew anything about. [It] was hard to think that the various Jewish institutions that I had been a part of, schools and after-school programs in high school and summer camps, …synagogues, had maintained this silence around the Occupation, around human rights abuses, and sort of instilled the idea that Jewish students needed to support Israel no matter what.”

The following academic year, PJA announced one of its typical programs: “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation,” co-sponsored with the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), the Palestinian student group on campus. In Sandalow-Ash’s words: “This seemed to us a very natural event to have happen in Hillel. The Progressive Jewish Alliance was a Hillel affiliated group, and it still is.”

“When Hillel told us that we couldn't do it, they pointed to Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities.” According to these rules, because  the  “Palestine Solidarity Committee supported BDS, no event co-sponsored by PSC could happen in Hillel. On a broader national scale, Hillel, which is the center for Jewish life on campus, could not work with any campus Palestinian group because almost every campus Palestinian group supports BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions].

Biography

Rachel Sandalow-Ash was born in 1993 and grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. She attended Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School, and a Conservative synagogue. She spent her summers, at Camp Yavneh, a pluralistic Jewish camp. Israel was not a central part of her Jewish identity growing up.

Sandalow-Ash began to learn about the Palestinian narrative at college after joining the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), the last remaining chapter of the 1980s Jewish progressive group New Jewish Agenda. She joined PJA because of her interest in domestic social justice issues, but the group spent half of its time on Israel-Palestine issue and she attended many of their programs.

In November 2012, in her sophomore year at Harvard, PJA, an Hillel-affiliated group was told that it may not co-sponsor a program with the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) in Hillel.. They were told that the new Hillel International Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities prohibited co-sponsorship with the PSC. Sandalow-Ash and the PJA  responded by forming Open Hillel. Subsequently many chapters opened throughout the country. The group “promotes pluralism and open discourse on Israel-Palestine in Jewish spaces on campus” and “to eliminate Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities, which exclude individuals and groups from the Jewish community on campus on the basis of their views on Israel.”

Sandalow-Ash interned in Israel for the New Israel Fund’s Shatil project in West Jerusalem during the summer of 2013. There she worked with grassroots community groups engaged in issues related to African migrants and women's rights.

Sandalow-Ash graduated Harvard in 2015 with a B.A. in Social Studies and a few months later she became the first paid staff person for Open Hillel. As National Organizer Hillel, she works with students on campus throughout the country. Open Hillel has since expanded the scope of their work to include ending “similar restrictions on discussion and debate in other broad-based/umbrella Jewish institutions.”

Sandalow-Ash also served on Hatikva slate at the 37th World Zionist Congress in 2015 and is has been advisory board member of the American Jewish Peace Archive since 2014.

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