Open Hillel (2012 – present)

Open Hillel is a student-run campaign that promotes inclusivity and open discourse in Jewish spaces on college campuses and beyond. In November 2012, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a Harvard Hillel-affiliate, was barred from co-sponsoring an event with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) at Harvard Hillel. The Harvard Hillel director told PJA that this event violated Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities, adopted in 2010 in response to donor pressure, which states that Hillel will not work with individuals or groups that are deemed to “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard” to Israel and/or that support boycotts, divestments, or sanctions of Israel. The Palestine Solidarity Committee does supports BDS, so the PJA was forbidden to work with them PSC at Harvard Hillel. The Harvard Hillel director noted that Hillel International, the Jewish Federation of Greater Boston, and private donors had all threatened to withhold support if the event were to take place.

PJA was deeply concerned by how the Standards of Partnership censored conversations about Israel. They started raising awareness concerning the issue, meeting with local Hillel leaders, and reaching out to students at other schools who had encountered similar problems. PJA launched the Open Hillel campaign with a petition for Hillel International to eliminate the Standards. Open Hillel believes that the Standards of Partnership have three primary negative effects:

  1. These Standards exclude Jewish students from the Jewish community on campus:

Hillel bills itself as the pluralistic “Center for Jewish Life on Campus.” Indeed, Hillel often serves as the umbrella group for a range of Jewish organizations, such as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform minyanim; secular Jewish groups; Jewish performing arts groups; Jewish women’s and LGBTQ groups; Jewish community service groups; and Jewish and Israel-themed political groups. Hillel encourages a wide range of students to engage with their Jewish identities and build connections to the Jewish community. However, while Hillel (rightfully) has no “Standards” concerning God or Halacha—or same-sex marriage or tax policy—it enforces exclusionary political litmus tests for Jewish communal involvement only when it comes to Israel.

Not only are Jewish student groups that support any form of boycott unable to affiliate with Hillel (Jewish Voice for Peace chapters are universally barred), but even Jewish student groups that are merely critical of Israeli policy often face restrictions on their activities. For instance, J Street U chapters are occasionally barred; more often, they are nominally accepted but then are not allowed to bring certain speakers or to hold certain events deemed to “delegitimize” Israel. Hillel’s Standards of Partnership send a message to progressive Jewish students that they should not be a part of the Jewish campus community. This is harmful for Hillel, harmful for Jewish students, and harmful for the future of the American Jewish community.

  1. They prevent Jewish-Palestinian partnerships

Nearly all campus Palestinian groups support BDS; so, by forbidding campus Hillels from working with BDS-supporting organizations, Hillel essentially forbids all Jewish-Palestinian dialogue and cooperation. This sort of insularity is deeply harmful for the American Jewish community. It makes Hillel and other Jewish institutions seem racist and narrow-minded, turning many liberal Jewish students away from the Jewish community on campus. This ban on partnerships with Palestinian groups also isolates Hillel from the wider campus community and prevents Jewish students from hearing essential perspectives on the conflict.

  1. They censor debate on an issue of critical importance to the American Jewish community

The American Jewish community is deeply divided over questions regarding Israel-Palestine. Restricting criticism of Israel will not make this criticism disappear; but doing so will turn Hillel into an ideological echo chamber where critical questions of justice and human rights cannot be discussed. Open discussion is a key Jewish value, and a key value in academic communities; it is also an essential precondition to working towards peace and justice.

Over the past three years, Open Hillel has grown from a small group of students initially concentrated in the Northeast into a national movement. Four campus Hillels that are student-run and financially independent of Hillel International -- Swarthmore, Vassar, Wesleyan, and Guilford -- declared themselves ‘Open,’ committed to welcoming students, groups, and partnerships of all political views. In October 2014, Open Hillel held a 350-person conference with over 40 panels that modeled the kind of Jewish communal discussion that could happen if Hillel dropped the Standards. The following winter and spring, Jewish students at colleges and universities across the country tried to bring longtime Jewish civil rights activists to speak at their Hillels; nearly all Hillels barred the speakers because of their views on Israel, but the tour nevertheless highlighted the ways in which their policies prevent the Jewish community from engaging with issues of civil rights and social justice. Open Hillel launched a rabbinical council and an academic council, bringing together a multi-generational coalition to support students on this issue.

The most consistent obstacle that Open Hillel has faced in achieving its goals has been money and the power of donors. Again and again, when students have approached Hillel staff about holding certain events or allowing certain conversations, they have been told that if their Hillels allowed these events, they would lose funding. Some of this highly conditional funding comes from private donors; however, a good deal of it comes from local affiliates of the Jewish Federations of North America, the major Jewish communal philanthropy. Indeed, many of Open Hillel’s community allies, who have tried to bring more open conversations to synagogues, JCCs, and other groups, have also been threatened with the loss of Federation funding.

In fall 2015, Open Hillel launched a new phase of the campaign, “Open Federations,” with a letter calling on the Jewish Federations of North America to stop conditioning their support for Jewish life on Jewish institutions’ adherence to red lines around Israel-Palestine. Open Hillel organized a protest outside the JNFA General Assembly in Washington, D.C.; at the protest, Jewish students and community members came together to call upon the Federations to prioritize supporting vibrant and pluralistic Jewish communities ahead of appeasing their own (right-wing) donors. Open Hillel is excited to continue to challenge Hillel International and the Jewish Federations to support inclusive Jewish communities that welcome open discussion and debate.