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].

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“So when Hillel said we couldn't do that I was pretty shocked…. Here is an actual policy that…prevents...college-age Jews…who are active in Hillel, who are active in Jewish campus communities, who are going to be the future leaders of the Jewish community, from knowing what's going on. Because if [according to the Standards] you can't hear from Palestinian groups, can't hear from anti-occupation activists, can't hear from anyone deemed too critical of Israel…then how on earth are you supposed to hear anything other than the narratives you were taught in day school and summer camp? “

“These standards are very troubling. Hillel claimed to be a pluralistic space for all Jews on campus, and religiously it was—there are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, all different religious traditions [in Hillel]—but Jews who were too left-wing politically on Israel-Palestine, who supported Jewish Voice for Peace, who supported some form of boycotts, or were too critical in any way were cast out from the Jewish community and cast as not Jewish enough or not Jewish in the right ways. Hillel, as an institution, doesn't have a right to tell people how to be Jewish and connect with their Jewish identities.” These Standards were actively pushing away Jews who opposed the Occupation, “and that seemed deeply wrong.”

The Open Hillel campaign was started “to push back against the Standards...we connected with other students around the country who had been experiencing similar sorts of issues, started thinking about how this wasn't a problem of…our executive director or our campus. It was a problem of Hillel International and its rules and its donors, and we started thinking strategically about how to combat that.”

“So many people who we talked to, both students and community members, were supportive of our goals but were too scared to say anything for fear of losing their current jobs, losing their potential for future jobs in the Jewish world, losing funding for their institutions.”

“We're just pushing for 18th Century style Enlightenment values, free speech, and, yes, I know it's not free speech from a legalistic perspective, but it is from a value perspective. Hillel is a private institution. It can do whatever it wants. But we're trying to say what it should do and that’s to not be advocating for any particular political position but just to be advocating for people to be able to say what they want to say.” Hillels “are tied into places …with the values of academic freedom, so the Standards are very, very bizarre and a sign of the strength of Jewish institutional censorship in this present moment.”

Over the course of their first year, Open Hillel started a petition to Harvard Hillel and to Hillel International to get rid of the Standards of Partnership, and then reached out to a network of Jewish students at other colleges and universities to gain support and solidarity with their cause. Someone knew people at Brown, others knew somebody who had gone to Brandeis, thus the network expanded. According to Sandalow-Ash, “the first year was particularly difficult because we were building a movement from the bottom up with students who outside of our own campuses [who] didn't know each other.” They had to email, talk on the phone, and have Google hangouts in hopes of spreading the word and garnering support. Slowly, they established a national network.

Sandalow-Ash went to Israel again in 2013 as an intern with the Shatil Program of the New Israel Fund. She traveled to the West Bank for the first time and was especially moved by a tour of Hebron with Breaking the Silence.  It occurred to her that the vast majority of American Jews “were going to be continually in this cocoon of …advocating for Israel blindly.”

In November of 2013, Sandalow-Ash helped to organize an event “to challenge the rules at Harvard.” They invited Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli Knesset to speak at an event cosponsored by the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Harvard Students for Israel, J Street U Harvard, and the PSC. Because the PSC was a co-sponsor, it could not be hosted at the Harvard Hillel.

“We made Hillel barring Burg a major event in the national Jewish news. We were basically teaching ourselves campaign things from the bottom up. A lot of us had been involved with campus level campaigning around labor or environmental justice or feminist activism, but this became a different ballgame. We were trying to do this national thing.”

Shortly afterwards, Jewish students at Swarthmore sent the Open Hillel Facebook page the message, “We're thinking of going open.” Those in the informal Open Hillel leadership structure at a few different Northeast schools helped with press, contacts, and other support. Swarthmore declared the Hillel as open. In other words,  “they will not abide by Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership and can partner with any group no matter what that group's position is. All Jewish students are welcome regardless of their political positions and speakers will not be barred because of their political views on Israel-Palestine.”

They got coverage in the Jewish press and The New York Times. When Hillel International threatened them with disaffiliation, they organized a ‘Stand with Swarthmore’ petition. Since then, the Hillels at Vassar College, Wesleyan University, and Guilford College, have declared themselves “open.”

In the spring of 2014, Open Hillel students decided to organize a national conference so the students who knew each other virtually could meet, “have all the speakers who have been banned from Jewish institutions,” speak about anything they wanted to, and “build the Jewish community that we want to see.”

During the 2014 war in Gaza, when Hillel International affirmed that the “entire Hillel family,” Open Hillel put out a statement refuting this claim. “The whole [Hillel] family doesn't have a single position. Jews have all views…Hillel is not alone among American Jewish institutions in claiming, unfairly, to speak for all Jews. It's very, very typical. And all of these institutions, the Federations, the Jewish Community Relations Councils, the JCCs, claim to be about supporting Jewish life in all its forms end up prioritizing a particular agenda over the interests and opinions and priorities of Jewish community members and, in Hillel’s case, Jewish students.”

Three hundred and fifty people attended their inaugural conference in October 2014.

The conference offered 40 different panels on topics related to Israel-Palestine and the American Jewish community. There were sessions on the Occupation, BDS, human rights issues relating to the American Jewish community, such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. A number of Palestinian and Jewish speakers who had been barred from Hillel and other Jewish institutions spoke at the conference. They also discussed the role of philanthropy in the nonprofit world and how money affects the community’s political orientation.  

Following the conference, Open Hillel immediately started planning for the upcoming spring semester. They invited three Jewish long-time racial justice activists who had been veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and still were active in racial justice fights today, all of whom are also banned from Hillel under the Standards of Partnership, to do a speaking tour. This tour was designed “to bring these speakers to different schools to put pressure on Hillel at these campus locations.” However, they’ve been excluded from schools, like U. Mass Amherst, MIT, etc., which has caused Sandalow-Ash to reflect, “I think it's really has cast into sharp relief the way in which Hillel is prioritizing its right-wing donors’ interests ahead of engaging students on campus.”

Sandalow-Ash believes:

“There is this very paternalistic attitude in the American Jewish community towards young Jewish people. They like to tell us that you need to go on Birthright and meet a Jewish partner and have lots of Jewish children and support Israel all the time. We're trying to push back against that and say no, we are young Jews and we can define Judaism for ourselves. That our communities should be democratic, that donors shouldn’t be deciding what we can or can’t talk about. That being said, on a practical level we want our institutions to continue; and that means engaging with Jewish communal leaders. And that means trying to get them to understand that investing in the future of the Jewish community means empowering young Jews on our campuses.”

Sandalow-Ash has advice for activists:

  • “This work is hard, and it's often lonely, and you're caught in your room answering a million emails. People on your campus or in your family or in your home community or on the Internet are writing mean and awful things about you, and it can be very demoralizing. In that context, it's…so important to feel like you are connected; you are supported; you have people to talk to, people who are your friends and who are not just organizing with you; and to be there for each other and to be real friends…”
  • “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, and we can do that even if we mess up sometimes.”
  • “We have to be there to help everybody learn things together and be open to new ideas that are coming in.”

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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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