Open Hillel is a student-run campaign to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels. We seek to change the "standards for partnership" in Hillel International's guidelines, which exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel. In addition, we encourage local campus Hillels to adopt policies that are more open and inclusive than Hillel International's, and that allow for free discourse on all subjects within the Hillel community.
Hillel International's current standards are counterproductive to creating real conversations about Israel on campus. They prevent campus Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, as almost all Palestinian campus groups support the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel. They also exclude certain Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, from the Hillel community. (For specific instances where the Hillel International policies have been used to shut down dialogue or exlcude Jewish groups or students, see "What are the effects of the current guidelines?" below.) Although the Hillel International policies are called "guidelines," Hillel International has threatened to disaffiliate schools that do not abide by them.
We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International's mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.
In addition, we believe that inter-community dialogue and free discourse, even on difficult subjects, is essential in the context of an educational institution and a democratic society. Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture's long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International's current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.
Open Hillel is a coalition of students working for the full expression of these values in our Hillel communities and in Hillel International's guidelines. We invite you to join us, whether by signing the petition to Hillel International, signing a petition to your campus Hillel, writing a testimonial, or organizing an Open Hillel campaign on your campus.
Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is a pluralistic Jewish organization that facilitates Jewish religious, cultural, and educational events and fosters Jewish community. It has chapters on university campuses across the US and abroad, and Hillel International is the umbrella organization to which these local affiliates belong.
According to Hillel International's website, "Hillel's mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. Hillel student leaders, professionals and lay leaders are dedicated to creating a pluralistic, welcoming and inclusive environment for Jewish college students, where they are encouraged to grow intellectually, spiritually and socially."
Hillel International currently publishes "Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities". Under the section "standards for partnership," they state:
"Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:
The full text of Hillel International's "Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities" can be found here.
The current guidelines have two main effects: limiting the Jewish groups that can become affiliated with campus Hillels, and limiting the outside groups with which Hillel-affiliated groups are permitted to co-sponsor events.
At Brandeis, for example, students founded a local chapter of the organization Jewish Voice for Peace, which, among other things, advocates for targeted divestment from companies that profit off the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. This group, as a Jewish organization, sought affiliation with Brandeis Hillel, but was denied on the basis of its political views.
In November 2012, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, an affiliated group of Harvard Hillel, was prevented from holding one of its events in the Hillel building. This decision was not due to the event's content, which was Jewish in nature, relevant to the Hillel community, and had previously been approved by Hillel staff. Rather, it was due to the fact that the event was co-sponsored with the Palestine Solidarity Committee, a Harvard student group that supports the International Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
At Binghamton University, a Hillel student leader was asked to resign because, as a leader in a separate, non-Hillel-affiliated group, he had brought a pro-BDS speaker to campus. Thus, these policies have been used not only to restrict the politics of the groups that can work with or be included in Hillel, but also to restrict Hillel students' activities outside of Hillel.
More recently at Harvard — in November 2013 — an event featuring Avraham Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset, was banned from Hillel because it was co- sponsored by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC). This event was also co-sponsored by Harvard Students for Israel, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, and Harvard J Street U. Even though Harvard Students for Israel — an explicitly political, pro-Israel organization and a Hillel affiliate — co-sponsored the event, it could not be held in Hillel due to PSC's involvement.
At universities across the country, these rules are excluding people from the Hillel community, shutting down open discourse on Israel within Hillel, and discouraging dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian groups on campus.
The Hillel International website states that "local Hillels are encouraged to convene their stakeholders to review these standards and create their own Israel guidelines that are consistent with this document and reflect the local environment." When Swarthmore Hillel students voted to create more inclusive policies, Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut threatened them with disaffiliation if they did not abide by Hillel International's "guidelines." However, no concrete steps have been taken at this time, and Swarthmore Hillel is currently in dialogue with both Hillel International and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia to determine the course of their continued relationship.
Hillel International does not enforce policies about any other subject — Shabbat, holidays, kashrut, Torah, egalitarianism, or anything else — on local Hillels. We believe that local Hillels should be able to develop their own policies on Israel, just as they do for every other subject. We also believe that as more local Hillels declare themselves to be Open Hillels, Hillel International will come to realize that they cannot continue to enforce these policies without alienating a sizeable portion of Jewish college students.
Open Hillel is a grassroots movement run entirely by current students and recent college grads. The campaign was initially founded by students involved in the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (a Hillel-affiliated group not affiliated with any national organization), but is now an independent movement. Our organizers consist of about twenty-five students at more than a dozen schools across America. We are not affiliated with any organization, and we receive no funding from any source. We currently have no formal leadership structure, and decisions are made communally by the involved students. If you want to contact us or learn more, you can use our contact form or email us at openhillel [at] gmail.com
In December 2013, Swarthmore Hillel became the first in the world to declare itself an Open Hillel. The Swarthmore Hillel student board unanimously passed a resolution declaring their Hillel to be an "organization that supports Jewish life in all its forms; an organization that is a religious and cultural group whose purpose is not to advocate for one single political view" and stating that it will no longer follow Hillel International's guidelines.
Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut responded to Swarthmore Hillel's Open Hillel resolution by declaring it "not acceptable" and threatening the branch with disaffiliation if they do not abide by Hillel International's policies. However, students from Swarthmore Hillel have not backed down, and are currently in dialogue with Hillel International and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia in order to determine the most constructive path forward. Swarthmore Hillel is still affiliated with Hillel International, and no punitive actions have been taken against them.
After Swarthmore Hillel declared itself to be an Open Hillel, student involvement and investment skyrocketed. The Shabbat dinner following the resolution was one of the best-attended all year, despite the fact that it was the night before finals. Swarthmore Hillel's example shows that Open Hillel isn't just rhetorically more inclusive — it actually makes more Jewish students feel welcome and able to be involved in their campus communities.
Boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS), is a political strategy to pressure Israel to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories and change certain policies. This strategy first became widespread in 2005, with the founding of the International Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. This movement has three stated goals:
Although the International BDS movement is the largest organized supporter of boycott, divestment, and sanctions, other organizations and individuals also advocate for the use of these tactics in various different ways. The organization Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, advocates for more targeted divestment, specifically from those companies that directly profit off the occupation. More information about Jewish Voice for peace and their position on BDS can be found here.
Many others advocate only for a boycott of products produced in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Liberal Zionist Peter Beinart recently advocated for such a boycott as a means of achieving a two-state solution and protecting the future of the Jewish state. He argues that the settlements are an obstacle to a two-state solution and create an undemocratic situation in which Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank are not treated equally under the law. He, and others, use a boycott of the settlements as a means of pressuring Israel to end settlement activity.
The Open Hillel campaign does not advocate for BDS, or for any other political position on Israel-Palestine. The campaign simply advocates for inclusion of all Jewish groups within Hillel regardless of their political views, and for the freedom for Hillel-affiliated groups to co-sponsor events with whomever they choose. The goal is not to support any one political position but to encourage an atmosphere in which a plurality of political views can be openly expressed, discussed, and debated.
The most common argument we have heard against the Open Hillel campaign is that Hillel cannot hold events in its building without implying that it supports the political views expressed in the event or by the event's sponsors. However, Hillel, as a pluralistic community, commonly contains affiliated groups with directly contradictory political views. For example, many Hillels contain both an Orthodox minyan, which advocates against same-sex marriage, and an LGBTQ Jewish group, which advocates for same-sex marriage. Both these groups could hold events in Hillel without it implying that Hillel necessarily supports either of these political stances. Similarly, we believe that groups with a diverse set of views on Israel should be able to hold events in Hillel without this implying that Hillel endorses the views expressed by one particular group or event. In such a situation, Hillel is simply expressing its support of the values of pluralism and free discourse.
If, however, this continues to be a serious concern to some people, we would support policies and/or statements making it explicitly clear that Hillel does not necessarily endorse the political views expressed by of any of its affiliated groups, events, or event co-sponsors.
Another argument we've heard over and over is "Hillel is a private institution, so it has a right to put limits on what can be said under its auspices." This is true — Hillel isn't the government, so it doesn't have a legal obligation to permit any kind of speech. But the Open Hillel campaign is not about free speech — it's about what kind of Hillel community we want to build. As people who are invested in Hillel as a pluralistic Jewish community, we believe that Hillel should nurture Jewish life in all its forms. We want to see Hillel be a place for vibrant discussion and diversity of opinion, not a place where inclusion is based on a political litmus test. We believe that the current guidelines harm Hillel by cutting it off from a significant portion of Jewish students and broader campus community, and we want to see Hillel succeed. Yes, Hillel would be within its legal rights to be a political organization where only certain views are acceptable — but that's not what we want to see in our community.
Signing the petition shows your support for an inclusive, pluralistic Hillel that encourages free discourse and open debate. Right now, local Hillels and Hillel International face a huge amount of pressure from donors and others who want to limit dialogue on Israel within the Jewish community to that which they consider "acceptable." We, the students, need to raise our voices and demonstrate that we believe in a Hillel that welcomes everyone and encourages respectful discussion and exchange of ideas. Whatever your political views, you should support the right of others to express their own views freely. The signatures on these petitions — to Hillel International and to our own campus Hillels — will demonstrate that there is broad student support for an Open Hillel and push Hillel leadership to change these destructive policies.
In addition to gathering petition signatures from everyone who supports the Open Hillel campaign, we are also inviting people to write longer testimonials expressing why the campaign and its underlying values are important to them. We want to give individual students the opportunity to have their voices heard, and we believe that personal accounts and statements of support are a particularly meaningful way of conveying the importance of an inclusive, dialogue-friendly Hillel. When we go to Hillel staff and leadership to present our case for an Open Hillel, we will bring these student testimonials in order to fully express why students care about these issues.
We invite all students who believe in an Open Hillel — whatever your Jewish involvement or connection to Hillel — to submit testimonials. We would especially like to hear about why you support the values of inclusivity and free discourse, whether you feel excluded from Hillel under its current policies, and how it would improve your Jewish campus experience to have a more open Hillel. We will review all the testimonials that are submitted, but we will not make any edits to your testimonial without contacting you first.
If you are interested in organizing an Open Hillel campaign on your campus, please contact openhillel [at] gmail.com. We hope to spread this campaign to as many campuses as possible, and will provide you with all the support, assistance, and advice that you may need to start a campaign at your school.
To see a history of the articles that have been published about Open Hillel, check out the "In the Media" section on our homepage.