Campus Hillels currently house groups whose views are dichotomously opposed to one another — Reform minyanim that don't follow kosher laws beside Conservative minyanim that only purchase hechshered food, organizations that promote internships in investment banking beside anti-capitalist groups celebrating Yiddish socialist culture, Orthodox minyanim that prohibit same-sex marriage beside queer groups devoted to breaking down the gender binary. Housing all these seemingly contradictory groups does not weaken the Hillel community or sacrifice Jewish values — rather, it makes the community that much more vibrant, diverse, and welcoming, and gives all students a chance to learn from one another. If Hillel can manage such pluralism in every other way, why can't it manage it when it comes to Israel?
One 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 that misses the point of the Open Hillel campaign: it's 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. 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.
"The foundation for Jewish campus life" should be built by the students whose lives these decisions impact, not by donors who limit discourse and are detached from the realities on campus. Right now, the open discussions and debates that students crave are stifled by the influence of donors, who pressure local Hillels into maintaining restrictive rules about what can be said about Israel in the context of Hillel. This prevents students and staff from taking ownership of our own communities, and reduces our investment in proactively building our Jewish lives. Open Hillel is an grassroots movement run entirely by students and recent college grads across the country who care about our campus Jewish communities. We seek to bring the student voice back into all Hillels.
The Open Hillel movement does not call for allowing any person in to speak no matter what their views. It does not call for allowing in anti-Semitism, or racism, or violence, or hatred, or eugenics, or terrorism (as some have claimed). However, people can dramatically disagree about the politics of Israel-Palestine without being anti-Semitic. Open Hillel does not advocate for any particular political view, but we recognize that there are many young Jews who believe that their Jewish values bring them to criticize Israeli policies, or find boycotts to be an effective non-violent tool for achieving social change, or believe that there should be no Jewish state until the messiah comes, or oppose the idea of ethnic nation-states altogether. Although some of these views may be non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, none of them are anti-Semitic, and Jewish students who want to discuss and hold events about these ideas in a Jewish context should be welcome to do so.
Much of the focus of recent debate has been about welcoming non-Zionist speakers to campus. It is important to realize that this is not the only issue at stake. Events screening movies such as Budrus, Five Broken Cameras, and The Gatekeepers (all controversial, but all critically-acclaimed in Israel) have faced significant difficulties, and on occasion they have even been cancelled because they are considered to break the "delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard" clause of the Standards for Partnership. Moreover, even though individual students cannot be explicitly excluded under the current policies, they have been used to push students out of Hillel leadership positions, and students inevitably feel excluded and alienated from a community that bans speakers and organizations to whom we can relate. Students should not be asked to check their politics at the door if their views on Israel fall outside the positions deemed "acceptable" by Hillel International.
Exposing students to dissenting views does not weaken our ability to take informed, thoughtful positions — it strengthens it, by helping us better understand all positions and, when necessary, mount stronger defenses against those with whom we disagree. Many who oppose broadening the conversation on campus do so because they worry that inviting non-Zionist or anti-Zionist speakers will lead to a campus culture that is more hostile to Israel. Yet if anti-Zionist arguments are unsound, students will find them less convincing than Zionist arguments. Inviting one's ideological adversaries to the table is a sign of strength — not weakness — because it represents confidence that one's own ideas are solid enough to stand up to scrutiny. Students with all political views will be better off for being exposed to and being able to understand opposing viewpoints.
Hillel International's current policies essentially forbid Jewish and Palestinian student groups from working together or engaging with one another in a productive way. This has been a major factor in creating polarized campus cultures, where students battle over Israel-Palestine without any mutual understanding. Changing these policies will not — and should not — cause all students to agree with one another, but it will create space for students to debate and learn constructively and respectfully, rather than with antagonism and hostility. Hillel should not stand as an obstacle to dialogue or promote the demonization of other student groups.
Hillel has an important mission: to enrich the lives of all Jewish students so that they can enrich the Jewish people and the world. Yet the current policies send the message that an irrevocable, unquestionable part of Jewish identity is a positive connection to the state of Israel. Hillel has, rightfully, not sent this message about God, Torah, Shabbat, Jewish Holidays, Kashrut, or any other one aspect of Jewish identity, because people connect to Judaism in different ways. Hillel will not be able to enrich the life of every Jewish student if students who are critical — or even just indifferent — towards Israel feel like they're being told that they're "not Jewish enough" to be a part of Hillel. Over and over again, we've heard from Jewish students that they aren't involved in Hillel because it doesn't make space for them to express their progressive values. We want there to be space for these students, and all students, in Hillel, so that we all have an opportunity for a rich and engaging Jewish life during college.
We've all heard the old joke about "two Jews, three opinions." This culture dates back at least to the time of the Talmud, in which all sides of scholarly debates and disagreements were recorded, not just the prevailing legal opinion. This deep respect for dissent and diversity of opinion is one of our most important Jewish values, and has helped our religion and culture retain its vitality and meaning throughout the ages. As Ben Zoma says in Pirkei Avot, "Who is wise? One who learns from all people, as it is said: From all those who taught me I gained understanding." If you disagree, well — isn't that exactly the point?
The week after Swarthmore Hillel it released its Open Hillel resolution, Shabbat dinner turnout was huge — even though it was the night before finals. Students from across the political spectrum feel more engaged and more invested in their Jewish community when they know that their views will be welcome and their voices will be heard. This isn't just a hypothetical benefit — Swarthmore Hillel shows that Open Hillel has the real, concrete impact of bringing in more Jewish students and increasing the vitality of the community.