Viewpoint: For an Open Hillel

BY SARAH BLUME
Sam Molnar Talya Nakash Alyssa Tender Daniel Hurwitz-Goodman and Ben Gottschalk
Published November 10, 2014

Hillel is known as the “Center for Jewish Life” on hundreds of campuses all over the world, including at the University of Michigan. In 1948, upon the establishment of the State of Israel, Hillel directors across the country sought guidance from the national office on if the then-anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism should be allowed to form chapters within the Hillel umbrella. The answer from Hillel International was clear: “Hillel represents the total Jewish community on each campus which it serves, it excludes no student activity which legitimately represents the interests of a group of students, so long as they accept the principle of community responsibility. Just as there are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform outlooks represented in the Hillel program, so there can be both Zionist and anti-Zionist outlooks.”

As it was in 1948, so should it be in 2014.

At the beginning of this year Hillel staff invited a number of anti-occupation Jewish students to be a part of the Shabbat Across Campus initiative. The dinner form asked us to name our Shabbat around which theme brought our community together and so we chose the theme “Palestinian Solidarity Shabbat.” We chose the name for our event at an informal Shabbat dinner attended by Jews of all stripes: white Jews, Latino Jews and Arab Jews; supporters and detractors of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; one-staters, two-staters and no-staters; Zionist, post-Zionist, anti-Zionist, non-Zionist and just-fed-up-Zionist; undergraduates, graduate students, staff and community members. For us, as much as we disagree with one another, a central part of our community and identity is our conviction that standing in solidarity with Palestinians against occupation is a beautiful and vital expression of Jewish identity.

Days after we signed up to join ShabUM we were summoned to the Hillel offices for a meeting, under the pretense of Hillel staff members wanting to learn about the “visions and goals” of our dinner in order for them to know how they could best support us. We were asked what we planned for this Shabbat dinner, to which we honestly explained the Shabbat dinner would be nothing more than lighting candles and breaking bread amongst friends, old and new, who wish to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. For the next 90 minutes we had our identities disparaged and were told that the words “Palestinian Solidarity” were aggressive, scary and not welcome on the Hillel website. The staff couldn’t specify what it was about these words that was “aggressive.” On the contrary, we contend that there are few things more Jewish than standing in solidarity with the oppressed. What is “aggressive” is the way in which Hillel fosters a culture of fear for Jewish students who want to speak out against the occupation and stand with the nonviolent grassroots movements for Palestinian rights.

To be clear, this censorship was never about the interests of students. In fact, during the meeting we had to ask the director to stop bullying us so that we could hear what the student representative from Hillel had to say. The student representative made it clear during the meeting that the major donors of Hillel and the “Standards of Partnership” put forth by Hillel International are the main roadblocks to the Palestinian Solidarity Shabbat being included among the others.

Hillel cannot censor the Jewish students on this campus any longer. Indeed it’s dangerous to stifle conversation about the occupation of Palestine. How is our generation supposed to find a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if we cannot speak openly about it in Jewish institutions? It is in Hillel — “The Center For Jewish Life” — where it makes the most sense for these conversations to happen amongst Jews. The shirking of Jewish institutions from hard conversations only entrenches the occupation. Passive support for the status quo enables the violation of Palestinians’ human and civil rights to continue and worsen.

And so, today we declare a campaign for an Open Hillel. We are not alone. Open Hillel is a nationwide student-led movement to change Hillel’s policies to better reflect the Jewish community’s values of pluralism and inclusivity. The movement seeks to end the “Standards of Partnership” which arbitrarily draw red lines around students whose political beliefs about the occupation are unsavory to Hillel’s donor base.

Across the country, Jewish students are saying “no more” and “not in my name” to occupation in the West Bank and to the massacres in Gaza. These growing numbers of students should not be ostracized from the community, but valued as Jews who are inspired by our history of fighting for justice. We demand that we be able to speak openly without fear or vilification. Open Hillels are being declared on campuses across the country and the University can be at the vanguard.

To the Hillel staff that say this challenges them, we ask you to sit with that discomfort. The discomfort of diaspora Jews should not trump Palestinian human rights. Vigorous debate and discussion is the driving force of Judaism’s holy texts for a reason. Open conversation is the basis of democracy, any healthy community and a more just world. A commitment to tolerance of various political identities should be a principle of our community. The one percent of wealthy donors should not be allowed to stifle the urgent conversations that the 99 percent of young Jews need to have.

Even without Hillel’s support, the Palestinian Solidarity Shabbat will go on. It’s this Friday, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. in East Quad’s Benzinger Library (Room 1423). We welcome anyone who wants to join in this informal setting, where no views will be censored, restricted or stigmatized. Come share in a meal with Jews and people of all faiths who are against the occupation and are inspired by Jewish tradition to fight together for equality and human rights. As we light Shabbat candles together we will kindle our ancestors’ tradition of radicalism and justice. In the words of Hillel the Sage for whom the Hillel Houses are named: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Sarah Blume is an LSA junior, Sam Molnar is an SNRE graduate student, Ben Gottschalk is an LSA sophomore, and Talya Nakash, Alyssa Tender and Daniel Hurwitz-Goodman are LSA seniors.

For more information or questions Talya Nakash can be reached at tnakash@umich.edu.