Longing for Liberation: Passover Reflections on an Open Hillel

open hillel“You know,” he told my son, Erik, “thirty years ago we stood in a New York street saying goodbye. And your mother cried the tears of a sister.”

“Mohammad,” I said, “you are going to make me cry again.”

It is more than three decades since I saw Mohammad. In the interim he has married. He is now the father of five children. He has lived and worked mostly in the United Arab Emirates; he only returns to his parents’ home in Ramallah for visits. His family is scattered — his brothers and sisters have lived in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere in the world. Mohammad commutes these days to workplaces and countries far from his own family.

We were (and are) the best of friends. Mohammad, my husband, Ralf, and I used to joke about the worlds we represented: European, Middle Eastern, and American. We compared cultures and religions, family life and personal aspirations. Mohammad and I called each other “cousin.”

Palestinian and Jewish, we know that we are related.

In those long-ago days, we both belonged to an international graduate student group that created educational programming around conflict-ridden areas. Themes of those programs? Peoples silenced, peoples longing for liberation. In those days, I also taught adult education courses on the Holocaust and  the complicated history behind the birth of Israel. Same themes, obviously.

I offered those courses at our college Hillel.

Then, I spoke about the invasion of Lebanon, and the massacre of Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Algerians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. I spoke publicly about the way the IDF had aided and abetted in wholesale slaughter of innocents. There were those who disagreed with me and my conclusions. But no one ever shushed me.

Today, college students who openly critique Israel are not only being shushed. They are being bullied.

Last month, Hillel International sent Swarthmore College a letter threatening legal action if the college’s Hillel chapter went through with a planned program bringing Jewish Civil Rights veterans who are sharply critical of Israel to campus. Hillel International also pressured the Hillel chapter at Muhlenberg College to cancel the same program.

There, however, the program went forward. It was financed by Open Hillel, a student-run campaign that aims to encourage open discourse at campus Hillels, in part by changing the “standards for partnership” in Hillel International’s guidelines that exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel.
The program, as one might have predicted, was quite successful. Over 100 students and faculty showed up. But the pressure from Hillel International was too much for Muhlenberg’s Hillel president, Caroline Dorn, who resigned. She wrote:

I feel Jewishly at home in Open Hillel’s leadership for the first time in a while. I don’t have to choose between being Jewish and being Pro-Palestine–those two important parts of my personal identity can complement each other. It’s a wonderful feeling to be accepted, supported, and to feel like I have a community of open-minded and progressive Jewish friends and allies. I am deeply disappointed that Hillel International’s exclusionary Standards of Partnership keep Muhlenberg Hillel from serving this function in my life.

Open Hillel also released a statement:

Hillel is facing a choice – it can continue to spend valuable resources devoted to fighting its own students in an attempt to dictate what students can and cannot say about Israel/Palestine, or it can return to its mission of engaging Jewish students.

Is it genuinely impossible for Hillel to welcome all Jewish students, regardless of political persuasion or perspective? If so, we need to ask specific and trenchant questions in order to understand why (and how) that has happened. Who donates, who funds, and who, we might ask, determines Hillel International’s policies?

Mohammad and I will be talking again this weekend. I expect we will do as we have always done: Express our anguish for our (related) peoples. But at least, in that conversation, no one will shush or bully us or demand that we be other than we are.

Cousins.

P.S. May Jews sit down tonight to tell a story of national liberation with all the world’s people’s in mind.

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Hillel International on Jewish Identity – and Israel

I’m here because my political views have left me without a Jewish community, yet I’ve never felt more Jewish.  I hope older Jews will listen.

Student postcard response at Open Hillel Conference

I know. I was supposed to write about our “Yavneh” rabbis and their hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities of their time.

I got sidetracked by today’s Jewish leadership and its hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities.

Just as we exaggerate the tolerance for diversity among our Talmudic sages in regards to points of law, so we downplay our leaders’ intolerance for diversity of political opinions on Israel.

Last October, I traveled to Boston for the first Open Hillel Conference, “If Not Now, When?” About 350 people – mostly college students, but also middle aged and senior folk – attended the three-day conference.

Background material: Around two years ago, Hillel students in various college campuses began to protest the organization’s recently adopted “Standards of Partnership” rules. Those rules state, among other things, that campus Hillel groups may not collaborate with people or groups that “delegitimize Israel” or support the Palestinian call for political pressure on Israel through boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

Almost a year ago, Swarthmore College Hillel became the first Open Hillel, stating: “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” Other Hillels have joined them in making such statements, including Vassar College and Wesleyan University.

I wrote about the conference for The Charlotte Observer.

I joked about this piece with close relatives. I claimed that I had taken the great step forward and “come out” on the topic in order to say, “hey, can we tolerate having a conversation with people who might seriously disagree with us?”  To whit:

I went to this conference because I am – as both a teacher and a rabbi – deeply interested in understanding where the younger Jewish generation is when it comes to defining their Jewish identity. I learned this: They want to be included in Jewish communities, synagogues, and institutions.

These students ask that all Jews be encouraged to come to the table to express their hopes and dreams for themselves, for Israel, and for peace in this world. They want older Jews to understand that they may feel differently than we do, and that they hold a wide range of opinions and positions. They ask that we assure them that no Jew is censored, rejected, or denied a hearing.

It’s an important message. Open conversation is not naïve; it is a basic necessity – for a democracy, for a healthy community, for a nation, and for the world.

Pretty rad, I know. And that is what makes the situation so sad.

Questioning my bona fides on Israel has been part and parcel of recent response to my editorial. Just wondering: Is it likely that someone who teaches course after course on the history of antisemitism (yes, that’s me!) would feel that it’s important to think about how to secure the survival of Jews and Judaism? It is. I do.

But here’s the ethical issue that concerns me: Both the “Standards for Partnership” and Hillel International’s explanation of its vision on Israel link what is appropriately Jewish to the question of whether one supports Israel’s right to exist.

From the website: “Hillel desires that students are able to articulate why Israel plays an important role in their personal Jewish identities…Hillel views Israel as a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students.”

Hillel’s policy, despite disclaimers that assert that the organization includes “diverse opinions” on Israel, excludes Jews for whom the state of Israel is not a defining element in their Jewish identity.

Those that Hillel International expects to fall outside their definition and vision of Jewish identity are not only to be found on the left of the political spectrum. There are those on the Jewish right who unequivocally deny today’s Israel a right to exist.

See, for example, the website of Neturei Karta, a Haredi group that strenuously objects to Zionism and calls for a peaceful dismantling of the State of Israel. For such Jews, no state of Israel can be permitted until the coming of the Messiah.

If just such an ultra-Orthodox Jewish student walks into any Hillel on any campus seeking, perhaps, a place to davenn with others, to learn about Talmud, or to attend any of a thousand possible programs Hillel students and their advisors might be supporting and arranging, that particular Jew cannot be welcomed and given a place at Hillel’s table.  That student utterly and unequivocally rejects the state of Israel’s right to exist.

Hillel’s vision of Jewish identity will inevitably exclude some Jewish students, in clear contradistinction to the organization’s claim that it “welcomes Jewish students of all backgrounds.”

I used to think of college Hillel’s as another (lovely) form of Jewish community, a place for college-aged Jews to explore their Jewishness. I assumed Hillel leaders knew that “Jewish identity” has an extraordinary and very wide bandwidth in practice, in ritual, in belief, and in political expression. Not all Jewish college students see their Jewish identity as related to the state of Israel. Must they do so, in order to participate in Hillel International?

As a rabbi, I do not apply a political litmus test to my congregants. Our membership forms don’t ask people to state their political views before we will allow them to participate in Jewish communal life.

We all want Jews and Judaism to survive – healthy, independent, and strong. On ethical grounds alone we should not insist that Jews who want the right to belong to Jewish community first pass a political litmus test on Israel.

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