“Imagine,” she wrote, that “in the Middle East, the West Bank and Israel (are) combined. People walking down the street, Jews and Muslims side by side, and the first thing they noticed about each other wasn’t that this is an Israeli or this is an Arab, but that this is a person with their own stories and history. This is an individual person.”
Many would call her naïve. Perhaps they would label her hopes ignorant or misguided. She wrote this text as part of the sermon she gave at her bat mitzvah. She had visited Israel last summer but, during our lessons she never spoke in any great detail about her trip – other than to tell me that she slept through an awful lot of warning sirens.
So I was surprised when I read her sermon. I saw it just after I returned from “If Not Now When,” the inaugural Open Hillel conference held at Harvard on October 11-13.
Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world; it serves some 550 college campuses across the U.S and globally. I was involved with Hillel as a college student in the Midwest, 35 years ago. I’ve also served as an advisor to the group at UNC Charlotte.
Hillel’s existence has been a part of my own life story. In my younger years, Hillel was mostly understood as a welcoming and safe place to celebrate Shabbat and holidays. Israel, and supporting Israel, really became an important part of the official Hillel platform in the ’90s.
Two years ago, some Hillel students began to protest the organization’s recently adopted Standards of Partnership rules. The rules prevent campus Hillels from collaborating with people or groups that, according to the guidelines, “delegitimize Israel” or support the Palestinian call for political pressure through boycott, divestment, and sanctions.
In December 2013, Swarthmore College Hillel became the first Open Hillel by 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 followed suit, including Vassar College and Wesleyan University.
There were well-known speakers at the conference who had been excluded from campus Hillels and other Jewish institutions because of their political take on Israel. They included philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler; Shaul Magid, chair of Jewish Studies at Indiana University; Middle East historian ; and writer David Harris-Gershon.
Magid pointed out that Zionism has suffered from internal differences of opinion since its founding, so naming what is “pro-Zionist” or “anti-Zionist” is no simple matter. Harris-Gershon stated that he believed that non-violent protest is a legitimate tactic for political activists of any time or place. Butler described a climate among Jews that made it difficult – even frightening – to articulate views that were not wholly supportive of Israel. Khalidi explored the mythologies current in both Israeli and Palestinian circles about their respective histories and rights.
The conference also included Israeli soldiers representing Combatants for Peace and Breaking the Silence. Three Jewish civil rights activists who had been part of the Freedom Summer of 1964 also attended and spoke about their work.
About 350 people attended the three-day conference – mostly students, some middle-aged and senior Jewish community members.
I heard Jewish students speaking about being labeled anti-Semitic because they expressed doubts about Israeli policy. I also heard a few talk about the frustration of talking to Palestinians who used the word “Zionist” as if it meant “evil.”
Conference participants posted reasons they had come to Boston. “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,” wrote one. “I want to leave this place knowing who I am,” wrote another. “I came because I believe in open dialogue...”
One card expressed the “post-Holocaust need for a Jewish state.” Several wrote about the need to learn more, to read more, to hear more.
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.