As you may know, Hillel International is now cracking down on Jewish student leaders around the country to try and stop the Open Hillel movement, to make sure these students don’t hear speakers who will tell them about Palestinian human rights.
So far Hillel International has had some success in keeping that conversation outside its doors. Swarthmore Hillel declared itself Open, but decided to change its name because of implicit litigation threats by the national organization. So it was as Kehillah that the Swarthmore group hosted an astounding delegation of US civil-rights movement veterans last month who were banned by Hillel International because they spoke out against Israeli human rights abuses.
Hillel International was successful in banning those speakers at UMass Amherst and MIT. But one of them, Dorothy Zellner, spoke in favor of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) at Harvard Hillel, thereby busting the official guidelines there. And all four spoke at Muhlenberg, to 150 people; and the student head of Hillel resigned so she could host the event.
That is why Hillel International’s campaign will fail. Because Jewish students want to have these conversations. Nothing will suppress that discussion in the end.
Harvard is not alone in defying the International. A month ago, Wesleyan University’s Jewish community hosted a Shabbat sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace, which is explicitly banned by Hillel International’s rules because it supports BDS.
And I just learned that Stanford Hillel defied the Hillel International guidelines on January 6. This has never come out before, but Stanford Jews wanted to know what the BDS movement is all about. And the Jewish Students Association, a Hillel-affiliated group, invited the great Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb in to the Hillel house to explain why she supports BDS “as a conflict transformation tactic.” Stanford Hillel’s leader, a rabbi with a lot of status in the Jewish community, Serena Eisenberg, allowed this to happen.
Rabbi Gottlieb told me about the meeting:
Jewish students at Stanford wanted to have an ‘open hillel’ kind of conversation (they didn’t call it that) about Israel/Palestine with rabbis they trusted, without public scrutiny, which is easy to understand, given the intense atmosphere and targeting of people on all sides of the issue. It’s hard for students, and young Jews in general, to find neutral spaces where they are free to pursue their questions about Israel/Palestine without ideological limits. I encouraged them to do their own research in a context which meets the highest academic and journalistic standards. Jewish students across US campuses and young Jews involved in Jewish institutions and programs that serve them, like Avodah, Moishe House, and Hillel, want to be able to pursue their questions about Israel/Palestine in an atmosphere of academic freedom and inquiry without being subject to the criminalization of their academic right to seek knowledge. Granted this is a highly charged issue. They still have that right.
I was invited to Stanford by students who wished to have such a conversation. I know they invited me, in part, because I would try to explain ‘what is boycott, divestment and sanctions?” and put it into a historical context. The room, even by word of mouth, was packed with about 70 students, mostly Jewish, who stayed for a two hour presentation/dialogue. The event happened a day before the divestment vote, although I think that was a coincidence. I knew some students from SJP whom I had met at another event I attended at Stanford. The conversation began with presentations between myself and Rabbi Shelly Lewis. I suggested we ask each other a question in order to model respectful dialogue. Rabbi Lewis is a gentle soul. He has served the San Jose Jewish community for over 40 years, and is author of a beautiful book called The Torah of Reconciliation. He is deeply passionate about dialogue as a healing path that leads to peacebuilding and spoke of his distress over Israel’s current policies toward Palestinians, but does not support using boycott, divestment or sanctions against Israel. He is committed to a peace process, and even though he acknowledges most people have given up hope, two states remains international law and is supported by the majority of Israelis and Palestinians.
I shared personal history growing up with rabbis who were deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement, and my history with The Fellowship of Reconciliation as well as some of my experiences in Israel Palestine from 1966 to the present, and of course explained how I understand BDS and why I support it as a conflict transformation tactic. It was a great conversation, very nuanced and respectful, students were happy, no one burst into flames.
Wishing you a joyous liberating Pesakh.
So there you have it. They had a conversation about the BDS movement inside the Stanford Hillel, and no one burst into flames. It’s happening, no matter what the gangsters at Hillel International want students to think or say.