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Vassar Hillel group defies parent org: Your Israel doctrine doesn’t represent ‘diversity of young Jews’

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The Open Hillel movement is on the move! Let us celebrate. First it was the Swarthmore Hillel declaring last December that it is an open Hillel, and that non- and anti-Zionists are allowed to step across the threshold. Now we have a declaration of openness from the Vassar Jewish Union, a Hillel org, stating that the International’s red lines on Israel are excluding young Jews. And an appeal from Berkeley alumni to leaders of the the University of California Hillel. Both statements are below.

The Berkeley alums dignify the idea of boycotting Israel and make this dramatic assertion (emphasis mine): “It is impossible to know how many students have looked elsewhere for Jewish inspiration, or abandoned their Jewish identity altogether, because of Hillel’s overly narrow policies regarding criticism of Israel. All we know for sure is that we personally witnessed countless potential community members disappear because of them.”

(Abandoned their Jewish identity altogether because they can’t square the requirement that they support Israel with their political values. We’ve seen it too.)

From the Vassar Jewish Union:

The Vassar Jewish Union is a Hillel-affiliated student organization that provides a pluralistic space for Jewish life at Vassar. The mission statement of the Vassar Jewish Union calls on us to commit to strengthening our pluralistic Jewish community. We recognize that identification with Israel is not necessarily an integral part of every individual’s Jewish identity. We commit to providing a spiritual and cultural home for Jewish expression in any form.

The Standards of Partnership at Hillel International currently prohibit partnering with, housing, or hosting organizations, groups, or speakers who: “1) Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; 2) Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; 3) Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; and 4) Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

We believe that this policy censors and delegitimizes the diverse range of personal and political opinions held by Jewish students. As a result, organizations such as JStreet and Jewish Voice for Peace have been excluded from campus Hillel organizations, and individual speakers have been barred from addressing students at Hillel chapters around the country. Hillel International advocates identification with Israel as a core element of Jewish life, and a gateway to Jewish identification for students.

We believe that Hillel International’s goal to “inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israel” does not represent the diverse opinions of young American Jews. We believe that fostering a pluralistic community and supporting all Jewish life on campus cannot be achieved with Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines in place. According to our constitution the VJU is a non-partisan organization and will not advocate any particular political opinions. In the interest of educating and serving the VJU community, however, the VJU will support individual members’ expressions of their own political views, and will seek to represent this diversity with its programming. In that regard, we welcome open discourse concerning Israel, Palestine, and any other relevant and critical issues, and will not exclude on the basis of political opinion.

As an Open Hillel, the Vassar Jewish Union will not endorse any particular political view. The Vassar Jewish Union will not exclude organizations, groups, speakers, individuals, or events on the basis of political opinion. Rather, we seek to represent the diverse views held by our members and to provide a space for meaningful and respectful debate and discussion. This position is in accordance with our desire to enrich our political, spiritual, and cultural lives at Vassar through free and open discourse.

And here is the appeal from Open Berkeley Hillel to a rabbi who directs the chapter and the chair of the Hillel’s board of directors:

Dear Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman and Rob Ruby,

We write to you as former Jewish community leaders at UC Berkeley. We urge you, in your capacity as Executive Director and Board of Directors President, to declare Berkeley Hillel to be an Open Hillel. We believe that Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership weaken the organization, alienate Jewish students, and reduce the vibrancy and diversity of the Hillel community. Since these standards constrict free discourse about Israel both on the right and the left, we stand for the freedom of all Jewish students to engage with Israel in any way they find meaningful – so long as it does not promote racism, violence, or other forms of hatred.

In essence, you already stand behind our call for an open Israel conversation. In 2011, both you, Adam, and former Board of Directors President Barbara Davis penned a public letter encouraging the Jewish Student Union to reconsider their rejection of the Berkeley J Street U chapter. It stated that: “Berkeley Hillel is committed to creating a pluralistic community that embraces the diversity of our Jewish tradition. At a time when Jewish students are seeking community, we are careful not to exclude Jewish students, and we embrace the wisdom of our namesake Hillel by embodying the value of an inclusive community.” The Berkeley Hillel Israel Policy also notes that “all individuals of the University of California Berkeley community, regardless of political views related to Israel, are welcome at Hillel events and activities.”

As former Berkeley students, it saddens us to say that these words do not reflect the reality of Jewish experiences on our campus. It is impossible to know how many students have looked elsewhere for Jewish inspiration, or abandoned their Jewish identity altogether, because of Hillel’s overly narrow policies regarding criticism of Israel. All we know for sure is that we personally witnessed countless potential community members disappear because of them. Considering how influential our university years were upon the rest of our lives, this is undoubtedly a tragedy.

We are concerned that if Berkeley Hillel does not recognize the legitimate disagreements among Jewish students about what is in Israel’s best interest, these students will simply look elsewhere and Hillel will cease to be the center of Jewish life on campus. It is for this reason that we now turn to you. As Jews, we have a saying we like to tout that goes: “two Jews, three opinions.” There should be no reason why this should not apply to healthy debates about Israel as well.

Today, however, Jewish students at Hillel are restricted to a narrow band of acceptable opinions – more narrow even than that of prominent Israeli statesmen. Former Speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg has publicly endorsed a boycott of the Israeli settlements while current Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein has notably called for Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Both stances would render these elected officials unfit to speak at Hillel, the first for supporting boycott of settlements built by the State of Israel and the second for denying Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state. We believe that Jewish students have the right to engage with these views and decide for themselves – as thoughtful, young intellectuals – whether or not they agree.

We therefore encourage you to adhere to your namesake’s doctrine of “fearless inclusivity” by asking Hillel International to update its Standards of Partnership while declaring Berkeley Hillel to be open to all Jewish students regardless of political beliefs. Such action would ensure Jewish youth from all walks of life feel free to express themselves within Hillel’s walls – a profound step forward in securing the integrity of our Jewish future.

Yours sincerely,

Berkeley Alumni for an Open Hillel

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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2 Responses

  1. Balfour on February 19, 2014, 10:52 am

    Only one true Jewish identity is allowed, the Jewish identity as defined by the Jewish State of Israel. All dissenters of the received identity are not true Jews, they are self haters and individuals who threaten the collective security of the Jewish people.

    That is the message that Hillel is sending America’s Jewish youth.

  2. hophmi on February 19, 2014, 11:02 am

    I know a bit about the VJU, which I used to help run years ago.

    Vassar has not been a part of Hillel for very long; VJU was independent, and very proudly so, until about ten years ago; before then it had consciously rejected joining Hillel. We joined at the behest of one board member who thought it was silly not to have access to Hillel grants available for student programming. I honestly don’t remember how I felt about us joining Hillel, but I think that if I were on the board today, and enough students came to me and complained about Hillel policies, I would probably support cutting ties with the organization, because Vassar probably never got very much from the affiliation anyway, and because a small campus org like the VJU cannot afford to alienate anyone, especially not at the behest of a national organization that contributes little to begin with.

    Vassar is one of the most liberal campuses in the country, and it has had an active SJP since 2002, when Alison Weir and Steve Quester, an early ISM member, came to campus (Steve, who struck me as the quintessential Western activist who becomes more extreme than the people in the region, told me straight out that Israeli Jews should just leave Israel and turn the place over to the Palestinians ten years before Max Blumenthal said pretty much the same thing, and I had, let’s say, a bit of a debate with him about it).

    It is not a surprise that Hillel’s policy, which I understand, but think is unnecessary and self-defeating, would cause a serious problem. If the VJU is anything like it used to be, the amount of Israel programming they do is close to none, and on a campus where the just about all of the Poli-Sci international politics staff is made up of post-colonial studies specialists and the head of Jewish Studies is a BDS proponent who teaches a class on the roots of the I-P conflict with a curriculum only a pro-Palestinian activist could love, it’s not a surprise that many students would feel the way that they do. Campuses with strong pro-Israel programming do not do Israel programming through Hillel.

    In truth, the VJU has a much more pressing problem that has become common on campuses like theirs where there are lots of Jewish students, but relatively little active participation, which is the opening of several Chabad houses in the area, including one on the same block as the VJU house. As you well know, Chabad doesn’t need Hillel to promote pro-Israel views. All it needs is free food and a welcoming, non-judgmental atmosphere that requires nothing of the students.

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