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Historic Open Hillel Conference Sparks Debate Among American Jews

Student-led movement to open conversation around Israel-Palestine in the Jewish community gaining ground.

Cambridge, MA – Open Hillel, a student-led movement advocating open conversation on the Israel/Palestine conflict within American Jewish institutions, hosted its first conference October 11-13 at Harvard University. Over 300 students, activists, scholars, and Jewish community leaders attended the conference, subtitled “If Not Now, When?”, which featured a broad range of panels, breakouts, and organizing workshops.

“For nearly two years, the Open Hillel campaign has worked to promote open discourse and pluralism in Jewish communities on campus and beyond. This weekend, hundreds of Jewish students and recent grads from across the US and Canada will convene to create the Jewish community that we want to see — and to organize together to create change.” said Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a senior at Harvard University and Open Hillel Internal Coordinator.

Open Hillel seeks to eliminate the political red lines that restrict conversation about Israel/Palestine within diaspora Jewish institutions. Organized primarily by and for students, the conference responds to the needs of a new generation for a grassroots and politically pluralistic Jewish community. The movement arose in response to the “Standards of Partnership” guidelines recently adopted by Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization.

Hillel’s current guidelines exclude groups, events, and speakers who they claim “delegitimize Israel” or support the Palestinian call for political pressure through boycott, divestment, and sanctions. The Open Hillel conference featured prominent speakers who have previously been excluded from campus Hillels and other Jewish institutions for their political positions on Israel. These speakers included philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi, and writer David Harris-Gershon.

The conference also hosted speakers and attendees from a broad range of advocacy groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national organization that has been excluded from Hillels because of its critique of the Israeli occupation. According to Mia Warshofsky, a student activist with JVP at University of Central Florida, “This conference showed me that there is still a place for me in the Jewish community. Because of my criticism of Israel’s assault on civilians in Gaza this summer, I have been made to feel unwelcome in my local Jewish community. But I’m inspired to see that there can be space in the Jewish community for young people like me, where my activism is not only accepted but respected and valued.”

In the past year, Hillel student leaders at Swarthmore College, Vassar College, and Wesleyan University announced that they would no longer abide by the exclusionary guidelines enforced by Hillel International.

This unprecedented conference is already sparking healthy debate in the Jewish community, which will only grow livelier as students return to their campuses energized by the Open Hillel conference.