Harvard hosts Open Hillel’s first-ever conference

Harvard hosts Open Hillel’s first-ever conference

Judith Butler, flanked by Steven M. Cohen (left) and David Harris-Gershon, makes a point during the inaugural Open Hillel conference at Harvard University. (Photo by Gili Getz)
Judith Butler, flanked by Steven M. Cohen (left) and David Harris-Gershon, makes a point during the inaugural Open Hillel conference at Harvard University. (Photo by Gili Getz)

Open Hillel, which surged into national headlines last year as student opposition to Hillel International’s guidelines on Israel, held its inaugural national conference last weekend at Harvard University.

Some 350 people attended the two-day conference, which included lectures, panels and workshops on topics such as “Israel/Palestine Politics of College Campuses,” “Race in the American Jewish Community,” “Intermarriage: Good, Bad or Neutral for the Jewish People?” and “Philanthropy and Power: How Big Donors Shape the Agenda in the Jewish World.”

Open Hillel was formed to push Hillel International to abolish its rules that prevent campus Hillels from collaborating with people or groups that it says delegitimize the Jewish state or support efforts of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeted at Israel.

The Hillels at Swarthmore College, Vassar College and Wesleyan University have declared themselves Open Hillels and said they would not conform to Hillel International’s guidelines.

Although the movement has yet to take hold at Pittsburgh-area schools, two Pittsburghers were featured speakers at the conference: David Harris-Gershon, an author and blogger who teaches at Community Day School; and Derek Kwait, a South Hills native who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and once

interned and blogged for The Chronicle.

Kwait lives in New York City and is the editor-in-chief of New Voices, an independent, nonprofit national magazine written and published by and for Jewish college students. Harris-Gershon was the subject of a national controversy earlier this year when his invitations to speak at the Santa Barbara Hillel and the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center were revoked because of his stance in favor of BDS.

Harris-Gershon declined to speak for this article. Kwait described the Open Hillel conference as “a broad coalition of leftists, but not entirely diverse.”

There was no official representation of any organizations on the political right, he said, adding that he did not know how much effort was made in soliciting speakers from that perspective.

“But if I went there as a rightist, I would think the [Open Hillel] movement was not for me,” he said. “There was rhetoric against pretty much every right-wing position.”

Kwait moderated a panel entitled “The Media and the Israel/Palestine Conflict” with panelists Suhad Babaa, director of programming at Just Vision, an organization that works to increase media coverage and support of Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders working for a solution to the conflict through nonviolent means, and Alex Kane, a graduate journalism student at New York University who has served as editor of Mondoweiss and Alternet.

The panel was originally intended to present a broader range of perspectives, according to Kwait, but some of the prospective speakers ultimately declined to sit on the panel.

The number of students in attendance at the conference was “impressive,” Kwait said, adding that he would anticipate even larger draws at future events.

“I think this is something Jewish organizations should take seriously,” he said. “This concept is not going anywhere, and it’s only getting bigger.”

Students at non-Open Hillel campuses say the new movement does have people talking.

“People definitely talk about the issues Open Hillel brings up,” said Benjy Cannon, a University of Maryland senior and national board president of J Street U, a dovish pro-Israel student group.

Those issues include broadening the discussion about Israel within Hillel’s walls, something that will not happen with Hillel’s guidelines in place, said Caroline Morganti, a junior at MIT and a member of both MIT Hillel and the Open Hillel steering committee.

She said Hillel’s policy hinders students’ ability to have the open dialogue they desire about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Being prevented from hosting people of different views prevents students from hearing the complete discussion.

Hillel International spokesman Noam Neusner said his organization remains firm in its stance on the guidelines and has received overwhelming support for them. Hillel is open already and recognizes there is going to be a plurality of views, Neusner said. But Hillel is pro-Israel, and any affiliation with anti-Israel organizations will not be tolerated.

Mil Dranoff, a Washington-area resident who attended last weekend’s conference, is bothered by that position. “The fact that we [Hillel] can’t have a panel of speakers with different views is highly problematic, especially in the academic setting.” The fact that “any affiliation with anti-Israel organizations will not be tolerated” is a “cop out” according to Dranoff, who believes that “Hillel needs to open its doors to a diverse view on Israel.”

An array of organizations had tables at the event. They included educational institutions such as Hebrew College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, dovish advocacy groups such as J Street U and the New Israel Fund, and groups more sharply critical of Israel, such as Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Students and activists affiliated with Jewish Voice for Peace had a strong showing.

So, too, did students who are explicitly Zionist and personally oppose BDS efforts but disagree with Hillel’s partnership rules.

Among them was Josh Wolfsun, a Swarthmore junior, who helped draft and promote the declaration that his campus would house the first Open Hillel.

“I don’t violate any of the Standards of Partnership,” Wolfsun said. “But … a lot of it was Jewish friends of mine who weren’t part of Swarthmore Hillel because they felt that the views that Hillel was drawing a line around and saying ‘these are OK’ didn’t include their views.”

Whether Open Hillel will influence Hillel International in any way is unclear. Morganti is pragmatic. “We think that even if the guidelines don’t change immediately, we want people to take a serious look at them to see if they are hindering dialogue,” she said.

JTA contributed to this article.

Julian Sadur is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer. Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.