In the last century before the common era, Rabbi Hillel, the spiritual head of Jews in Palestine, asked, “If not now, when?” It is one of history’s most pressing ethical and theological questions. The question relates both to the urgency of fulfilling moral obligation and to the study of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
Earlier this month, Open Hillel, a Jewish student organization created to encourage inclusivity and open discourse on issues related to the Israeli occupation, chose his question as the slogan for their first conference at Harvard University. Attended by more than 300 students from across the U.S., the conference was organized to challenge Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, on its policy of silencing dissenting voices on Israel and other hot-button issues. What better way to challenge Hillel than by evoking its eponym?
For many years, the powerful Israel lobby, a group of Jewish and (largely) conservative Christian and U.S.-national-security-related organizations whose main purpose is to ensure untrammeled U.S. support for Israel, regardless of its policies, has overshadowed American Jewish life. However, a convergence of factors, including the spread of alternative media, the rise of the anti-globalization and anti-war movements, the intensification of the occupation and deepening of violence in Israel and Palestine and the emergence of a highly educated and committed progressive activists, is increasingly challenging Israel’s militarized policies and the brand of Jewish identity championed by right-wing Israeli leaders.
Nowhere else is this more evident than in the emerging grass-roots Jewish organizations such as Open Hillel. The new generations of Jewish activists are united in their pursuit of universal justice and commitment to the ethical teachings of Rabbi Hillel, which are officially supported by the organization bearing his name but are in fact tarnished by the ongoing brutality and oppression of the Israeli occupation, open discussion of which Hillel refuses to allow.
The Open Hillel movement seeks to end Hillel’s practice of excluding those with differing political views on Israel. The movement began last year after Hillel chapters at various universities prevented students from inviting speakers critical of Israel, including Israeli and American Jews, to Hillel-sponsored events and in response to attempts to block groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace from joining the organization as members. Some Hillel chapters are refusing to conform to the international organization’s guidelines. For example, chapters at Swarthmore College, Vassar College and Wesleyan University have joined the Open Hillel movement, and affiliated groups such as the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance indicated their plans not to adhere to Hillel’s guidelines.
Pursuing social justice
Founded in 1923 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — the same campus where Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita was recently dehired for anti-Israel tweets — Hillel encourages young adults, according to its website, “to pursue social justice (tikkun olam and tzedek) and connect to their peers and the global Jewish people … [through] participating in life-changing trips and campus initiatives.” However, its primary objective in the last few decades has been the “steadfast commit[ment] to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
The problem is that pursuing social justice also means questioning Israeli policies and its Jewish and democratic character. The recent hostilities in Gaza have made the disparities between Israel’s rhetoric on civilian protection and its indiscriminate actions even more glaring. Hillel now faces an unenviable task: keeping Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians and the occupation separate from its image as a democratic and just country.
Younger generations of American Jews are no less ideologically committed to Israel or Jewish observance than their elders are. But they have an unprecedented access to alternative sources of information — including from Jewish and Israeli sources — that challenge the core message of Hillel and its portrayal of Israel.
The occupation has nearly destroyed the Judaism that once defined the American Jewish experience; Open Hillel is proving a crucial vehicle for its rebirth.
This shift was enabled in part by the spread of the Internet and the unfiltered sources of news it presents — including Israeli Jewish sites such as Haaretz, Btselem, +972 and others that are very difficult for Hillel to discredit. But perhaps equally important, young progressive Jews visit not just Israel. They increasingly visit the occupied territories, seeing life under the Israeli occupation through Palestinian eyes.
In a recent op-ed for Haaretz, journalist and best-selling author Peter Beinart described what happens when younger Jews come face to face with the realities of Israel’s long-term policies in the occupied territories. “When they grow alienated from Israeli policy … they’re more likely to question the entire basis for the state,” he observed. “Unlike their parents, they don’t distinguish between what Israel does and what Israel is."
Open Hillel’s rapid growth mirrors that of Jewish Voices for Peace, a grass-roots organization that advocates for a lasting peace that recognizes the security and self-determination of both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel’s recent assault on Gaza has given the group another boost.
But the atrocities of the Gaza conflict are not the only reason for its growth. It is part of a generational shift in the very fabric of Jewish identity. A growing number of Jewish activists now subscribe to the kind of struggles for fundamental rights that defined Jewish American culture in the civil rights era. (Leading rabbis such as Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and Jewish college students such as Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner literally gave their lives in the fight for racial equality.)
This group, however, is coming into conflict with U.S. Jewish leadership. While average American Jews remain the most liberal group in U.S., the core leadership has moved to the far right on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Criticizing Israel remains taboo, and even the best-known American Jewish intellectuals (Tony Judt, Judith Butler, Tony Kushner and Noam Chomsky, among others) face vitriolic attacks for speaking out against the occupation.
Still, a lot of Jewish organizations oppose the policy choices pushed by the powerful Israel lobby in the U.S. and its allies in the Jewish establishment. “Tikkun, Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, B’tselem and many other voices in the American Jewish community and in Israel have tried to break through the totalitarian hold on American Jewish consciousness,” Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, told me during a recent interview.
While Hillel continues to push forward with its Birthright campaign, which takes young American Jews on highly sanitized tours of Israel (in which the occupation is either avoided or subsumed within an Israeli security discourse that explains away every violation or example of oppression), more and more Jews — including Open Hillel organizers and Birthright veterans — are now engaged in their own “birthleft” experiences in the occupied territories. In the process, these students have developed a commitment to the struggle for the rights of Israel’s great unrecognized other, Palestinians.
A key takeaway from the Harvard conference was, in the words of one organizer, Jewish American leaders’ unwillingness to “sacrifice calling for justice in Palestine to fit into what is normative in the established Jewish community.” This is why the Open Hillel movement is such a threat to Jewish community leaders, those who sold their souls long ago for the privilege of being at the heart of power. If, as Lerner says, the occupation has nearly “destroyed” the Judaism that once defined the American Jewish experience, Open Hillel is proving a crucial vehicle for its rebirth.