Over the weekend of October 11-13 over 300 young Jews, as well as some Palestinians, convened at Harvard for the inaugural conference of ‘Open Hillel’. Open Hillel is a movement of Jewish students on campuses across the United States to demand that Hillels (campus Jewish organizations) refrain from preventing critical discussion of Palestinian rights from happening amongst Jewish students and the rest of the campus community.
Hillel International, representing over 550 campus Hillels around the world, have guidelines in place that are designed to constrict discussion about Israel. The guidelines prevent Hillels from partnering with organizations or individuals for events that criticize Israel or that call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. In practice, this means that Jewish student groups are unable to host events with Palestinian rights groups, and are unable to bring speakers to campus that cross the “red line.”
We attended the inaugural conference and found it to be exciting, open, and critical. We were taught that asking questions and debating issues were key tenets of the Jewish tradition. We learned that historically, Rabbi Hillel, the namesake for campus Hillels, was an enormous proponent of critical and engaged inquiry, and the ethical imperative of grappling with moral issues through open and thoughtful discussion. In a return to this tradition, at Open Hillel’s conference, two-staters and one-staters; and Zionists, post-Zionists and anti-Zionists came together and voiced their opinions in a respectful manner.
While the movement in the U.S. has already produced three campus Hillels that have declared themselves to be ‘Open Hillels’—and hence ineligible from receiving funding from Hillel International—the movement amongst Canadian Jewish students to ensure that Hillels are a space where all political views on Israel are welcome has yet to come to the surface. That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t activity and a push amongst young Jews in Canada to open up space for these crucial discussions, and voice their opposition to the censorship within mainstream Jewish institutional spaces.
This weekend in Toronto, Independent Jewish Voices-Canada and the United Jewish Peoples’ Order is putting on an event—organized in part by young Jews in Toronto—to engage in open discussion about politics, Jewish identity, and spirituality. It will consist of a full day of workshops on Sunday. On Saturday night, we will open with the ritual of Havdallah led by Rabbi Miriam Margles; this will be followed by the young Jewish-Canadian playwright Daniel Thau-Ellef’s performance of his one-man show, “Good People, Bad Things”. Both events are open to the public and are not restricted to Jews. Tickets can be purchased for both the day of workshops and the play from this link.
One of the workshops on Sunday will be put on by Rachel Deutsch (one of the authors of this piece), a member of Young Jews for Social Justice—a recently emerging group of young Jews in Canada who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice. Rachel will be screening her new film “Against Silence: Conversations with Young Canadian Jews about Israel and Zionism”, which explores both the dynamics of growing up Jewish and learning about Zionism, and the ways that people and communities change. The film will be followed by a discussion that all are welcome to participate in.
Another workshop, “From Hasbara to the ‘New Historians’: Demythologizing Israel and Developing a Critical Perspective”, looks at how the Jewish establishment is completely unwilling to acknowledge the existence of the Palestinian narrative. This narrative has been validated strongly by the Israeli ‘New Historians’, who have used Israeli state archives to essentially re-write Israel’s history to better reflect what actually occurred.
Coming back from the conference, we feel excited by the growing community of North American Jews in pushing for an opening of Jewish institutions and against our government’s unwavering support of Israel. You can see the full program of Doing Jewish Off the Grid on this GoogleDoc. While perhaps the Jewish establishment will predictably respond with more censorship, we hope for change and we will continue to work towards justice and peace using the values instilled in us from a Jewish tradition of ethical and critical inquiry, and the unending pursuit of justice.