Berkeley Hillel Urged To Go 'Open' on Israel by Alumni

Petition Pushes Student Group To Reject Pro-Israel Rules

By Hody Nemes

Published February 20, 2014.
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Alumni of UC Berkeley have written an open letter urging Berkeley Hillel to become the latest campus group to join the Open Hillel movement and reject the umbrella group’s pro-Israel guidelines.

The Open Hillel movement supported by the alumni describes itself as “a student-run campaign to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels.” Open Hillel encourages Hillel chapters to reject Hillel International’s Israel guidelines, which prohibit campus Hillels from partnering with clubs and from hosting speakers who “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel,” or deny its right to exist. The guidelines also bar cooperation with anyone who supports boycotts, divestments or sanctions against the Jewish state or who creates “an atmosphere of incivility” on campus.

“We believe that Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership [guidelines on Israel] weaken the organization, alienate Jewish students, and reduce the vibrancy and diversity of the Hillel community,” the alumni wrote in the letter to Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of UC Berkeley Hillel, and Rob Ruby, president of the Hillel’s board of directors.

So far only two campus Hillels have actually signed on to the Open Hillel movement. Vassar College Hillel’s student board voted on Tuesday to repudiate the Hillel International Israel guidelines (in a move uncoordinated with the UC Berkeley alumni). Swarthmore Hillel’s student board had voted to do the same in December in a move that was widely reported and drew loud declarations of praise and condemnation in the Jewish world.

The letter to UC Berkeley Hillel was written handful of recent UC Berkeley alumni currently living in Israel. It has received over 100 signatures from alumni (of a variety of ages) since it was posted online on Tuesday.

“The organizing idea was to rally alumni idea around the idea of Open Hillel – up until now it’s been a student-led initiative,” said Jeremy Elster, a 2012 graduate of UC Berkeley and one of the letter’s authors. “[I]n a school like Berkeley, the alumni do carry a significant political weight.”

Elster and his fellow organizers emphasized that the guidelines were driving Jewish students away from UC Berkeley Hillel. “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,” their letter read.

Elster felt that the guidelines created an unwelcoming atmosphere for those, like him, who held more liberal positions on Israel than many Jewish students.

“It’s really hurtful to be called self-hating, to have comments behind your back,” he said. “For a lot of my friends, after experiencing these kind of attacks, they no longer wanted to engage — and many, many left the building and never returned.”


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