More than a year ago, Hillel President Eric Fingerhut declared that “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” That statement came in response to the decision by Jewish students at Swarthmore College to open their doors to speakers and groups that oppose Israel’s occupation and those who support the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel.
This past week, Hillel International dramatically changed its position. Hillel International explicitly endorsed an event at Harvard’s Hillel that included a speaker who supported BDS, recognizing that the conversation taking place was part of a critical conversation in the American Jewish community. Open Hillel is proud to see that its campaign has made a positive impact on the nature of discourse at Harvard’s Hillel — and we hope that these types of conversations continue to take place at Hillel’s across the nation.
As Open Hillel has repeatedly emphasized, we do not support BDS — or any other political position. Open Hillel was founded with the sole purpose of advocating for open dialogue at college campuses across the country. The campaign has repeatedly refused to endorse any political positions relating to the Israel and Palestine conflict, and we have assiduously made attempts to engage all different members of the political spectrum. At Open Hillel we believe that only way to resolve the crisis in the Middle East is by resolving the crisis at home: we must respectfully listen to the other side, despite harsh ideological disagreements.
The recent event at Harvard Hillel featured Dorothy Zellner, who participated in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. She also supports BDS.
The event is part of a larger project, organized at the grassroots level, to bring Jewish civil rights veterans to Jewish campus communities across the country. The Freedom Summer vets will be traveling across the country in the coming weeks, sharing their meaningful stories with members of the younger Jewish community. Open Hillel is helping organize this project, because we believe that our generation can learn a tremendous amount from the work of those before us. The 1960’s marked a time of great change and political awareness in the younger American community, and we believe that our generation can gain tremendous insight from learning about that time period.
The recent event at Harvard Hillel proves that Hillel International cares deeply about its students. It knows that the only way forward for the American Jewish community is by listening to the requests of its future leaders who wish to be inspired by some of the true heroes in our community. By opening its doors to speakers and students from all ends of the political spectrum, Hillel has proven that even the most contentious topics should be respectfully discussed and debated within its walls.
Although Hillel International is not yet prepared to have its students engage perhaps one of the most pressing topics, its recent statements appear to be a major step in the right direction. All voices deserve to be represented at Hillel — and it is inspiring to see that our Jewish leadership is finally listening.
Ben Winter is Midwest coordinator for Open Hillel