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Shame on Hillel for Shunning Civil Rights Veterans

In 1964, Queens College student Mark Levy – one of the four authors of this piece – traveled to Meridian, Mississippi with the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, registering African Americans to vote. When he tried to go to synagogue in Meridian, before he ascended the stairs outside, a representative of the synagogue came out and yelled, “Go away. You are not wanted here!”

Over 50 years later, many American Jews celebrate the history of Jews in the Civil Rights movement. Amidst celebrations of our work, again we are hearing the message, “Go away. You are not wanted here!”

Let’s take a step back. Last October, we were honored to speak to a diverse group of 350 passionate Jewish students and recent college graduates at the Open Hillel conference, which featured panels and discussions on topics ranging from race, gender, and sexuality in the Jewish community to potential solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are honored that since the conference, Hillel students around the country, from Boston to Chicago to North Carolina, have invited us to continue these conversations in their Jewish communities on campus.

Both we and the students who have invited us to speak feel that it’s crucial for older activists to share lessons from the Civil Rights movement – a time when we ourselves were student organizers. All too often, the Jewish community is divided not just by religious and political ideologies, but also by age. We see these conversations with Jewish students on campus as a key way to build connections between Jews of different generations.

We, four veterans of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, view our activism as rooted in Jewish values. We worked in the Deep South and put our lives in danger to stand in solidarity with African-Americans who were risking everything to overcome a system that was preventing them from exercising the civil rights that were theirs by birth. We are proud that Jewish tradition teaches that Jews must pursue justice, and we are proud that the Jewish people venerate sages such as Hillel who said that the entire Torah can be summed up in the phrase “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” We have learned from history that the Jewish people will never be free and secure unless all people are free and secure.

Our Jewish values and experiences in the Civil Rights Movement have propelled us to dedicate our lives to pursuing just and equitable societies. The recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement protesting racist police violence shows the continued need for people of all ages and all backgrounds to take a stand against racism and injustice in our local and national communities.

While we have largely focused our activism in the United States, we also believe that as Jews we have a special relationship with the state of Israel. We are all committed to achieving peace, security, and full democratic rights for all the people of Israel and the Palestinian territories it controls, yet we differ on how best to achieve these goals. We welcome our differences, and believe that vigorous debate around this issue – and all others – is a key step towards achieving justice.

In late February, one of us – Dorothy Zellner – spoke on an interfaith panel at Harvard Hillel, where she discussed both her work organizing for racial justice in the United States and her work organizing for Palestinian human rights in Israel/Palestine. This event was well-received by Harvard Hillel students and staff alike. However, to our great dismay, Hillel International, the parent organization for Jewish students on campus, has blocked us from coming to every subsequent campus Hillel where students have invited us to speak. Again and again, Hillel has utilized its exclusionary Standards of Partnership, which bar individuals and organizations deemed too critical of Israel, to prevent its own students from bringing holding conversations on deeply topical and important issues in their Jewish campus communities.

Hillel International has recently issued a list of “approved” veterans of the civil rights movement that they will allow to speak to Hillel chapters. We are not on that list.

Most recently, Hillel International threatened to sue Swarthmore over Swarthmore Hillel’s students’ plans to bring us to speak on campus, leading the Swarthmore Jewish community to disaffiliate under threat of lawsuit.

Because they knew that opinions that have value come only from debate and discussion, our Jewish sages included in the Talmud differing and contradictory commentaries on each question posed. Indeed, Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut recognizes the importance of Jewish pluralism in rhetoric, professing an “obligation” to “build the Jewish future by welcoming, engaging, inspiring and supporting Jewish students of all backgrounds.” Jewish students are engaged in higher education to gain knowledge and to form their own opinions. They have a right to expect that the institutions that serve them – including Hillel – will provide them with opportunities to hear differing and contradictory opinions so that they might form their own.

Instead, Hillel International has chosen to censor what Hillel students can hear, a choice that demeans Hillel’s own constituents. Rather than supporting Jewish students in designing relevant and engaging programming, Hillel threatened to sue students for daring to talk about issues deemed too controversial. Hillel is forcing students to decide between thinking critically about justice and equality for all people, on the one hand, and being a part of the Jewish community, on the other.

Shame on Hillel International and congratulations to the students who have formed Open Hillel to challenge Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership and attempt to save Hillel International from itself.

The writers are all veterans of the civil rights movement.


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