A passionate intensity

Stop anybody on the street in China and ask her what the world’s leading university is and you can bet she’ll say, “Harvard.” She’s misinformed. Harvard isn’t even number one in America—-U.S. News & World Report has anointed Princeton number one. But let that go. Whatever happens at Harvard is still worth paying attention to. And this probably includes the first national conference of the “Open Hillel” movement which brought hundreds of excited, happy, mainly young Jews together at the all-purpose Student Organization Center here last week for three days of lectures, breakout sessions, hugs, felafel and planning. They came not only from Harvard but around the country rallying to the cry: “If Not Now, When?”

Hillel of course is the oldest and biggest network of Jewish student clubs. Open Hillel is the campaign to update Hillel International’s adult leadership’s guidelines by expanding the range of kosher viewpoints and activities to include anti-Zionism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. The work began at Harvard two years ago when the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a member group at Hillel, wanted to co-sponsor an event in the Hillel building with the university’s Palestine Solidarity Committee and was refused due to the PSC’s advocating BDS. One month later Open Hillel had a website up. And today there are three Hillels where anti-Zionists and BDSers are welcome not just as individuals but groups—-at Swarthmore, Vassar and Wesleyan.

Excellent schools but not Harvard.

This reporter tried and failed to clone himself. Therefore he missed many breakout sessions including “Philanthropy and Power: How Big Donors Shape the Agenda in the Jewish World;” “Nakba Education Project;” “Sexuality, gender identity & the Jewish community;” “Ethics and Militarism in Israel/Palestine;” “Intersection of Islamophobia, Anti-Arab Racism and Israeli politics;” and “Deception or Oversight? The Problem with Israel Education in American Jewish Institutions.” He did go to others, however, and all the big speeches, of which the two biggest were delivered by Judith Butler and Rashid Khalidi.

Butler is a professor at Berkeley and a pioneer of queer theory. She was disinvited earlier this year from speaking on Kafka at the Jewish Museum of New York due to her enthusiasm for BDS and her anti-Zionism and now was listened to by an SRO audience as she praised the organizers for their courage. You need courage to risk ostracism, risk alienating your family and friends, risk being called anti-Semitic, she said, speaking from experience. But more important is justice and exposing Zionism/Israel as “colonizing projects” which generate true anti-Semitism. The audience was rapt.

She was followed at the mike by Steven Cohen, a Zionist, a dual citizen of Israel and the Upper West Side of New York, a professor at Hebrew Union College and one of the demographers behind last year’s Pew Research Center’s X-ray of American Jewry. No, you actually don’t have to be particularly brave these days to come out for Open Hillel, he said. To which Butler responded that you certainly do, you put yourself in danger of losing your funding and your job. The room approved—-whooping sounds, finger-snapping.

If anything, Khalidi went down even better. Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia, he earlier this year was invited to speak by students at Manhattan’s Ramaz prep school and disinvited by the headmaster, again due to BDS. Khalidi praised Open Hillel as well. The U.S. is where the “narrative” and “discursive” battles over Israel/Palestine are being fought, and the campuses are Ground Zero. It’s here where a more “open-minded” generation of American Jews is forging itself who’ll replace their elders who until now have kept the media and politicians in chains. It will take time to see results but it’s happening. Meanwhile, BDS is a “beautiful tactic,” not least thanks to its nonviolence. A standing ovation for Professor Khalid.


Spearheading the Open Hillel campaign are young women. Take for example Naomi Dann, Vassar class of ’14. Face-to-face she explained how and why the Vassar Jewish Union, formerly affiliated with Hillel International, opened its tent to all and lost its affiliation. “I and the rest of us were frustrated that other students thought that just because we were Jewish we supported everything Israel did or were Zionists,” she said. “We especially didn’t want people of color thinking that.”

So a statement was drawn up and shown to Hillel International whose representatives came to try and change minds and failed. It was then the students voted to ditch the red lines. They could only do it because as a small chapter they’re student-run without on-site supervision from Hillel professionals and because funding comes from Vassar. The same deal at Swarthmore and Wesleyan. Looking ahead, she said, the smaller, student-run chapters across the country will be easy to open up, while the big ones with 24/7 Hillel International presence and at the mercy of heavyweight donors, like Harvard Hillel, will be harder but not impossible. The key will be either getting at those donors via their children or finding countervailing deep pockets.

Naomi went to public school in Portland, Oregon. She majored in Peace and Justice Studies at Vassar and has been in Palestine/Israel to see the occupation and meet Palestinian and Israeli activists. One state? Two states? Not for her to decide, but as an American taxpayer she doesn’t want her dollars arming the IDF. Is she a pacifist? Yes, in all situations except when it comes to resisting occupation.


She didn’t attend the breakout with Cohen and Sarah Anne Minkin on intermarriage and demographics but this reporter did. Minkin is a feminist sociologist who reminded the audience how when they arrived at college they learned for the first time that Israel might not be a light unto the nations. If they then participated in a Birthright trip, they were propagandized to toe the Zionist line and not sleep with, marry or have children with non-Jews. A classic nationalist project, in other words, obsessing over continuity and drafting women for their reproductive function. No wonder so many educated, thinking Jews are so turned off that for all intents and purposes they cease being Jews. Well, Open Hillel is the way to say no to all that while remaining Jewish.

Exceptionally among the Open Hillel speakers Cohen displayed a sense of humor. “You don’t have to move to Israel! Make aliyah from California to New York City!” His point being that while no single intermarriage is to be deplored, over time intermarriage combined with a low birthrate shrinks and weakens the non-Orthodox community. That’s the reason why Hillel International believes it’s as destructive as BDS. And while he won’t go farther than to say BDS “isn’t helpful in bringing peace to the Palestinians and Israelis,” he said he’s unhappy about the latest national rate of intermarriage among the non-Orthodox of no less than 71 per cent and a birthrate per non-Orthodox woman of far less than the magic 2.1 needed to replace her and a Jewish male whether in pajamas or not. He’s a liberal, Cohen is, a Reform Jew married to Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue. Yet he asked the young women in the room if they might not want to be mindful not only of their self-actualization but, yes, of their obligation to the future and the collective.

They’d laughed in spite of themselves at his earlier joke but at this they rolled their eyes.


So were there any other Zionists at this convention? Meaning people who believe there should be a Jewish state of any size or shape at the eastern end of the Mediterranean? Taking a page from Diogenes’s book your reporter went looking. He buttonholed young and old, and did find a handful, none among the old, a few among the young, mainly connected to J Street U, the collegiate arm of J Street. There may have been more. But the lion’s share and then some of those cornered either fully professed the “one-state solution” or leaned that way, since it’s morally unacceptable to privilege one ethnic group over another. The organizers believably claim that half a dozen “right-wing Zionists” were invited to speak and declined. Leaving only the above-mentioned Professor Cohen plus J Street U director Sarah Turbow and Peter Beinart to speak and be listened to without any whooping, finger-snapping or interruption. Turbow said that the last round of peace talks collapsed over the settlement issue. Beinart agreed and blamed the Palestinians too. As for BDS and binationalism, he wasn’t buying. If you strip away the verbiage you’ll understand BDS doesn’t stop with the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem but aims to replace the Jewish state with something otherworldly—-a binational state he baptized “Israelstine.” A master of understatement, he declared that binational and multinational states have a poor record in the Middle East.


A packed house for “Mississippi to Jerusalem.” Three grizzled, self-described Red Diaper Babies held the unwrinkled in thrall as they evoked being hassled, arrested, threatened and shot at registering blacks to vote in the Deep South half a century ago. Marx tells us history repeats itself. The struggle for racial equality and the response of Southern Jewish communities to the civil rights movement is being reprised now in the struggle for Palestinian rights and the disgraceful response of an American Jewish establishment riddled with PEPs—-“Progressives Except on Palestine.” But according to Dorothy Zellner the turnout for this conference proved the genie was out of the bottle. “You guys are going to win,” she forecast, choking back tears. “You’ll be abused, you’ll be called names, you’ll be spat on, but you’re going to win. And you know how you’ll know that you’re winning? You’ll know because the Dershowitzes will get more and more hysterical.”


The convention was nearing its end when a Mariachi band in sombreros invaded the Student Organization Center. No, wait, they were booked for a different meeting. Anyway, before the closing event we grabbed Professor Cohen. If he’s a Zionist and considers BDS at the very least unhelpful what was he doing here? Well, he shares a bit of common ground with what he called “this crowd”—-he’s worried by the moral and security costs of the settlements, for example. And if Pew revealed that many young American Jews are apathetic when it comes to Israel, at least this crowd is passionate. Better passion than indifference, right? You never know how it may transmute unless you engage it.

And the closing session was passionate indeed. Everybody was told to agitate, educate, organize, open up more and more Hillels. Group photos were taken, and then the hundreds of young fanned back out across Harvard and the country persuaded they’d done something awesome and are on the way to something more awesome still.

Yamim yagidu—-time will tell.

About the Author
Edward Grossman teaches Chinese teenagers English. His journalism and fiction has been published in English, French, German, Russian, Swedish, Hebrew, Japanese and Chinese.