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Standing athwart lies: Why I left Open Hillel

She was an avid proponent of the campus group, but found a wide gap between its rhetoric and its deeds

Those who lie about themselves are not in a position to judge others.

I used to serve as Campus Outreach Co-Coordinator for Open Hillel – an organization committed to abolishing the Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. These standards preclude Hillel branches from partnering with groups that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Besides that, Hillels typically welcome groups on both the left and right ends of the spectrum.

While Open Hillel’s stated aims are open dialogue and inclusiveness—worthy goals—the organization in actuality has something else in mind. The people who claim that Open Hillel’s main objective is to garner support for the BDS movement may not realize just how right they are.

Many Open Hillel leaders have no problem with advocating exclusion and alienation within Open Hillel, even as they preach the virtue of inclusiveness to the Jewish community. While demanding that the pro-Israel community tolerate pro-BDS groups that they find offensive, many Open Hillel leaders are intolerant of pro-Israel voices that they dislike.

This became apparent when I was helping Open Hillel prepare for their first-ever conference at Harvard University. I wanted to invite Dr. Elie Wiesel to be on a panel that I was organizing for the conference. What ensued marked the beginning of my disillusionment with the organization.

Upon hearing that I wished to invite Dr. Wiesel to the conference, several Open Hillel leaders took this as an opportunity to demonize and reject him. They felt that they could not make their point without resorting to name-calling and using curse words against Wiesel. That is not surprising given that making disparaging remarks against Hillel International’s leaders, particularly Mr. Eric Fingerhut, is par for the course in Open Hillel.

To be sure, the organization did invite conservative-leaning groups to their conference. But as I have come to understand, this gesture was made only to have a few token voices in order to legitimize a conference aimed at bashing Israel. As some Open Hillel leaders emphasized to those who did not want to include these voices at all, the main purpose of inviting them was because it was politically necessary, not because they were desired or welcomed.

Then came the ad hoc anti-normalization committee following the conference. In an 8-1 vote, Open Hillel leaders decided—shamefully—to form a committee in order to address the issue of anti-normalization in Open Hillel. The anti-normalization campaign strives to end joint discussions and programs between Jews and Palestinians unless they subscribe to the BDS movement.

Though proponents of the committee said that the goal would be to educate people about the issue and have an open discussion about its role in Open Hillel, the two “experts” they brought to talk about BDS and anti-normalization were both from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). By presenting the topic from only this ideological standpoint, the committee actually indoctrinated people to hate Israel, rather offering a balance of views – from which people could decide for themselves what to believe.

Unaccountably, Open Hillel never decided to publicly announce the formation of this committee, even though it had received a nearly unanimous vote and was holding meetings. Open Hillel leaders claim that they value transparency, and they have even accused Hillel International of not having the level of transparency that would meet their standards. Yet, they choose not to be transparent, themselves.

One can bet that Open Hillel will fire back saying that they are not a pro-BDS group because they have people amongst their ranks who do not support the movement. This comes as a surprise not only to Open Hillel’s critics, but even to their supporters.

As Dr. Sa’ed Atshan, one of the BDS speakers who presented for the anti-normalization committee put it: “I didn’t know that there were people in Open Hillel who weren’t committed to human rights and decolonization. That’s interesting if you strategically have some Liberal Zionists who say they stand for the right of others to speak for the right of anti-Zionists. I appreciate what those people are doing, it’s commendable, but I don’t agree with them – obviously. I’m not sure I would suggest calling for those people to be excommunicated.”

First, it should be recognized that this argument is not a negation of the fact that Open Hillel leaders wish to exclude or restrict pro-Israel voices or that they voted to form an anti-normalization committee. That issue still stands: Most of the people in the organization subscribe to BDS, and many want to advance that as part and parcel of the Open Hillel agenda. Consequently, Open Hillel has become a vessel for the BDS agenda.

In reality, it is yet another way that Open Hillel dishonestly markets itself. The fact is that the few token voices in Open Hillel who are not supportive of BDS remain there because they still think it is unfair to keep out pro-BDS groups. They are well-intentioned and genuinely feel bad that some Jews are unwelcome in their community. As a result, they seem willing to withstand the hypocrisy in Open Hillel.

It is also emblematic of the fact that they do not see the bigger problem of empowering groups like SJP in Hillel. While I agree that the Jewish community should allow different political viewpoints, bringing pro-BDS groups into Hillel will not mean more open dialogue and inclusiveness. From disrupting pro-Israel events to blocking Birthright tables, these groups regularly employ tactics that create a hostile atmosphere for pro-Israel students. They also attempt to restrict freedom of speech for pro-Israel groups on campuses by trying to get their events canceled.

This is not about beliefs. People who advocate the use of the settlement boycott—what is often called ‘Zionist BDS’—are already allowed to speak in Hillel. As an example, Mr. Peter Beinart is a regular guest at many Hillels, and that is a good thing because students should hear different perspectives. But Mr. Beinart and other liberal Zionists are misguided in their support for Open Hillel because they think the group encourages inclusiveness and open dialogue, when it does not.

One thing that liberal Zionists should consider is that there is no evidence indicating that Open Hillel has made a substantial difference in opening the conversation at most Hillels. That progress can instead be attributed to liberal Zionist groups becoming part of the conversation at Hillel. While Hillel is becoming more inclusive of different voices, Open Hillel has fallen into the hands of anti-normalization activists. You do not create open dialogue by empowering people who are against it.

It is hard to feel bad for a group that complains of being alienated when they have joined forces with those who make campuses hostile to many Jewish students. Moreover, it is pretty clear that empowering these groups in a major Jewish institution like Hillel would estrange many more people.

It is understandable why the Jewish community does not want to help fund or sponsor the events of pro-BDS groups — not only because of their hostility to pro-Israel students, but also because of their rhetoric around Zionism. BDS supporters frequently say that Zionists are racists, which in effect means that most people in the Jewish community are racist. For that reason, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism often go hand in hand and should be kept out of Hillel.

The Standards of Partnership exist in order to ensure that the majority of people in the Jewish community feel safe. Open Hillel, in its refusal to acknowledge why the standards are there in the first place, continues to promote the inclusion of groups whose actions are a threat to a viable and cohesive community.

Likewise, the group Safe Hillel creates similar problems that are a threat to the Jewish community. While they support the Standards of Partnership, they condemn Hillel for including liberal Zionist groups like J Street U, even though these groups comport with Hillel’s standards and help fight BDS on campuses.

To make matters worse, one of the leaders of Safe Hillel at Boston University (BU) has marginalized members of the student board of Hillel who recently made a democratic decision to admit J Street U. He has bullied Hillel professionals on social media and vilified them as “pro-war” for supporting J Street. He also claimed in an article that BU Hillel was ruining the Jewish community and decried Hillel’s focus on interfaith dialogue. Some students have reached out to me and say that they feel unsafe, owing to his recent actions.

With such leaders, Safe Hillel has obviously not done anything to benefit the Jewish community. On the other hand, Open Hillel pretends to support open dialogue and inclusiveness while many of its leaders and the groups it wants to be included do not. Both groups have cultivated animosities in the Jewish community. Continuing to embrace the Standards of Partnership, which balance the principles of inclusiveness and support for Israel, is the best choice for Hillel.

About the Author
Holly Bicerano is a student in the BA/MA Program at Boston University. She is pursuing an MA in Economics and a BA with a double concentration in Economics and Middle East and North Africa Studies. Her foreign language studies include Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish. She has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey.
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