The Israel ‘Open Hillel’ Isn’t Willing to Have

Peter Beinart published the following on on 10/14/2014:

“The Israel Conversation American Jewish Leaders Aren’t Willing to Have. “

Don’t ignore or demonize the young American Jews flirting with anti-Zionism. Argue with them.

On Sunday I spoke at the inaugural conference of Open Hillel, a new student organization that, as the name implies, wants to open Hillel—which oversees Jewish life on America’s college campuses—to a broader debate about Israel. It was an invigorating experience, and a strange one. When it comes to Israel, I’m not used to being among the most hawkish people in the room.

Open Hillel has no political agenda beyond facilitating a more open discussion about Israel inside the American Jewish community. So why did the conversation—at least the part I witnessed—have such an anti-Zionist feel?

[One] reason is generational. For the most part, older American Jews don’t question Zionism, even if they don’t like Israel’s policies, because they don’t question the need for a Jewish state of refuge. Generationally, they are close enough to the Holocaust, to the Soviet and Ethiopian emigrations of the 1980s and ’90s, and to personal experiences of anti-Semitism in the United States, to believe that Diaspora Jewish life can be fragile. They may not be able to imagine moving to Israel themselves, but they sleep better knowing it’s there.

For younger American Jews, it’s different. They’ve never seen any significant group of Jews fleeing to Israel to avoid state-sponsored anti-Semitic persecution. And they’ve faced no barriers as a result of being Jewish in the United States. So the Zionism of refuge strikes no chord. As a result, when they grow alienated from Israeli policy—as many of the students at the conference clearly were—they’re more likely to question the entire basis for the state. Unlike their parents, they don’t distinguish between what Israel does and what Israel is.

You say that your meeting with the younger generation of American Jews had an anti-Zionist feel, as opposed to their parents’ generation.  And you attribute this to the older generation’s insecurity.  Problem is, you assume that Israel as is stands is an immoral state, as if the older generation found Israel a necessity so its immorality had to be overlooked.  But really the younger generation – the first in 2,000 years without a persecution complex you say – is justified in its anti-Zionism.  But the truth is that Israel finds itself in a very difficult position, and engages in a great deal of soul-searching in its efforts to be as moral and just as possible when faced with an enemy animated by hatred and destruction.

…But the third reason the conference leaned so far left is the simplest: No one from the right showed up. Conference organizers say that, among others, they invited representatives from AIPAC, Stand With Us, the David Project, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston and, of course, Hillel International—but none came. They almost never do. For years, the American Jewish establishment has dealt with Jews who cross its ideological red lines by either ignoring or vilifying them—but almost never publicly talking to them. To do so, they claim, would legitimize fundamentally illegitimate views.

You say the fundamental reason the conference skewed anti-Zionist is that no one from the right showed up.  But Peter, why can’t you be left and pro-Zionist? Where were they?  How come they didn’t show up?  Could it be that in fact Open Hillel is predominantly anti-Zionist (or leaning that way) and there is no point in engaging them in dialogue, essentially treating them like flat-earthers, or birthers?

In fact you say it yourself – they do not accept the American Jewish establishment – it seems to me that these young American anti Zionists are the ones guilty of deligitimization.  Which makes me question the integrity of their invitations…

That decision is growing ever more self-defeating. The young American Jews at Open Hillel who are flirting with anti-Zionism are not anti-Semites. (Although, of course, some anti-Zionists are). They are merely doing what young people always do: Challenging settled assumptions based on a different life experience. They don’t need the American Jewish establishment’s legitimization; that establishment is illegitimate to them. What they need, in the best Jewish tradition, is to be argued with.

Oy, you turn Jewish tradition on its head! The best of Jewish tradition is not just to argue.  It is to argue with those share certain unassailable foundational principles.  In fact the best of Jewish tradition avoids arguing with those outside the pale.  Jewish tradition does not endorse arguing for its own sake,lishmah.  Calling Jews argumentative is just an anti-Semitic canard, Peter. Come on, you know better!

But I’m not sure the American Jewish establishment knows how. For years, mainstream American Jewish groups have short-circuited discussions about Zionism by accusing its critics of anti-Semitism. They’ve grown so dependent on that rhetorical crutch that they rarely publicly grapple with how Zionism – a movement that privileges one ethnic and religious group – can be reconciled with the pledge in Israel’s declaration of independence to offer “complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of race, religion or sex.” Unlike some at Open Hillel, I don’t believe this tension requires abandoning Zionism or the belief in a democratic Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one. But the students I met on Sunday are asking hard, important questions, and they deserve a communal leadership that responds with ideas rather than silence or slurs.


How to balance a democratic Jewish state is a question as old as the state, if not as old as Judaism itself, and is a question animating much of Israeli policy.  Just as I am sure you care more deeply for your family (Beinartism?) than for society beyond it, yet you try to strike a balance between the two. But fundamentally, unassailably, you are a Beinart with all the unique characteristics (good and bad) a Beinart enjoys.  I wonder how the young Jews of Open Hillel see their uniqueness as Jews and as part of the Jewish collective, and I wonder why they focus so much energy demonizing Israel, a country of fundamentally decent and kind people in a very difficult position.

The Open Hillelites would do well to remember an aphorism of their namesake: “Do not judge another until you are in their position.”

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