In his recent article in the Forward, Jay Michaelson argues that students who feel marginalized by the increasing tendency of right-leaning major Jewish organizations to air only those views which toe their institutional lines should vote with their feet and leave. This works well in theory for institutions like the Jewish Museum, which recanted its invitation to literary theorist Judith Butler to speak about Kafka because of her left-wing views on Israel (which, Michaelson notes, are completely unrelated to the topic she was originally supposed to discuss). Michaelson reasons that if institutions see a significant drop in patronage as protest, they will be forced to change the policies on which views are, and are not, allowed to be aired in regards to Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is one place, however where this doesn’t work — Hillel.
As a self-described liberal Zionist and active member of my school’s chapter of J Street U, I have been following the Open Hillel debate closely, and am a supporter of creating a more open and constructive dialogue within Hillel about Zionism, Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, despite my disagreement and disappointment with Hillel International’s policies, these policies could never lead me to leave the organization entirely. For Jews on college campuses across the country, Hillel is the focal point of their Jewish communities. While I might study at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I am more active in Columbia’s Hillel: I attend Shabbat services there weekly, am active in Columbia’s J Street U chapter, and am one of the co-presidents of our LGBTQ and ally Jewish student group, both of which are chartered through the Columbia/Barnard Hillel. Hillel provides me with the social, political, and religious avenues I need to remain an actively engaged Jew on campus.
In other words, leaving Hillel would mean disengaging entirely from my Jewish community, something that I simply refuse to do. It would be less protesting Hillel’s policies as removing myself entirely, not only from the world of pro-Israel activism, but from every aspect of my pro-Israel and Jewish engagement. I am not ready to give everything up simply because I disagree with Hillel’s policies. Therefore, my only choice is to work with Hillel as it is to create the change I want to see, to open up the organization from the inside.
Creating an open dialogue about Israel and Zionism will not happen when those of us who feel disenfranchised pick up and leave at the slightest hint of pushback against our beliefs. Instead, it will only come through our working within the existing framework to incorporate our liberal values into it from the inside. If we leave, not only will the other side—those who seek to delegitimize our views— win, but we’ll also lose our primary outlet for religious engagement on campus, leaving us with few opportunities outside of Hillel to find similar engagement with an even comparable number of resources.
Michaelson is right that something must change, but that change can never be accomplished if we throw our hands up in surrender and leave. Change must come from students working diligently within the Hillel framework to make it an open space for serious dialogue from all sides of the political spectrum. Many students do not have other Jewish communities to fall back upon if they do not feel welcomed at Hillel. For the sake of all Jewish students and lovers and critics of Israel, it is our job to make Hillels as open and accommodating as possible.
Amram Altzman is a student at List College, a joint program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.