Interview with Open Hillel Defector Holly Bicerano

Holly Bicerano

Holly Bicerano, a student at Boston University and the former Campus Outreach Co-Coordinator for Open Hillel, made waves in the Jewish world after publishing an op-ed in the Times of Israel called “Standing athwart lies,” explaining why she decided to leave the organization. Chief among her complaints are that, far from promoting true open dialogue and inclusiveness in Jewish spaces, one the organization’s main goals is to foster support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel; that Open Hillel is, ironically, no less guilty than Hillel itself in muzzling voices it does not like; and that it formed an “anti-normalization committee.” New Voices editor Derek Kwait approached Holly shortly after she published her op-ed to find out more.

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You mentioned the nasty language some in the movement had for Dr. Elie Wiesel as being what first made you question the Open Hillel movement. Can you go into a little more detail about what happened from there until you published the op-ed?

The treatment of the issue of inviting Dr. Wiesel to the conference served as a wake-up call for me. But the issue was dropped when I found out that Dr. Wiesel would not be able to make it. At the conference, I moderated the BDS panel with Dr. Sa’ed Atshan of Tufts University and Ms. Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). During the panel, Dr. Atshan proclaimed that all Zionists are racists. While he is entitled to say what he wants, I do not think that welcoming someone like him to berate the Jewish community would benefit us.

After the conference, I began paying attention to what SJP chapters were doing on campuses — that is, harassing and marginalizing pro-Israel students. I gradually realized that the actual effects of Open Hillel’s policies would be to harm and divide the Jewish community. The last straw was when Open Hillel formed the anti-normalization committee. I quit several weeks ago and took time to gather my thoughts before deciding to write an article in the Times of Israel.

How have you “come to understand” that the right-wing leaders were invited to the conference as a token gesture? In the article you say that some organizational leaders emphasized to those who didn’t want them there that they were invited out of political necessity, but is it possible they said that just to placate those people?

I came to understand this because they were only willing to go through with bringing right-wing speakers after lengthy debates about how this would help further their agenda. How can someone who is pro-Israel feel welcome in Open Hillel, given that several organizers want to keep out leading voices in the pro-Israel community? Many people involved with Open Hillel do not want open dialogue. They just want a platform for BDS.

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Was this anti-Israel sentiment a major part of Open Hillel from the beginning, or did it come in later after the movement became more well-known?

It came out later as we were planning the conference.

Besides the “anti-normalization committee” and alleged pro-BDS bias, what else is Open Hillel not transparent about?  

They constantly state that they do not have any political agenda. That is nonsense. As a former steering committee member, I can tell you with absolute certainty that there are several organizers who want anti-normalization to be taught and implemented in Open Hillel. While they chastise Hillel for not wanting to give a platform for BDS, they reject some of the Jewish community’s most illustrious speakers, like Dr. Wiesel.

The recent eavesdropping scandal was noticeably absent in your op-ed. Was that at all a factor in your decision to leave?

I left before that happened.

Are there others in the movement or who have recently left who share your sentiment?

One person left because he did not like the direction that Open Hillel was going in. Another person is planning on leaving soon because he shares some of the same sentiments as I do.

What do you see as the future for Open Hillel?

I do not think much is going to change. They will certainly continue to attack Hillel International, but with little success. I do see hope for change among liberal Zionists, like those in J Street who have been supporting Open Hillel. I believe it is incumbent on Mr. Peter Beinart, who has become the patron saint of liberal Zionism, to renounce his support for Open Hillel.

Would you continue to support Open Hillel if it did a better job of living up to its stated ideals?

There is a curious paradox about Open Hillel. On one hand, they claim that they want open dialogue. On the other hand, many of them belong to organizations like JVP and SJP. These groups regularly disrupt pro-Israel events, try to cancel pro-Israel speakers on campuses, and use guerrilla tactics such as obstructing Birthright tables. That is why there is no way that Open Hillel can live up to their ostensible principles.

Your point about how there is no evidence that Open Hillel has made any substantial difference came to mind when I read the press release they sent less than 24 hours after your announcement, with the headline, “Hillel International’s policies are crumbling” because of events that are not at Open Hillels. I am curious to know your thoughts on this.

It is dishonest advertising. They mention the fact that a J Street U chapter brought Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights to speak in Hillel at the University of Michigan. But supporting the settlement boycott, as he does, does not violate the Standards of Partnership. What does actually violate the standards is support for the BDS movement against Israel, which Ascherman opposes. 

 

Have your thoughts on the Conflict changed along with your feelings towards Open Hillel?

It depends on the issue. My views on BDS have changed immensely. I try to portray Israel in a more positive light now to counter those who demonize and delegitimize it. I also criticize Palestinian actions more often. I am still against the illegal settlement enterprise, home demolitions, and the occupation. 

 

Have any misconceptions arisen around your leaving that you would like to clarify?

Some people believe that I had a sudden change of heart. But I actually quit Open Hillel several weeks ago after months of fighting against anti-normalization and censorship within Open Hillel. I want people to understand that it was a gradual process based on rational considerations.
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  1. Former Open Hillel Leader Denounces Movement | The Tower - December 18, 2014

    […] who previously served as Open Hillel’s Campus Outreach Co-Coordinator, made the remarks in an interview with the Jewish online magazine New Voices. She had previously announced that she was quitting the […]

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