The Conspiracy

Fallacies and Follies of Open Hillel

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John Adams famously remarked that “facts are stubborn things.” Maybe that is why Open Hillel leaders have closed their eyes to them.

Open Hillel is an organization committed to abolishing Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. These standards preclude Hillel branches from partnering with groups supporting 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.

Their stated aims are open dialogue and inclusiveness, but several leaders promote exclusion and alienation from within the organization and simply want a platform for BDS. While some Open Hillel members supportive of BDS have complained of feeling estranged by Hillel’s support for Israel, they have at the same time joined forces with anti-Israel groups that make campuses hostile to many people in the Jewish community. These groups use belligerent tactics such as ejecting students from their events, disrupting pro-Israel lectures and discussions, obstructing Birthright tables, and petitioning to cancel pro-Israel speakers. Their tactics make many Jewish students feel unwelcome and unsafe on campuses. For this reason, many would recoil at the idea of empowering them by providing them with a platform and funding.

Recently, they became mired in controversy after their anti-normalization committee and other scandalous tidbits were exposed in a blog post I, as a former Campus Outreach Co-Coordinator for Open Hillel, published in the Times of Israel. Those who suggested the committee wanted to convince Open Hillel to subscribe to the anti-normalization campaign, which strives to end joint discussions and programs between Jews and Palestinians unless they support the BDS movement. Awash in doublespeak, the committee called their first discussion an “information/learning session.” Yet, the two people they brought to speak on the matter were both from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group connected to the BDS movement.

Open Hillel’s greatest undoing has been the hypocrisy of its leadership. In an attempt to redeem the beleaguered organization, they have resorted to falsehoods and mischaracterizations.

Naomi Dann, media coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace, quoted in an article in New Voices last week, attempted an excuse for the blatant ideological bias of the anti-normalization committee’s discussion, stating they chose only SJP speakers in order to allow Palestinians to explain what anti-normalization means to them; this could not have been the reason, however, because only one of the speakers was Palestinian. The other was Jewish.

More importantly, even if the committee really did want to invite Palestinian speakers only, it is inherently racist to assume that being Palestinian is a birthmark compelling one to oppose dialogue and Israel’s right to exist, therefore making a balanced discussion of this issue among Palestinians impossible.

Additionally, some organizers have been hoping to assure that Open Hillel’s future events will comport with the campaign’s doctrine and rules. One organizer told me she was considering leaving if Open Hillel continued sponsoring “normalizing” events.

Most Open Hillel leaders have offered nothing more than deceit to back up their hypocritical movement. Rather than rectifying the evident contradiction between open dialogue and anti-normalization existing in their organization, they have chosen to mischaracterize the accusations against them over denying those mischaracterized accusations.

To illustrate, they contended in the article that they never take an official stance on political issues, but that was not the problem they needed to address. Indeed, no matter how many times they say they never made an official statement in support of anti-normalization, the fact remains that they have a committee dedicated to it while several leaders are pushing the organization to adopt it. One cannot stand for open dialogue and also promote a doctrine that is antithetical to it.

It is useful to imagine what might happen if several leaders of a pro-Israel organization supported BDS or, similarly, leaders of a pro-BDS organization opposed BDS. Ideally, the organization would eventually be revealed as a fraud. That is precisely what happened to Open Hillel. While they claim to be championing open dialogue and inclusiveness in the Jewish community, several of their leaders reject these ideals and have ulterior motives. Saying something does not make it so.

A plain and verifiable falsehood one Open Hillel leader uttered in the article is that I “missed the entire discussion on the issue” and “misunderstood the [anti-normalization] committee’s mission.”

That is simply not the case. I participated in much of the discussion on the issue. Furthermore, there can be no doubt that I understood the committee’s stated mission as I was receiving all of their emails and had talked to people who strongly supported the anti-normalization effort.

Indeed, many people trust Open Hillel has lost the debate. Last week, Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut stated that Open Hillel does not have a leg to stand on. The organizers’ response bespeaks an intense desire to smear Mr. Fingerhut. On Facebook, Open Hillel posted an article from Mondoweiss regarding Mr. Fingerhut’s statements. One person commented: “Whom does he serve? My guess is money.” Many Open Hillel founders and organizers agreed and liked the comment. Similar comments are frequently espoused by movement organizers and members.

These types of accusations are unfair. As an organization, Hillel International stands by its principles, and donors committed to these principles give money. That is how every organization runs, including Open Hillel. Still, such sentiments are commonplace there.

Above all, what Open Hillel is calling for is a change in Hillel’s principles. Because Hillel is a private organization, it is not a free speech issue when donors and members do not want to help fund and organize Israel-hating events; rather, it is a brand issue. Furthermore, it is not an open dialogue issue because nobody is barred from attending Hillel events and being part of the conversation.

As Open Hillel organizers have themselves conceded, the Standards of Partnership are written in a broad manner. This flexibility allows broad interpretation by individual Hillels. Some Hillel-affiliated groups choose to have discussions and debates with anti-Israel groups. An individual Hillel ordinarily uses its discretion in deciding what events it will allow. The only thing a Hillel is not allowed to do is partner with these groups and their affiliates because they run athwart of the organization’s principles.

At the heart of the Open Hillel movement is a belief that Hillel should abandon its support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and provide a platform for BDS. They should be honest about what they really want rather than concealing the lies and hypocrisy that characterize their disgraceful organization.


Holly Bicerano is a student at Boston University.

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