Open Hillel Launches First Conference
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Open Hillel Launches First Conference

Group against Hillel International’s ban on pro-BDS organizations promises diversity of viewpoints at three-day event.

Open Hillel, which began two years ago in response to Harvard Hillel’s refusal to host a conference entitled “Jewish Voices Against Israel and the Occupation,” will be holding its first national conference next month at Harvard University.

According to Hillel International’s “Guideline’s for Campus Israel Activities,” the organization will not invite speakers or organizations who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state or support BDS against Israel, among other similar criteria. Open Hillel hopes to change that.

“The goal is to provide a space for voices that have been excluded from Jewish institutions,” said the group’s communications coordinator Emily Unger in an interview last month.

Organizers aim to include views across the political spectrum from speakers such as Indiana University Jewish studies professor Shaul Magid, queer-theorist Judith Butler and writer David Harris-Gershon.

The latter two have been previously banned from speaking at other institutions because of their support for BDS.

Conference topics will include a one- versus two-state solution, the history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and issues regarding Gaza and Jerusalem in light of possible outcomes.

Earlier this year, the Hillels at Vassar and Swarthmore decided to reject Hillel International’s guidelines, officially becoming “Open Hillels.” Many students, especially those at universities that now support Open Hillel, view Hillel as a haven from a constant barrage of anti-Israel attacks, and sense that a change in the Hillel guidelines may jeopardize that, prompting the “Safe Hillel” movement.

In a previous interview with the Jewish Week at the end of last year, Hillel International president Eric Fingerhut noted, “[Hillel is] a particular target that [anti-Israel groups] want to impact. We are always improving our professional skills on how to balance the two elements of the guidelines, encouraging robust debate, but also drawing a line.”

More than 60 speakers are slated to speak at the upcoming conference, which will also cover broader topics such as American Jewish social justice, Judaism and sexuality/gender identity, and intermarriage.

The conference is being fully funded by a crowd-sourcing fundraiser, which the organization believes aligns well with the grassroots nature of its group. The fundraiser website shows that $13,000 have already been collected; the goal is $18,000.

“We want to get all these people with different perspectives in a room together to talk about these different issues and have it be a wide dialogue rather than the more narrow discourse that usually exists in other Jewish institutions,” said Unger.

As of August, more than 150 people had pre-registered for the conference, Unger said.

The conference will take place Oct. 11-13.

editor@jewishweek.org

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