Another ‘Open Hillel’
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Another ‘Open Hillel’

Vassar Jewish Union becomes second Hillel-affiliated group to reject foundation's rules governing acceptable Israel-related speech.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

A second college’s Jewish student organization has joined the “Open Hillel” movement, rejecting Hillel International’s guidelines banning partnerships with groups that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

The Vassar Jewish Union announced the decision on its website on Feb. 18, two and a half months after Swarthmore became the first school to repudiate the guidelines. Vassar is located in Poughkeepsie, 90 minutes north of New York City.

“We believe that this policy censors and delegitimizes the diverse range of personal and political opinions held by Jewish students,” the group wrote on their website.

“We believe that Hillel International’s goal to ‘inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israel’ does not represent the diverse opinions of young American Jews,” the statement continues. “We believe that fostering a pluralistic community and supporting all Jewish life on campus cannot be achieved with Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines in place.”

Naomi Dann, VJU’s president told The Jewish Week that her organization aligned itself more closely with the principles of the “Open Hillel” movement than of Hillel International.

“We thought that the values of the Open Hillel movement were already values that we were practicing and we wanted to make a statement,” she said.

Students at Harvard University began the Open Hillel movement in November of 2012 in response to the Hillel International’s guidelines, which were adopted in 2010. In addition to banning partnerships with groups supporting the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, Hillel-affiliated groups are not allowed to partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that “Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel … [or] Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

Harvard student Rachel Sandalow-Ash said she helped start the Open Hillel movement because the guidelines are “counterproductive.”

“Every campus Palestinian group supports BDS. What that means is there can’t be any dialogues with Palestinian groups,” she said in a telephone interview.

She said has been in contact with students from several Hillel-affiliated groups that are considering joining the movement, and that the organization has a core group of a few dozen organizers around the country and a mailing list of several thousand.

Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut responded to Vassar’s announcement by saying in a written statement that while his group agrees “that Hillel should and will always provide students with an open and pluralistic forum where they can explore issues and opinions related to their Jewish identity,” Hillel “will not, however, give a platform to groups or individuals to attack the Jewish people, Jewish values or the Jewish state’s right to exist.”

Sandalow-Ash doesn’t contest Hillel’s right to create guidelines for the groups that use its name or receive funding.
“We’re not challenging what Hillel has a right to do. It can do whatever it wants,” she said. “The question is what it should do. Hillel as the Foundation of Jewish Life on Campus should be a space that nurtures the fostering of Jewish identities. … I think that is the more important value.”

“Cosponsoring something with another group doesn’t mean that you agree with the other group,” she added. “Groups cosponsor events with each other all the time. The Democrats and the Republicans cosponsor events.”

Fingerhut has reached out to Dann and other VJU leaders asking to discuss the issue in person, and Dann said she has agreed.

Meanwhile, a group of Boston University students have started “Safe Hillel” in opposition to the “Open Hillel” movement.
“Hillel should not have to change its mission in order to accommodate those who don’t agree with it,” co-founder Raphael Fils told The Jewish Press.

On its website, the group says that “College campuses allow for debate and open discussion, but Hillel is a place for those that support Israel to feel welcomed and safe on the many campuses that have become anti-Israel.”

amy.jewishweek@gmail.com

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