Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies
Identity, Israel

Why I joined Open Hillel’s Academic Council

[icon-box icon=location] See all 55 members of Open Hillel’s Academic Council on their website.
[/icon-box]I think the easiest was to answer this is with three words: “freedom of speech.” University campuses are constantly under threat from special interest groups that seek to set up shop in our midst. If universities cease to be bastions of free inquiry, of seeking answers to difficult questions, and of searching for truth, society fragments. When this happens, each special interest group possesses its own set of half-truths that, more often than not, fester in their own resentment.
Perhaps nowhere is this on clearer display than when it comes to campus discourses surrounding “Israel/Palestine.” In a democracy, one simply cannot control discourses on campus based on ideology. This hasn’t worked historically, nor will it work in the present. Students need to discuss Israel with one another and in a way that does not have “standing with” as its default position. There are many views and perspectives on Israel that need to be addressed. Zionism, pace many American Jewish leaders, is not a “one size fits all.” Instead, Zionism consists of a myriad of conflicting and contested voices. Jewish students need to figure out—of their own volition and their own searching—where their own voices fit into a much larger conversation.
To be clear: Open Hillel is not about me, my scholarship, or my political commitments. All of these are irrelevant. It is about students. Young Jews need a place where they can articulate their own ideas and not just parrot back what they have been told by adults and their institutions. Young Jews need a place where they can talk to young Muslims over a cup of coffee and not worry about censure. Young Jews need a place where they can hear lectures from people supportive and critical of Israel, and make up their own minds. If they only hear one side of these issues, we have failed them in our capacities as academics and as Jewish leaders.
There has to be a space to express all these views and voices. I see Open Hillel as becoming such a space. Because it is a new organization that challenges the status quo, it will probably be accused by that very status quo of all sorts of things. It is worth underscoring that Open Hillel is not pro-BDS nor anti-Israel. Though, again, it will probably be accused of being both. I would not have joined the Academic Council of Open Hillel were either of these the case. I agreed to join to help strengthen and empower a plurality of Jewish voices on campus.
Universities are not places of sloganeering, but of ideas. Ideas, however, can be powerful and life-altering. This scares many, and is most likely the reason why some will be critical of Open Hillel. Young American Jews, however, need to work out what Judaism means to and for them. On their own. Is Israel part of their Judaism? Who knows. For some it will be; for others, not. Some will seek justice in Israel/Palestine. Some will be the leaders of tomorrow. But in order to work their positions out in a non-dogmatic fashion, young Jews need the intellectual and categorical wherewithal to undertake this momentous task. Open Hillel takes a bold initial step in this regard.
Bright young students are the future of this country. Bright young Jews are the future of Judaism. We provide them half-truths at our own peril. There are demagogues peddling half-truths on all sides of the Israel/Palestine discourse, we have to ensure that our students can tell fact from fiction, reality from myth.
As a member of Open Hillel’s Academic Council, I pledge to create a space where Jewish and non-Jewish students can talk about Israel and other matters in a non-threatening, open, and pluralistic environment.

10 thoughts on “Why I joined Open Hillel’s Academic Council

  1. I strongly support Open Hillel and I congratulate all of the professors who have joined the Academic Advisory Board, including the author. However, this concerns me:
    “There are many views and perspectives on Israel that need to be addressed. Zionism, pace many American Jewish leaders, is not a “one size fits all.” Instead, Zionism consists of a myriad of conflicting and contested voices.”
    What about Jews who don’t identify with Zionism, or who think of themselves as anti-Zionists? The formulation here appears to exclude them. I know for a fact that Open Hillel seeks to include non-Zionist voices in the conversation, so it’s disappointing to see the author reinscribing a sort of red line. I hope it was unintentional.

  2. Here’s one problem that Open Hiller fails to address — on far too many campuses the pro-BDS groups harass (usually verbally but sometimes physically) the pro-Israel Jewish students. Rather than encouraging dialogue, they seek to shut down pro-Israel discussion, even that coming from a progressive perspective. So, as long as Open Hillel seeks to provide a welcoming space to legitimize the BDS perspective, while taking no active position on the efforts of pro-BDS groups to intimidate and harass pro-Israel Jews on campuses, then Open Hiller is little more than an exercise in hypocrisy.

  3. The writer of this article should understand the boycott, sanctioning and divestment from Israeli Jewish academics stifles debate and is antithetical to any “Open” debate. The unfortunate reality is inclusion of such racist organizations as “Jewish” Voice for Peace results in the closure of free thought and academic freedom.

  4. The reasoning here is absurd. Campuses are already filled with all the Israel-criticism you could want, from well meaning left-leaning criticism to rabid anti-Israel demonizing and delegitmization of Israel. There is no danger that a Hillel which draws the line at sponsoring or partnering with those who seek Israel’s destruction will somehow fail its students, or insulate them from “the other side of the argument.” If you are anti-Israel, pro-BDS, then by all means support Open Hillel, because what it aims to do, de facto, is diminish the vitality of one of the few places where pro-Israel voices can be cultivated and nurtured. But if you are not anti-Israel, and you are against BDS, then any other reason for supporting Open Hillel is absurd. There’s plenty of free speech all over campus, there’s plenty of Israel criticism all over, including by Jews (in JVP or J-Street). To let Israel haters get a foothold in Hillel is to weaken the pro-Israel voice, and ultimately diminish the vigorous development of opposing points of view. If free speech is what motivates you, then you should aim to strengthen the pro-Israel voices so they can compete properly in the marketplace of ideas.

  5. Open Hillel is filled with antisemites and antizionists. It is a disgusting organization, just like this fringe, far-left, antizionist publication.

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