September 18, 2019

The End of Hillel's Monopoly on Campus

“ON ANY GIVEN FRIDAY NIGHT at the Claremont Colleges, between 15 and 20 Jewish students gather to sing wordless melodies, dive into textual study of Talmud or James Baldwin, or hold workshops on antisemitism. The small, independent Jewish group that hosts these gatherings, founded in 2017, is called Nishmat. When a mural at one of the Claremont Colleges honoring the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre was defaced with antisemitic graffiti in December 2018, Nishmat did what few other Jewish groups on campus could: they joined with the Claremont Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Coalition and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to restore the mural and affirm collective solidarity against white supremacy. Though several students affiliated with the campus Hillel also attended, they couldn’t do so in an official capacity, because Hillel International prohibits its chapters and affiliate groups from partnering with groups that support Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), such as SJP. Nishmat, by contrast, puts no such limitations on its members’ political activity or partnership. As co-founder August Kahn told me, Nishmat allows students to show up as their full selves.

Kahn and the other students in Nishmat are affiliated with Judaism On Our Own Terms (JOOOT), a new national network of independent, student-led groups seeking to decentralize campus Jewish life and to build Jewish community without the political limitations and “red lines” that characterize student engagement with campus Hillels. JOOOT, which is an umbrella organization that connects more than a dozen groups across the country, is affiliated with Open Hillel, a national movement formed in 2012 with the stated goal of eliminating “restrictions on discussion and debate” in Jewish institutions. JOOOT organizers have largely found one another through Open Hillel Facebook groups and workshops, and their new network explicitly rejects Hillel International’s standards of partnership, which prohibit Hillel chapters and affiliated student organizations from associating with groups that support the BDS movement.

Open Hillel has grown rapidly since its founding seven years ago, when a group of Jewish students at Harvard University penned an open letter calling for Hillel International to eliminate the standards of partnership after their campus chapter refused to host an event co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee. Since 2012, Open Hillel has convened several national conferences, held organizing workshops, and formed an academic council of over 100 members. Some demonize the organization as antagonistic and bullying for its advocacy work directly challenging Hillel International’s policy. For example The Forward’s Aiden Pink wrote in a November 2014 Tower magazine essay that Open Hillel, “rather than Hillel International . . . are the ones attempting to forcibly impose a monolithic discourse.””

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