Shifting American Jewish Identities



In his much-discussed article in the June 10, 2010, issue of The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis of Zionism” (2012), wrote: “For several decades the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

Beinart’s words have proven to be prophetic. The recent eruption of what is now called the “Open Hillel” movement seems to suggest that a significant number of young American Jews are now checking their Zionism at liberalism’s door; at the very least, these liberal Jewish college students refuse to swallow the party line of the “American Jewish establishment” with regard to Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The back story of the “Open Hillel” movement begins in December, 2010, when Wayne Firestone, who was the president of Hillel International at that time, promulgated Hillel Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities, which include a section called Standards of Partnership, specifying which speakers and groups local Hillels are permitted to host or co-host and with which campus organizations Hillels are permitted to sponsor events. Strictly verboten are any speakers or groups that “deny the right of Israel to exist…delegitimize, demonize, or supply a double standard to Israel…support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

While such directives might at first glance seem reasonable, in practice they have turned out to be unreasonably restrictive. For example, some wealthy supporters of Hillel in Greater Philadelphia argued that Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika), a group of Israeli soldiers and veterans who bring to the public their criticisms of the occupation, should be considered as enemies of Israel! Similarly, some Hillel organizations felt that they could not show such award-winning Israeli films as “The Gatekeepers” because in this documentary former members of Israel’s national security organization, the Shin-Bet, give voice to their disillusionment with their government’s policies in the territories.

From my perspective, “The Gatekeepers” is by no means anti-Israel; on the contrary, the film bears witness to the openness of Israeli society to internal criticism – an openness which Hillel International should strive to encourage rather than to suppress.

This past December, Swarthmore Hillel chose to defy Hillel International’s policies defining the proper manner with which to conduct on-campus discussions regarding Israel and to declare itself our country’s first “Open Hillel” – no longer bound by International Hillel’s Standards of Partnership, regardless of the consequences. A January 30 blog post on Swarthmore’s website by Isabel Knight quotes the student Hillel Communications Director, Josh Wolfson,’16: “Hillel is not a political organization. We are a cultural and political organization and one of the things that the Standards of Partnership does is to make us implicitly take a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our mission is to serve the Swarthmore Jewish community. Period.”

Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International since August, 2013, responded by letter to Swarthmore Hillel that “This position is unacceptable.” However, now that Jewish students at Vassar have gone “Open Hillel” as of this past February 18 and now that alumni of UC Berkley are urging their Hillel to go “Open Hillel,” one would hope that Fingerhut might consider taking a more flexible position.

Indeed, Knight reports in her blog post that “Fingerhut called for a review of the Hillel Standards of Partnership at a panel on January 12 at UCLA. He stated that the standards needed to be updated or modernized.” In the January 17 issue of the Forward, Fingerhut is quoted as saying, “I love the debate. I love the dialogue.” Whether Fingerhut is merely talking the talk or is actually willing to walk the walk remains to be seen.

It seems to me that Hillel International made a major miscalculation when this past November it chose to join forces with AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) on America’s college campuses. AIPAC most certainly does not speak for all American Jews on the subject of Israel; indeed, it could be argued that AIPAC does not speak for the majority of American Jews. By implying that AIPAC represents mainstream American Zionism and that the 180,000 supporters of J Street or the 50 plus campuses that host J Street U are some kind of aberration, Hillel International, albeit unintentionally, is sowing seeds of division among Jewish college students.

Hillel International is, of course, a private institution, and it is entitled to make whatever rules and policies for its members that it chooses. However, if Hillel International wants to be the “Jewish address” on our college campuses, I urge their leadership to open up their Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities to “open Hillel.” We are now living in a time and place of shifting Jewish identities; this is especially true with regard to how young American Jews experience their relationship with Israel. If Hillel International wants to encourage young American Jews to enter Zionism’s door, it should make sure that our students can bring their robust liberalism with them. As Bob Dylan sang to the world back in 1965, “The times they are a-changin’.”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG ( is the rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington.