On Sunday, Nov. 8, around 50 organizers from Open Hillel protested in Washington, D.C., outside the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in support of a more open discourse on Israel. We asked that the JFNA “not condition [financial] support for Jewish institutions and organizations on these institutions’ adherence to political red lines around Israel.”
We were stopped by JFNA security in our attempt to deliver our full letter to federation officials at the general assembly despite the fact that I, the person delivering it, was a GA attendee. We have emailed the JFNA and have yet to receive a response.
We did this because we believe that honest discussions about the issues that divide us — Israel, first and foremost — are essential to our health as a Jewish community. When everyone has a voice in the communal discourse — from the Zionist Organization of America to AIPAC to J Street to Jewish Voice for Peace — understanding will increase and antagonism toward those with dissenting views will decline.
We also believe that many of our communal leaders share this vision and would be happy to support this goal, if they weren’t beholden for funding from sources that dictate which political views are allowed to be discussed.
This problem is especially visible on college campuses. Three years ago, a Hillel-affiliated student group at Harvard, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, was planning an event at Hillel called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation,” co-sponsored by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee. Combined Jewish Philanthropies (the Jewish Federation of Greater Boston) called Harvard Hillel, saying it would withhold a large chunk of funding because the event violated Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities. This was because the PSC supports boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), even though the event itself was not intended to focus on that topic. Rather than lose financial support, Harvard Hillel told the PJA that it could not hold the event inside Hillel.
Harvard Jewish students responded by creating the Open Hillel campaign to end Hillel’s Standards of Partnership, which prevents dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian students and excludes many young Jews from Jewish campus life. As other students, rabbis, professors, and Jewish community members joined, we’ve asked for Hillel and other pluralistic Jewish organizations to extend their pluralism to Israel. While support for our campaign has increased over the last three years, money is an obstacle that prevents organizations from lifting restrictions on discourse. While we’ve spoken to many Jewish leaders who support welcoming a larger range of viewpoints, these leaders have been unable to do so because allowing a broader conversation on Israel could have significantly hurt their organizations’ funding.
Much of this funding comes from the Jewish Federations of North America, which describes itself as “the central address of North American Jewry,” an umbrella group that funds Jewish life through 450 affiliates. It distributes more than $2 billion each year to Jewish organizations in the United States and Canada.
The JFNA, according to its own mission, should represent all North American Jews and support politically pluralistic Jewish communities. But it enforces a narrow view of how Jews should discuss Israel. Both the JFNA and many local federations currently restrict the organizations that can co-sponsor events and the speakers who are allowed, even on panels with diverse participants.
Meanwhile, many young Jews are increasingly critical of Israeli policy, and may or may not consider themselves Zionists. They should not be told that they can’t ask questions of Jewish leaders and fellow Jews, nor is it reasonable for a community that values a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to disallow engagement with Palestinians, the vast majority of whom support BDS in some form.
Jews should be encouraged to grapple intellectually with all sides of the Israel issue within our Jewish communities, just as we do with God, kashrut and intermarriage. While many people fear that allowing voices outside of these “red lines” will cause the dominant views on Israel to be drowned out, we think that opening the conversation will lead to less shouting, not more. If Jewish organizations — our Hillels, schuls, day schools, and community centers — did not need to worry about losing funding, they could begin this process of engaging with fellow Jews who hold deep disagreements.
While money is necessary for the support of our communal institutions, the people are even more important. The federations need the involvement of Jewish students, professionals and community members, and we would like to help them see how they can better serve all of us. In the coming months, we’ll continue to support all Jews who would like to open our communities to hearing a larger range of opinions, even with the discomfort that may bring. And we’ll continue to ask our federations to do the same.
Caroline Morganti is a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the internal coordinator of Open Hillel.