Open Hillel Conference Creates a Space “Without Red Lines”

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Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Open Hillel held its first conference, “If Not Now, When?”, last week at Harvard University. Running from October 11-13, the conference featured panel discussions, breakout sessions, and addresses from speakers including Judith Butler and David Harris-Gershon. More than 350 people registered for the conference, with more arriving at the door.

Open Hillel made headlines at Swarthmore, The New York Times and in other national media after Swarthmore Hillel declared themselves last year. So far, three colleges – Swarthmore, Vassar, and Wesleyan – have declared themselves Open Hillels, announcing that they will no longer abide by Hillel International’s restrictions regarding speakers who ““delegitimize” Israel. Open Hillel’s website says that their goal is to build a community where “vigorous discussion, respectful debate, and free discourse are the norm,” and this conference is a model of what that community might look like.

Amelia Dornbush ‘15, Open Hillel’s finance coordinator, was one of the students who organized the conference. Dornbush had a number of roles at the conference, from arranging travel stipends for students attending the conference to facilitating a panel between two former IDF soldiers.

Dornbush said that “it can feel very isolating to have politics that don’t conform with what the established Jewish community thinks your politics should conform with.” She also said that being in a space with people who share your politics, or are willing to listen to your views even if they disagree, “was something that was new and was really powerful for people.” This conference, according to one attendee, created space where attendees could “be Jewish without having to check your political values at the door.”

Due to Hillel International’s policies, Dornbush said, students who have differing views often feel “not as welcome or not as Jewish.”  Open Hillel, on the other hand, is able to create a space “where you can have a conversation without red lines.”

Joshua Wolfsun ‘16, Swarthmore Hillel’s Israel and Palestine Programming Coordinator, attended the conference as both a speaker and a guest. He co-led a panel and a workshop on Open Hillel, speaking about his experiences with Swarthmore Hillel. The panel, titled “What It’s Like to be in Open Hillel,” walked conference attendees through the process of becoming an Open Hillel, and what has happened at Swarthmore since.

In the conference program, Open Hillel stated that the speakers present represent a “wide diversity of political perspectives,” but went on to note that “not every point of view is represented,” partially due to the fact that every right-wing speaker and organizer who was invited declined.

When asked about this limited spectrum of viewpoints, Dornbush said she was not surprised by the right wing community’s lack of response: “The established Jewish community’s reaction to us right now is to ignore us and to ridicule us. Soon it will be to fight us; then we’ll win.”

Wolfsun said that the political spectrum of the conference ranged from “center left to left. Very, very, very left.” The closest the conference came to a right-wing view, he said, was liberal Zionists. Nonetheless, Wolfsun said the conference facilitated “a lot of really fascinating discussions. […] It wasn’t everybody going ‘Yes, you’re right.’” Wolfsun stressed that Open Hillel is willing to include views from the right end of the spectrum: “When we say we’re going open, it’s not just open-left. It’s open. Period.”

There is not yet an official plan to hold another Open Hillel conference according to Dornbush, who shared that she currently finds the idea of planning another conference daunting. “We definitely want to be able to find ways to take that energy and the atmosphere we had all across the country, and be present regularly.” This goal may manifest itself, Dornbush said, in having more conferences, having more campus Hillels declare themselves open, or organizing more speaking events.

“Our goal for the next year is to […] support students on campuses who want to break guidelines,” said Dornbush. She added that every campus Hillel structure is different, but Open Hillel wants Hillel to be for students, by students, and is working to create that system as best they can.

Both Wolfun and Dornbush are hopeful about Open Hillel’s future. Both hope Hillel International will respond to Open Hillel by reconsidering its policies of exclusion. Dornbush shared that after working hard on the conference, “it’s nice to feel like we have momentum. And that we’re winning.”

Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).


  1. Swarthmore Hillel is in a unique position in being funded largely by Swarthmore alumni, who by and large trust our successors’ judgment. Most college Hillels are not in that position–they are reliant on large outside donors with their own agendas. National Hillel is caught between the agendas of right-wing donors, who only want to support “pro-Israel” students, and supporting the independence of student leaders.

    “Open Hillel” may be right for Swarthmore, but that doesn’t make it the right decision for Hillel on other campuses.

  2. What exactly is ‘right wing’ about failing to sympathize with the policy and big-lies of hamas and fatah, neo-nazi movements descended directly from the nazi Haj Amin al Husseini?

    Why would anyone call this ‘right wing’?

  3. It appears that the Swarthmore and other “open Hillels” are not consistent with the national Hillel philosophy, so it is incumbent upon Swarthmore’s “Hillel” to “divest” itself of its name and become affiliated with another organization or become an independent group. The national Hillel organization should insist on this for all of the “Open Hillels”. Students who have views consistent with Hillel’s mission should stay affiliated with Hillel, and those who do not can be part of this new organization, whatever they want to name it.

    From the national Hillel guidelines:
    “Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

    •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;
    •Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;
    •Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility”

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