Let My People Talk: Open Hillel Takes on Jewish Federations

by Yonit Friedman

It was a beautiful day for a protest. The past few days’ rain had subsided and the sky was bright blue. We walked and chatted, playing casual rounds of Jewish geography. As we approached our destination, we raised signs proclaiming our commitment to open, critical dialogue on Israel-Palestine in Jewish spaces. We chanted “let my people talk!” And when security officers prevented us from standing in front of the Jewish Federations General Assembly, we crossed the street and sang “hinei ma tov u ma nayim, shevet achim gam yachad.” How good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity.

The activists of Open Hillel, mostly students, have been working for three years now to push for Jewish communities where those who see the occupation as immoral and un-Jewish are welcome, and where dialogue about Israel/Palestine includes Palestinian voices. For most of those three years, we were met with the same responses. “Sorry, we can’t.” “Sorry, we’ll lose our Federation money if we host that speaker.” Even when higher-ups at Jewish communal organizations did not automatically see those who oppose the occupation as ‘self-hating Jews,’ the comfort of a few wealthy, conservative donors was paramount.

So Open Hillel decided to take on the Federations.  On the same weekend as the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, we organized an alternative Jewish People’s Assembly. We even signed a last-minute contract with the JCC of Washington, DC to hold our gathering. (We weren’t sure whether this location was perfect or ironic, given this particular JCC’s history of censoring those they deemed too critical of Israel.) And we planned a protest to deliver a single demand: that within a month’s time, the Jewish Federations of North America “state clearly and publicly that both the umbrella organization and all local Federations will not condition support for Jewish institutions and organizations on these institutions’ adherence to red lines around Israel, such as Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership.”

Finally the day came. Our crowd was a small but powerful forty people.  We learned Talmudic and secular academic histories of dissent within Jewish communities. And we protested outside the General Assembly, raising signs asking “what are you afraid of?” After chanting, singing, and delivering speeches, we sent Caroline Morganti, Open Hillel’s Internal Coordinator, into the General Assembly to deliver our demand. As she walked in, we continued to sing and cheer.

We expected the Federations to reject our demand. We did not expect Caroline to be escorted off the grounds of the Assembly by two security guards before she could even deliver the demand. This was, to say the least, frustrating. However, this weekend was never really about the Federations. The Jewish People’s Assembly was about asserting the value of our community, a community that supports social justice and open debate. I never expected the Federations, or similarly affiliated groups, to suddenly change their political stances and align with Open Hillel (or If Not Now, or JVP, or even J Street.) Regardless of their response, Open Hillel will continue our work: supporting Jewish students who challenge establishment’s censorship. And we will continue to address Pew-esque questions asking “where are all the young Jews?”  The answer, of course, is “Right outside, asking questions that make you uncomfortable.”

What has changed is the way I feel, right now, typing this reflection on my computer. Over the past several months, doing Jewish anti-occupation work by myself has sometimes made me feel like I was shouting into a void. This community’s validation and support says that our activism is both necessary and Jewish, and makes it possible to keep doing the work.

Had we not shown up, the Jewish Federations General Assembly would have gone on, unchallenged. We did challenge them and will continue to do so, insisting to them and to one another that our non-Zionist/anti-Zionist/liberal-Zionist/diasporist/confused/et cetera Judaism is valid. And we will continue to make a protest song out of Hinei Ma Tov, the song I once sang in my Federation-funded Jewish preschool.