UC Berkeley alumni urge Berkeley Hillel to welcome more views on Israel policy

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letter signed by 129 alumni urges Berkeley Hillel to welcome more views on Israel, asking that the Jewish student center on campus become an “Open Hillel” and reject some of the standards upheld by the organization’s leadership.

Berkeley Hillel is a center for Jewish students at UC Berkeley and a chapter of the larger foundation Hillel International. Though the alumni letter sent last week recommends that the organization become an “Open Hillel” — a reference to a student movement that advocates opening Hillel’s restrictions on opinions about Israel — the letter instead began through a series of conversations between Jeremy Elster, a 2012 UC Berkeley graduate, and other alumni living in Israel at the time.

“It was really difficult for me to learn that intellectual curiosity ended on Bancroft Way between the law school and the Berkeley Hillel building,” said Elster, an organizer for Berkeley Alumni for an Open Hillel.

Currently, international Hillel standards restrict partnership, housing or hosting of people or groups who deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with its own borders; who delegitimize Israel; who support boycotts, divestment or sanctions against Israel or exhibit a “pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

These are the standards the letter urges Berkeley Hillel to reject.

In an official response to the letter, the campus Hillel said it has partnered with Jewish students to “examine a broad spectrum of perspectives.” They thanked the alumni for reaching out and reiterated “steadfast support” for Israel.

Sarah Beth Alcabes, a UC Berkeley senior majoring in Middle Eastern Studies who has been involved with the Hillel throughout her four years at UC Berkeley, said she supported the alumni letter but didn’t think the reform would happen.

“There’s too much stigma and weight around it,” Alcabes said. “The Hillel staff and Jewish community is not ready for that and is not willing to let different views into the building.”

The two groups plan to meet sometime next week, according to Elster.

“The message these guidelines are sending is, ‘If your views on Israel fall outside of a certain scope, you’re not going to be treated the same as everyone else,’” said Lex Rofes, an organizer for the Open Hillel campaign. “I’m okay with the Jew who says, ‘I don’t connect my Jewish identity to Israel.’ That is a valid expression of Jewish identity, and it’s one that we need to respect.”

However, Avi Levine, president of Tikvah: Students for Israel — a Zionist campus organization that supports Israel — said support for Israel is central to Jewish students feeling comfortable in Hillel.

“Endorsing and promoting anti-Zionist speech is morally wrong because it denies the right of self-determination to the Jewish people,” Levine said in an email. “To suggest that Hillel would make Jewish students feel more comfortable by closing the door on one of the core principles every main Jewish denomination stands for — Zionism and strong support for the state of Israel — is simply ludicrous.”

The UC Berkeley chapter of J Street U, a Jewish organization that supports a two-state solution to resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine, cannot currently hold all of its events through Hillel because it brings in groups that don’t meet the guidelines. Under an Open Hillel, all these events would be allowed.

Chapters from Swarthmore College and Vassar College have already declared themselves Open Hillels. When the Swarthmore group declared themselves open in December 2013, Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut said any group that disobeyed the organization’s standards could not use the Hillel name.

Contact Daniel Tutt at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @danielgtutt.