Calling on Jewish federations to stop making their support for organizations conditional on “adherence to red lines around Israel,” about 25 demonstrators organized by Open Hillel gathered Sunday outside the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, meeting at the Washington Hilton.
The demonstrators, most of whom are in their 20s, said red lines such as that enforced by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations when it denied membership to the self-described pro-peace, pro-Israel organization J Street, limit legitimate criticism of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian-claimed territories, alienating young American Jews when the federation world is struggling to attract them into community life.
“I feel excluded and isolated and fear that young Jews are being pushed away from engagement with Jewish institutions,” speaker Elana Metz, a senior at the University of Delaware, told the gathering.
Open Hillel formed in 2012 to protest Hillel International’s guidelines on Israel, which exclude from the organization those who are not Zionist, support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and oppose a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The demonstrators, who police kept across the street from the hotel, chanted, “Let my people talk” and, “Here we are.” Some displayed signs criticizing what they see is excessive donor influence on decision making in Jewish institutions. Other signs broadcast the bearers as products of mainstream Jewish day schools, youth groups and university Hillels.
The group’s call for “Open Federation” is in the spirit of “disagreement for the sake of heaven,” said Caroline Morganti, Open Hillel’s communications coordinator.
After the demonstration, Morganti took a letter to the board of the Jewish Federations of North America, asking that by Dec. 8 JFNA “state clearly and publicly” that it would drop its red lines around Israel dialogue. Hotel security stopped Morganti at the behest of G.A. organizers and asked her to leave the building before she was able to deliver the letter.
JFNA did not respond to requests for comment by press time. A JFNA official later pointed to remarks made by JFNA President and CEO Jerry Silverman at a plenary session after WJW went to press as indicative of JFNA’s stance:
“We need to stop drawing red lines on who’s in and who’s out, and do more to welcome and encourage Jews across all spectrums to join us in our core mission. And we need to mean it,” Silverman said.
The Open Hillel demonstration capped a day of workshops, which organizers dubbed “The Jewish People’s Assembly” at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center. Seth Morrison, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, led a session on “What is a Federation?”
In its opposition to Israeli control of the West Bank, Jewish Voice for Peace calls for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel and supports the BDS movement.
Morrison contrasted the federations’ accomplishments with their strict adherence to what he called “the company line” on Israel.
“Federations do mostly very good work, and they make hard decisions on allocations,” he said. “But if anyone says anything outside the company line, they’ll threaten to cut them off.
“Our role is to challenge this company line,” he continued, “and that in the long run is best for Israel, the Palestinians and the United States.”
Many participants said they are calling for abolishing red lines to make the Jewish community more inclusive.
“This is the beginning of a conversation with the community,” said Aaron Steinberg-Madow, an Open Hillel steering committee member from Philadelphia. “I’m thrilled the DCJCC allowed Open Hillel to meet.”
Jillian Lipman, 23, came from Baltimore looking for a Jewish community. “I’ve been unaffiliated with the Jewish community for a long time,” she said. “I was called an anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew” for her beliefs. “I wanted to see that there were Jews with other positions.”
Conference organizer Yonit Friedman, 23, came to Open Hillel after a disappointing experience on a Birthright Israel trip.
“I felt the leaders were either outright lying to us or leaving out a lot of truths,” she said. “And it went against my Reform upbringing of … justice for the oppressed.”
She called Israel’s presence in the West Bank “an enormous elephant in the room, even in Jewish spaces that otherwise do a good job.”
Friedman said that mainstream Jewish organizations treat Open Hillel and other Jews who share similar opinions about Israel as the enemy when they are actually the demographic the federation world says it wants to attract.
“People who are in power often see us as an outside entity that they don’t know. But they do know us,” she said. “We’re the people in their communities who want to ask questions. Our concerns are not going away. And if you want to have any sort of Jewish continuity — engaging young people — well, here we are.”