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Open Hillel: A Ray of Hope Amid World and Personal Conflict

Ira Grupper: Comes now a beam of light, a way for Jews of conscience to distance ourselves and challenge the oppression being visited in our name.

If history is a continuum, then it must also have a worldwide panorama. The Jim Crow system was opposed by the Civil Rights Movement, led by African Americans and supported by others (more about this shortly). The fight for justice in Israel and Palestine—likewise.

Open Hillel

Listen up, y’all. Psalm 89:3: “For I have said: ‘Forever is mercy built; in the very heavens Thou dost establish Thy faithfulness.’” Well, Christians can find it in Matthew 25. And for Muslims: When some non-Muslims mocked Bilal, the black slave--Quran 49:13: O mankind, we have…appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another.”

Over the last two-plus decades I have visited Israel six times, once living there six months. I travelled from the north near Lebanon to the south near Egypt, and from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. I spent a good bit of time in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and time as well in the Gaza Strip and Amman, Jordan.

I am of two minds, and am conflicted. On the one hand, I am proud of my Jewish heritage, and our surviving the murderous Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust--and now, more than an addendum, facing an anti-Semitic wave along with the anti-immigrant wave sweeping Europe.

My people included Hillel, Einstein, Emma Lazarus, Howard Fast. We sang Zog Nit Keyn Mol, the Partisan Song of Jewish resistance against the Nazis: Never say that you are on your final road.

But I said that I was of two minds. Lord, am I of two minds. The second scenario concerns the occupation and humiliation of my Palestinian cousins. In my name, in the name of the Jewish people, Israel visits upon the Palestinian people a brutal occupation of their land.

Israel bestows upon the Palestinians collective punishment, deprivation of water, and so much more.

Moving right along. Hillels are Jewish university organizations, similar to Newman Clubs for Catholics. Many Jewish students claim that Hillels will not permit views critical of Israel and the Jewish “mainstream” to be expressed in open discussion.

Comes now a beam of light, a way for Jews of conscience to distance ourselves and challenge the oppression being visited in our name.

Comes now a beam of light, a way for Jews of conscience to distance ourselves and challenge the oppression being visited in our name.

This ray of hope is called Open Hillel. Hillel was a scholar and teacher of the first century: "What is hateful to yourself do not do unto others. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary.”

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Three hundred participants, from the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, convened at Harvard University in October. Their message: open Hillel to diverse opinions, as Hillel would want, and not as Netanyahu would want. They succeeded in opening Hillels on three campuses thus far.

I felt so privileged to have been invited to be part of a plenary session: “From Mississippi to Jerusalem: a Discussion with Jewish Civil Rights (Movement) Veterans”. How honored I was to share the podium with two veterans of that vanguard group of the Movement, SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: Dottie Zellner and Larry Rubin.

The following day I was on another panel: “How Israel-Palestine Affects Left-Wing Coalition Building in America”. Co-panelists: Yasmeen Silva, Palestinian American student at Vassar College, activist with Students for Justice in Palestine. And Alice Rothschild, a Boston-based physician, author, filmmaker, and activist in the Jewish community.

On a personal note. There was a Friends of SNCC group at Vassar College, in the 1960’s, that “adopted” me, sending me my salary/stipend of $15/week. I feel a kinship with Vassar!

The conference was not a monolith. One speaker was from J Street, a liberal group that wants a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. And yet the head of J Street supported the Israeli invasion of Gaza. But most conferees opposed the slaughter.

There was the wonderful Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP focuses on ending the Israeli occupation.
I am hopeful Open Hillel will make a difference. But I am mindful of the mass murder of Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces, the devastation to the infrastructure of Gaza, perhaps the most densely populated place on earth.

Where in the Midrash does it sanction these crimes against humanity? Did the Bible get it wrong when the scribes wrote: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil? Must we also add Mother Jones’ prophetic words: Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living?

But I am still conflicted. How do I keep my balance when the forces of evil supporting my guywire of hope are swinging wildly and threatening my soul? Is this tensioned cable really adding stability, or is it a perpetuator of the evil of occupation?

I appreciate the contributions Jews have made throughout history: Hillel, Maimonides, Emma Lazarus, Howard Fast. But I equally appreciate Palestinian poets: Mahmoud Darwish, Sami Muhanna, Maya Abu al-Hayyat. Listen to, do not merely read, the words of Zuhair abu Shayeb:

[dc]“F[/dc]rom what source of light/ does the day occur?/ Does the earth propitiate itself/ and the seas catch fire?/ By what light do we shell roads until daybreak?/ And the sound is bearable/ and the morning, like bullets, is bearable…”.


Ira Grupper

Ira Grupper is a veteran labor and civil rights activist in Louisville, Ky., where he serves on the board of directors of the Kentucky Labor Institute. He authors Labor Paeans, a column that appears monthly in FORsooth, a publication of the Louisville Fellowship of Reconciliation. This is his December column. Contact Ira here: