Spurning rules, Vassar Jewish Union joins ‘open Hillel’ movement

VJU becomes second US campus group to break from national organization’s guidelines on Israel programming

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

The historic Main Building at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Case CC BY-SA 3.0)
The historic Main Building at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Case CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Jewish Union at Vassar College, a liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York, became the second Hillel-affiliated campus organization in the US to call itself an “open Hillel” on Tuesday.

The move means VJU will no longer adhere to Hillel International’s guidelines on collaborating with groups or hosting speakers with certain views critical of Israel.

“The mission statement of the Vassar Jewish Union calls on us to commit to strengthening our pluralistic Jewish community,” said the organization in a statement posted to their website Tuesday. “We recognize that identification with Israel is not necessarily an integral part of every individual’s Jewish identity. We commit to providing a spiritual and cultural home for Jewish expression in any form.”

The decision was first approved by the VJU board and recommended to the “wider VJU community,” which passed it by a “super majority,” according to VJU President Naomi Dann.

“This decision was prompted by a discussion of the values and purpose of our organization, our research on the emerging Open Hillel movement, and a rise in conversation about the Israel/Palestine conflict on our campus,” Dann told The Times of Israel. “The resolution we released is a public statement that reflects the values of openness, inclusivity, and diversity held by our organization and written in our organization’s constitution.”

Hillel’s guidelines state that it “views Israel as a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students.”

The rules say Hillel will not partner with or host groups or individuals that, among other things, deny Israel’s right to exist, delegitimize the country or support boycotting the Jewish state as a matter of policy.

“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,” the group’s guidelines state.

VJU’s statement said that the organization believed that Hillel’s policy censors and delegitimizes the opinions held by Jewish students.

“According to our constitution the VJU is a non-partisan organization and will not advocate any particular political opinions…” the statement read. “VJU will support individual members’ expressions of their own political views, and will seek to represent this diversity with its programming.”

“We welcome open discourse concerning Israel, Palestine, and any other relevant and critical issues, and will not exclude on the basis of political opinion.”

Elaborating on the statement, Dann said that “going forward, decisions about what types of events to hold and co-sponsor on campus will be made on a case-by-case basis by our elected board. We will not organize or participate in events that promote hate speech, racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism. We will strive to promote pluralism and free discourse; events expressing various and contradictory political views may take place without implying the VJU’s endorsement of any particular view.

“We seek to represent the diversity of views held by our members and to provide a space for meaningful and respectful debate and discussion.”

VJU has held several Israel programs recently, including a Palestine and Israel Film Series, which included screenings of “5 Broken Cameras,” a documentary critical of Israel, and “The Bubble,” a film about a diverse group of friends in Tel Aviv.

“Approximately 20% of Vassar’s population identifies as Jewish to some extent,” according to Dann, and there are about 350 people on VJU’s membership list, though the number of regular participants in VJU activities is “much smaller.”

VJU did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


The union’s decision follows Swarthmore Hillel student board’s announcement on December 8 that it had voted unanimously to defy Hillel International’s guidelines for Israel activities and become the first college to join the Open Hillel movement, a campaign aimed at widening the Israel discourse on campus.

Two days later, Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut responded with a letter declaring the position unacceptable.

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