Jews, the civil rights movement, Israel: hot topics in Open HIllel tour

It all started in Jackson, Mississippi, a year ago. Over 2,000 people gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer, where mostly students, from all over the country, came to Mississippi, in 1964, to join Mississippians in the African-American-led civil rights movement: registering voters, conducting Freedom Schools, and much more.

Danger lurked. Three participants, James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. (I was not part of Freedom Summer, but spent a long time in Georgia and Mississippi as part of the struggle for freedom).

Among the white volunteers was a very large percentage of Jews. So, at this 2014 event a panel was held about Jewish motivations for participating in the civil rights movement.

At the conclusion of the panel several very animated young college students came up and told us about Open Hillel, a group that had formed one year earlier. Seems that Hillels (Jewish campus organizations) won’t allow any criticism of Israel anywhere under its university umbrellas. And here was I, thinking that campuses were the marketplace of free ideas and discussion.

The Open Hillel students asked if the three of us movement veteran panelists, Dorothy Zellner, Larry Rubin and I, would be willing to come to Harvard University in October 2014 and address a plenary session of an Open Hillel conference. Indeed we would, and did. Mark Levy, another vet, would later join us for part of the tour. [Editor’s note: Larry Rubin is now a People’s World contributing writer.]

At Harvard, with over 300 present, we were approached again: 20 campuses want us old vets to speak on their campuses – would we agree to do so? We accepted, and thus was born the Open Hillel Tour, organized totally – venues, room and board, travel and more – by these wonderful Open Hillel students.

We spoke to a total, I am told, of more than 600 students. We visited 13 campuses in seven states in New England, the Midwest and the South. Harvard University, University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Workmen’s Circle (a civic organization); Muhlenberg College; Barnard College (to the Open Hillel organizing committee); University of Chicago; University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; University of Illinois in Evanston; Oberlin College; Guilford College; Appalachian State University; and Duke University.

Our tour was co-sponsored by only one Hillel, at Harvard University, and under stringent conditions. The Open Hillel students had to agree that only one of us civil rights movement veterans would be allowed to speak. We had to permit a person with a position different from ours to be on the panel. The request of the Open Hillel students that a Muslim be on the panel was rejected.

Hillels have a “standards of partnership” that will not permit anyone peacefully/nonviolently protesting Israel’s brutal occupation via, for example, boycott, divestment and sanctions, to speak. Open Hillel is not a separate organization per se, but rather a movement to abolish these restrictive standards of partnership.

The parent national/international Hillel must have immediately realized that we vets were having a significant impact, so this was the first and last local Hillel allowed to co-sponsor our tour. Three university Jewish Studies departments courageously co-sponsored. One Hillel disbanded, and formed a new ad-hoc group in order to sponsor us.

The parent Hillel may have shot itself in the foot. In each of the campuses where they refused Open Hillel’s request that we vets be permitted to speak, the Open Hillel students arranged alternative campus venues. We were covered by every college/university newspaper where we spoke, as well as by the Mondoweiss website, Huffington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Ha’aretz (in Israel) and many more.

The wonderful students from Open Hillel have informed Larry, Dottie, Mark and me that many other campuses want us to visit – Princeton University, University of California, University of Washington (Tacoma), Reed College, and more – including return requests from some already-visited campuses. We shall see what happens, but are so respectful of these courageous students.

A Jewish wedding takes place under a huppah (canopy), which symbolizes the new Jewish home being created by the marriage. We need a huppah for Arabs, Jews and others in the Middle East, embracing our quest for love and peace that has been desecrated by the occupation of our Palestinian cousins.

I am so honored to have appeared on the Open Hillel tour. I am not personally responsible for Israel’s mass murders of Palestinians in Gaza, done by Israel in the name of the Jewish people, and paid for in large part with U.S. dollars. But it is being done in my name, and so I must turn to the wisdom of Howard Zinn: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people”.

This article originally appeared in the July-August issue of FORsooth, newspaper of the Louisville, Ky., chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It is published here with permission of the author. Contact Ira Grupper at

Photo: Mt. Zion Church state history marker near Philadelphia, Miss. The Ku Klux Klan burned the original Mt. Zion Church to the ground. It was one of 20 black churches in Mississippi to be firebombed in the summer of 1964. This is the church where Michael Schwerner and James Chaney spoke and urged its all-black congregation to register to vote. Photograph taken in June 2012. Robert Ferguson Jr./Wikipedia