"There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look."-Walter Benjamin
Benjamin's image was the image on my mind by the end of my first morning at the Open Hillel conference. Not in the tragic sense that Benjamin intended, where the angel ensnares itself in the "storm ...from paradise," but in the majestic grace of a tremendous, though cataclysmic, rupture in the midst of a dreadful storm. For the first time, an American Jewish organization was listening openly and earnestly to Palestinians praise BDS, to Jewish scholars explore the colonial origins of Zionism, and to a panel that thoroughly debated the implications of one-state and two-state solutions to the conflict.
The morning started off with Professor Rashid Khalidi. Yes, Professor Rashid Khalidi, one of the pre-eminent authorities on Palestinian nationalism, appeared in the breakfast area, chatting with conference organizers as he retrieved Starbucks coffee. Khalidi then proceeded to give a talk in the conference room which was supposed to have dealt with the topic of Palestinian nationalism but which actually focused on the exigency of Open Hillel to the Palestinian cause.
"There are two battles," Khalidi began. "One on the ground, in Palestine...and the other one in the US, the metropole for Israel." If the first was a concrete, physical struggle, the second focused on discourse and the supremacy of ideas.
It was this struggle, the second battle, that Open Hillel was poised to change. "I hope you all realize the importance of this event," Khalidi reminded.
The remainder of the day saw Mark LeVine propose a "dialectical grappling" between anti-Zionist values and the purported Zionist cause (with the intention of enabling a conclusive solution to the "occupation" and "domination" entailed by the former ideology) and a spirited debate between Rebecca Vilkommerson and Peter Beinart over BDS' endgame vision and the role of a two-state solution. The following day, such contentious topics as the presence of racism in Orthodox Judaism and the meaning of the Palestinian "anti-normalization" campaign were broached by panels in a matter of respectful inquiry.
As someone who has expressed considerable ostracism from both my rabbis and Day School friends for merely questioning the logic of Israel's most recent operation in Gaza, witnessing such intellectual openness on the question of Israel and Zionism in a thoroughly Jewish space felt ethereal if not angelic.
"If I am only for myself who am I..." Such could have been the defining message of this week's conference, not only in the substance of its programming but in the underlying caim to transform the Jewish community. Attending the conference granted me personal vindication but I know that if similar relief is to be obtained for the numerous young Jews who are forced to dissemble on Israel-Palestine as well as the countless Palestinians who suffer from the policies advocated by an "Israel Lobby" frontlined by the organized Jewish community, much hard work and activism lies ahead.