Swarthmore Hillel Gets Boost From Controversy Over Israel Critics

Openness to Debate on Jewish State Lures New Members

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By Hody Nemes

Published December 23, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
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On a recent Friday night, members of Swarthmore College’s Hillel community gathered to celebrate Shabbat and reflect on a tumultuous week. With final exams set to begin in the morning, Hillel members in this Pennsylvania college expected a very low turnout.

But to their delight, the room in Bond Hall, which houses Swarthmore’s interfaith religious center, was packed on December 11 — with about 30 students in attendance. “That’s a lot for us, that’s huge,” said Hanna Kipnis-King, a Hillel regular. “Last week’s Shabbos was the biggest we had seen all year.”

The newcomers came out to voice support for the Hillel board, which was thrust into the national spotlight after it passed a resolution allowing anti-Zionist speakers to participate in its programming, in violation of Hillel International’s guidelines on Israel. “Hillel is attracting significant new Jewish membership as a result of this resolution,” said Kipnis-King.

The brouhaha began on December 8, when the Swarthmore Hillel board declared itself the country’s first “Open Hillel,” part of a movement to make campus Hillels more welcoming to Israel’s critics, including those who believe the state should not exist as a specifically Jewish polity and those calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Jewish state.

Swarthmore Hillel board members announced that all voices would now be accepted in their Hillel. “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist,” they wrote.

Eric Fingerhut, president of Hillel International, fired back with a letter in which he warned the group against moving forward with the changes. “Let me be very clear — ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances,” he wrote.


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