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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“We didn’t have a way to talk about this that didn’t fracture our community because we had so many different viewpoints and this issue is so hard to talk about,” said Jacob Adenbaum, a Hillel board member and Hillel’s former Israeli-Palestinian coordinator.

Despite its lack of Israel programming, Hillel was viewed as less welcoming to Israel’s harsher critics — in part because of its guidelines on Israel. “Swarthmore has a definite and distinct community of very, very progressive Jews,” Adenbaum said. “A lot of these people weren’t interested in being part of Hillel because of the fact that they didn’t feel their political views were welcome.”

The board’s decision has succeeded in pulling many of these left-wing students back toward Hillel. “We’ve had students who lean more toward the left who are coming out of the woodwork” since the decision, Wolfsun said.

Ellenson, who is active in J Street U and usually avoids Hillel, said he has warmed up to the group thanks to its resolution, which he sees as part of a larger transformation toward greater inclusiveness. “I might start going to Hillel more — not necessarily to go for tefillot [services] — but to go for the study aspects would be really great,” he said.

Hillel board members say they also want to provide a forum for Jews who hail from more right-leaning political backgrounds on Israel. And they argue their new policy will help in this direction, too. Until now, they say, Jews with hawkish views on Israel had no official forum to express themselves.

“This new discourse that we’re sparking at Hillel will really give space to students at Hillel with more right-wing views,” said Rachel Flaherman, Tzedek (social justice) coordinator for the Hillel board and a member of J Street U.

Previously, the only Swarthmore campus organizations that actively and regularly discussed Israel were J Street U and the Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, which raises awareness about human rights breaches in the West Bank and Gaza. (SPJP is unaffiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine, a national network of groups that advocate in America on behalf of Palestinian rights.)

Hillel’s new policy pronouncement succeeded in winning over freshman Marissa Cohen, who supports right-leaning pro-Israel groups and co-founded her high school Israel advocacy club. Cohen was largely uninvolved in Hillel this fall, but became very interested in joining Hillel after the vote last week.

Now that Hillel has lifted its unofficial moratorium on Israel programming, she believes it will be possible to host pro-Israel speakers as well. “When they say open, they don’t just mean left. They mean completely open to the entire spectrum of political beliefs,” she said.


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