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.

The board’s resolution and Fingerhut’s response were widely reported in the Jewish press and drew loud declarations of praise and condemnation from across the Jewish world.

A petition supporting Swarthmore Hillel has earned more than 1,100 signatures in the last week. But criticism has been fierce. On December 16, John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, said Swarthmore Hillel “will deserve to be spat upon” if it hosts anti-Israel speakers.

Lost in the debate over Swarthmore Hillel’s future is any sense of its existing programming, which, it turns out, is quite minimal. Out of the 1,534 students at Swarthmore 275 are Jewish. There is neither a Hillel building nor a kosher meal plan, and services are only offered on Friday nights and some holidays.

The campus’ modest beit midrash (Jewish library) is run by the university, not Hillel, and Hillel shares prayer space in the interfaith center with other campus religious groups. “It’s not a particularly active campus organization,” said Raphael Ellenson, a Jewish sophomore and member of the Swarthmore chapter of J Street’s campus arm, J Street U.

The core of religiously active students is small, with only about 10 to 15 students attending Shabbat services each week, according to Kipnis-King, who describes herself as a “post-denominational, halachically engaged” Jew. “We don’t have kosher dining facilities, which limits our ability to attract observant students,” she said. A student-run kosher kitchen — also housed at the interfaith center — is used only on Friday nights and Passover.

More notably, Hillel has avoided hosting programs on Israel at all in the past few years.

“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.

The move to restart Hillel conversations about Israel also allowed Cohen to publicly display her pro-Israel identity. “This is the first time I’ve felt comfortable wearing an IDF dog tag,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve felt comfortable telling people about my views.”

But other conservatives on campus remain skeptical that the move will benefit them. The call for open dialogue is a familiar one at Swarthmore, according to Nat Frum, a Jewish sophomore who writes for the conservative Swarthmore Independent magazine. (He is also the son of noted conservative commentator David Frum.)

“It’s kind of become a trigger that if you hear that ‘we’re doing this to promote discourse and dissent,’ that’s a sign that the opposite is going on,” he said. “We get so much of a one-sided discussion at Swarthmore, which is very anti-Israel.”

Frum is not involved in Hillel but said he has conservative friends who were open to joining Hillel but are now steering clear of the organization. “They were trying to feel it out and this kind of sealed the deal,” he said.

Hillel board members were taken aback by the ferocity of the response to their vote. “No one anticipated the kind of media response that this would [cause],” said Wolfsun, who serves as communications coordinator for Swarthmore’s Hillel board and has been widely quoted in coverage of the controversy. “Suddenly communications coordinator takes on a whole new meaning,” he said, laughing. Wolfsun has received hate mail in his email inbox, but said it has been far outweighed by expressions of support.

Wolfsun and his fellow board members appeared eager for a rapprochement with Hillel International. They are working with Fingerhut, to plan a tentative January visit to campus, according to Adenbaum.

Board members also chose their words carefully when speaking about the organization. “It is a unanimous sentiment on the board that we want to continue to remain affiliated with Hillel International and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia,” Adenbaum said.

A delegation of Swarthmore students met with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia on December 16 to discuss the controversy, Adenbaum said. He was tight-lipped about the meeting’s outcome. “They seem to be really interested in dialogue,” he said. “I’m hopeful about the future.”

At the moment, Swarthmore Hillel has no concrete plans to invite anti-Israel speakers in violation of Hillel International’s guidelines. But that could change in the coming semester.

“Let’s get through finals,” Wolfsun said. “And next semester we’ll come back and have slept and have some new ideas hopefully to work from.”

Contact Hody Nemes at nemes@forward.com


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