Hillel International, American Jewry’s campus outreach group, appeared headed toward a clash with its Swarthmore College chapter following the Swarthmore Hillel’s decision to allow militant critics of Israel and Zionism to take part in its programming.
The unanimous December 9 vote by Swarthmore Hillel’s student board repudiated Hillel International’s Israel programming guidelines as constrictions on free discourse. Swarthmore Hillel’s new stance will, in the board’s words, enable it to welcome “all…to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist or non-Zionist.”
In a letter to Swarthmore Hillel’s communications coordinator, undergraduate Joshua Wolfsun, Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut termed this “not acceptable.”
“Let me be very clear,” wrote Fingerhut in the December 10 letter, “anti-Zionists will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”
Fingerhut also reaffirmed Hillel International’s rules prohibiting Hillel campus chapters from hosting programs that include groups or individuals that “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized boundaries; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel,” or that support boycott, divestment or sanction campaigns against Israel.
He appeared to threaten Swarthmore Hillel with expulsion from the Hillel network if it actually allowed programs under its roof that violated these strictures. “Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines,” he wrote. “No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise.”
In a response, Wolfsun reaffirmed the decision taken by Swarthmore Hillel’s board, but said, “We look forward to a productive and fruitful dialogue with both you and with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.” He invited Fingerhut to visit Swarthmore in person to discuss the issue, adding, “These are important and hard conversations that we are having within our community, but they are necessary.”
Drafted in 2010, Hillel International’s Israel programming guidelines have been a matter of contention at a number of campus Hillels for some time — condemned by critics as a barrier to open and critical discourse on Israel in a Jewish setting; defended by supporters as a legitimate boundary that allows for ample debate but which draws the line at giving an official imprimatur to enemies of Israel.
In his letter to Wolfsun, Fingerhut said that the guidelines were drafted and agreed to by a “broad coalition” of Hillel students, staff, and other stakeholders. “Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss” Israel-related issues, the guidelines state.
But in its resolution, the Swarthmore student board cited a recent decision by the Hillel center at Harvard University to bar Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency, from giving a talk under its roof as an immediate cause for its decision. The Harvard Hillel objected to the fact that Burg’s talk was cosponsored by Harvard College’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee, along with several Jewish groups, including Harvard Students for Israel.
The board’s resolution also noted that some campus Hillels had barred the group Breaking the Silence, an organization composed of Israeli army veterans that promotes discussion of the ways in which it says the demands of military service in the Israeli-occupied West Bank corrode soldiers’ moral standards, and those of the Israeli Army itself.
Wolfsun told the Forward his Hillel is not worried about losing funding from donors unhappy with its stance since it is funded entirely by an endowment and has no board of overseers. But Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, under whose umbrella the Swarthmore Hillel sits, said that it is up to the Jewish community and the board of his Greater Philadelphia group to decide where Hillel of Greater Philadelphia’s funding goes.
The Swarthmore Hillel has not yet invited speakers to campus that might be subject to prohibition under Hillel International’s guidelines. But according to Wolfsun, what is important is that the center can now do so if and when there is a student demand to hear the views of such speakers.
The student board gave a signal of some of the individuals it might consider inviting in a statement accompanying its resolution. The statement cited several figures whom board members said the guidelines currently bar, including liberal Zionist Peter Beinart, who has written in support of a limited boycott of products produced on exclusively Jewish Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank; linguist Noam Chomsky, a scathing Jewish critic of Israel who nevertheless supports a two-state solution to end its occupation of the West Bank, and Jewish philosopher Judith Butler, author of a radical critique of Zionism that rejects its moral legitimacy.
In declaring itself free of Hillel’s Israel Guidelines, Swarthmore Hillel’s board became the first to declare itself affiliated with the nascent Open Hillel movement. Founded by student activists in late 2012, Open Hillel bills itself as a “student-run campaign to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels,” specifically in regard to changing the “standards of partnership” enumerated in Hillel’s Israel Guidelines.
Lex Rofes, an Open Hillel organizer, said Swarthmore contacted his group before it made its decision. “They said they liked what we were doing and wanted to be a model for what this could look like,” he said. “We are incredibly excited for this.” Rofes said his group had not heard from any other Hillel chapters but added that many individuals affiliated with Hillel chapters had privately expressed interest in Open Hillel.
Jacob Plitman, president of J Street U, the campus arm of the dovish pro-Israel lobby J Street, said his group has taken no position on the Swarthmore Hillel’s decision but supports efforts to open the conversation to voices beyond the current boundaries. “We think the health of Israel and the Jewish community requires a diverse conversation, and we must accept that this will include Palestinians and anti-Zionists,” he said.
Beinart has voiced support for Open Hillel, calling it “a deeply important effort to ensure that Jews on campus can ask the hard questions and have the open debates that they deserve, and which Israel needs.”
Wulfson admitted that the Swarthmore Hillel student board was concerned that its decision could alienate more conservative students. But he said, on a campus as liberal as Swarthmore, the board wanted to “create a conversation where everyone can take part, and this will help us to reach out to students who might otherwise feel left out.”
Derek Kwait is the editor in chief of New Voices Magazine, a publication of the Jewish Student Press Service.