Wellesley Fires Hillel Leaders Even as Anti-Israel Activism Rises
(Haaretz) — Soon after the new school year got underway at Wellesley College, posters bearing the images of Palestinian children who were killed or wounded during the Gaza war appeared on dining hall walls.
A large poster, likewise sponsored by the new campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, went up in the student center asking, “What does Zionism mean to you?” with lots of space for people to fill in answers. Within a week people had written “genocide,” “apartheid” and “murder” on the poster at the Boston-area college.
Upset, Wellesley women turned to Patti Scheinman, Wellesley Hillel’s director, and David Bernat, the Jewish chaplain, along with student leaders of the Jewish community, for support. They jointly pushed for a meeting with Wellesley’s SJP leaders.
Both Hillel employees were abruptly fired last week by Wellesley College, with administration officials offering “restructuring” as the reason.
Jewish students dealing with what some say is ratcheted-up anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment on campus are dismayed by the precipitous firing. “It makes me and other students feel like we just lost our support system and are on our own,” said Tali Marcus, a senior psychology major who is co-president of Wellesley Friends of Israel. “It’s really disconcerting.”
Wellesley is one of the prestigious Seven Sisters network of women’s colleges and counts potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton among its alumnae. Roughly 10 percent of the current student body of 2,100 is Jewish. It has now joined the growing number of college campuses where often-intense anti-Israel sentiment at times bleeds into anti-Semitism, in the view of some there, in the process discomfiting large numbers of Jewish and pro-Israel students.
When Hillel-affiliated students met with SJP leaders about the poster “our goal was to promote conversation,” said Jordan Hannink, a junior, in an interview. Hannink is a peace studies major who worked in Israel last summer and is writing her thesis on the subject of peace through health care. Last year she was co-president of Wellesley Hillel. Jewish students want to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict, she said. “But it is an issue we want to discuss respectfully and without polarizing” the community. SJP leaders “said they were uninterested in these kinds of dialogic conversations,” Hannink said.
Hannink sent a letter to Wellesley’s president and deans saying that the Zionism poster in the student center was offensive, but they have taken no action, she said. It remains the first thing anyone sees when entering the student center. The dining hall posters are also still in place.
“I firmly believe this college is becoming increasingly anti-Semitic,” Hannink wrote in a private email to an alumna, which was shared with Haaretz by another Wellesley graduate.
Wellesley’s Community Task Force on the Middle East has been a successful weekly dialogue group for several years involving a handful of Jewish students and an equal number of Arab students. It suffered a setback last year when the dean who started it left Wellesley, and totally fell apart at its first meeting this year. The Arab-American participants, newly affiliated with SJP, said they would no longer participate. “They said this was a way for them to be condescended to and controlled,” Hannink said in the Haaretz interview.
Wellesley SJP organizers did not respond to an email from Haaretz seeking an interview. The organization as a whole has an “anti-normalization” policy, refusing to participate in discussions with Jewish and pro-Israel student groups.
Wellesley College spokeswoman Sofiya Cabalquinto did not respond to questions about the anti-Israel developments or the administration’s response to student requests that officials intercede.
“For Jewish students being at Wellesley now is quite difficult,” Hannink said.
“Jewish students are feeling uncomfortable,” said Sheinman, who was the Hillel director for a dozen years, in an interview with Haaretz. “Right now the Jewish students are feeling like they’re not being heard and are not being seen as a minority.”
Tension around Israel-Palestine issues “is happening on a lot of campuses, but Wellesley is a very small college and not having staff at this time is to the students’ detriment,” she said.
A Jewish professor at Wellesley wrote, in a private email to an alumna concerned about developments, that several Jewish faculty share the view that changes are needed to the structure and staffing of the campus Hillel and that “it is an unfortunate coincidence, but only that, that the layoffs were made at a moment of tension on campus over Israel-Palestine politics.”
Wellesley Hillel’s current student president, Rebecca Fishbein, said in an email that the chapter’s executive board does not want to comment publicly on the Hillel staff’s firing or how Jewish students are feeling about anti-Israel sentiment at the school.
Sheinman had been back one day from bereavement leave following her mother’s death when she was called into a meeting with Wellesley administrators and told her position was being terminated. David Bernat, the Jewish chaplain, was on vacation at the time and informed by phone.
They were officially employees of the Hillel Council of New England, though their Wellesley salaries were provided by the college and funneled through the council. Now Wellesley appears determined to reduce the number of Hillel positions to one and bring it totally in-house.
Wellesley College spokeswoman Cabalquinto said that the college “last week made the decision to hire a rabbi to lead the Jewish chaplaincy on campus. Wellesley values its longstanding relationship with Hillel New England, and Wellesley and Hillel are working closely together as partners to support Jewish life on campus and build the strongest possible Jewish community moving forward.” Bernat, while serving as the Jewish chaplain at Wellesley and at the University of Massachussetts Amherst, is not a rabbi.
The college administration made the decision unilaterally, “without any input from major stakeholders,” said Miriam Berkowitz Blue, president of the Wellesley Hillel Alumni Board. Wellesley Hillel has some 2,700 alumnae on its mailing list, she said. “It calls into question the oversight of all the endowments and funding,” she said. “It’s opening things up to a lot of larger questions.” Alumnae worldwide have been discussing their concerns, she said, adding that Wellesley Hillel’s assets “are substantial.” she said.
It was a Wellesley Hillel alumna currently living in Israel who brought the issue to the attention of Haaretz.
“There are several campuses where universities maintain a direct funding arrangement to support Hillel activities, staff or facilities,” said David Eden, Hillel International’s chief administrative officer, in a statement responding to Haaretz’s request for an interview. “These arrangements and partnerships are consistent with Hillel International’s goal of being fully integrated into campus life wherever we operate. We hope that whatever emerges at Wellesley will be consistent with this goal.”
Wellesley has invited faculty, students, alumnae and staff to serve on the search committee for the rabbi, said spokeswoman Cabalquinto. The college hopes to hold the committee’s first meeting next week.
In the meantime, Wellesley students are without professional Jewish support. An interim director has been hired to work four to eight hours a week, at night. But it’s not enough, say those close to the Jewish community there.
There is “a very unstable political climate right now, especially given what’s happening in Israel, and the students do not feel supported,” said Berkowitz Blue, “There has been a lot of pro-Palestinian activity on campus. It’s coming from speakers SJP is bringing in and the ways things are being presented on campus is blatantly one sided,” she said. “There’s not enough support for the Jewish students with everything going on and their voices are not being heard.”
Rebecca Berger is a senior biology major, and the new Jewish representative on the college’s multi-faith council, which brings together students from each religious community on campus for weekly discussion. Last week Berger attended a meeting sponsored by Wellesley SJP featuring speaker Sa’ed Atshan, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies and a lecturer in peace and justice studies at Tufts University. At the meeting, attended by 60 to 70 students, Atshan said that the Jewish state was established in its present location “only because Uganda wasn’t available,” said Berger. “He equated all non-Zionist Jews with Jews of conscience, which makes Zionist Jews something else, I guess,” she said. “It was extremely destructive, and with the posters and the lack of face-to-face dialogue, added to the stalemate on campus.”
“We’re trying to figure out how to respond to what’s going on” at Wellesley, said Berger. “Things that are central to our identity are being attacked, including the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. It’s not a good time to lose our professional leadership, that’s for sure.”