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U. Penn Hillel Hosts Event With ‘Palestine’ Group — But Was It Against The Rules?

An event at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel co-sponsored by a group that backs boycotting Israel took place recently with no interference despite its challenge to the plain language of Hillel International’s guidelines.

The April 26 event featured Avraham Burg, who is a former speaker of the Knesset and served as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. One of its co-sponsors, Students for Justice in Palestine, promotes the international movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, or BDS, as the movement is known. The other sponsor was the Penn chapter of J Street U, the campus arm of the dovish Israel lobby.

Hillel International’s guidelines, which have been strongly challenged on some campuses and increasingly debated on others, specify that Hillel affiliates “will not partner with, house or host” groups that support BDS. Hillel affiliates are also barred from working with groups that “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders” or that “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.”

In its public statements, National SJP, of which the Penn chapter is an affiliate, touts BDS against “our enemies” because “they know that such action — especially the divestment resolutions that students are so powerfully positioned to put into practice — delegitimizes Israeli racism and colonialism.”

But Hillel of Greater Philadelphia CEO Howard Alpert, who attended the talk, insisted that the event did not violate Hillel’s guidelines. Alpert focused instead on Burg’s bona fides as a speaker, calling his views “acceptable.”

“As far as Hillel is concerned, the event was done at the invitation of a member of the Hillel community — J Street U — and that’s who’s using the space and that’s who’s hosting Burg,” he said. “Whoever they brought in as their guests is their business.”

Hillel International’s spokesman, Matthew Berger, also said he saw no violation of his umbrella group’s guidelines in the Penn Hillel event.

“Penn Hillel was not a sponsor of this program,” he said. “Under Penn Hillel’s building procedures, organizations like J Street U are allowed to host events in the building. The event was educationally sound and neither anti-Israel nor pro-BDS.”

As the parent body for Jewish campus centers nationwide, Hillel International oversees more than 550 affiliates on colleges and universities here and abroad. A Hillel International official, speaking on background, explained that the parent body encouraged campus affiliates to create guidelines of their own that are consistent with Hillel International’s and that reflect their local community.

Billed as an “open conversation” about the Israeli left and the Palestinians, the event at Penn Hillel was initially organized by Open Hillel, a student group that opposes the Hillel guidelines, though Penn Hillel officials barred it from being listed as a sponsor.

At the event, Burg was introduced by Ian Lustick, a Penn political science professor who has written in support of one polity for both Jews and Arabs to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

For his talk, Burg, a religiously observant Jew whose father was a founder of Israel’s National Religious Party, wore a green suede yarmulke. He spoke to the approximately 40 attendees about the Jewishness of debate and the importance of engaging voices opposed to one’s own views. He reiterated that while he doesn’t himself believe in boycotting Israel, he believes it is a fair measure.

Last January, Burg announced that he had joined Israel’s Hadash Party, a joint Arab-Jewish faction with roots in Israel’s earlier Communist Party. Its declared primary causes today are opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, equal rights for all groups in Israel/Palestine and support for women’s rights and workers’ rights. It is anti-Zionist. In an interview at the time of his announcement, Burg declared, “Israel, regardless of external circumstances, is not a democracy, and all that remains is a hollow citizenship. The question is what do I do about this — keep quiet like the others or look for the next place.”

Hillel International’s response to affiliates whose events appear to challenge its guidelines has varied considerably. Last March the group’s legal counsel, Tracy Turoff, sent a letter to Swarthmore Hillel, warning that chapter about its plans to sponsor a

Hillel’s response to chapters that seem to violate its guidelines has varied considerably.

talk by several Jewish veterans of the 1960s civil rights movement who today support sanctioning Israel to oppose the occupation. In response, the Swarthmore chapter changed its name and disaffiliated from Hillel.

One month earlier, the same civil rights veterans spoke at the Harvard Hillel, where one of its members publicly reaffirmed her support for BDS. But Hillel International officials denied that the episode breached its guidelines.

Individual campus chapters also vary considerably in how they interpret and enforce Hillel International’s guidelines. In 2013, Harvard Hillel officials barred Burg from holding a public event on their premises because one of the cosponsors, with a Jewish group, was the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, which supports BDS.

Contact Batya Ungar-Sargon at [email protected]

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