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Going Rogue

December 11, 2013

The student board at Swarthmore College’s Hillel chapter has unanimously passed a resolution saying it will not abide by the international Jewish student organization’s ban on hosting anti-Israel speakers.

Declaring itself an “Open Hillel,” in an allusion to a broader movement against Hillel guidelines on campus-based Israel activities, the Swarthmore chapter resolved that it will “host and partner with any speaker at the discretion of the board, regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines.”

The president of Hillel International has responded with a rebuke, describing the chapter’s position as “not acceptable” and saying that no organization that uses Hillel’s name can choose to violate its guidelines. Those guidelines stipulate that Hillel chapters will not partner with or host organizations or speakers that deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or that seek to "delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel," or that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

In a nutshell, the Swarthmore students say they are reclaiming the name of Hillel the Elder – who, as they wrote in the resolution, “was famed for encouraging debate” – while Hillel headquarters has reaffirmed that anti-Israel speakers will not be allowed to speak under its imprimatur. 

“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,” the Swarthmore student board members wrote in an op-ed published in the Orthodox Jewish publication, The Beacon.

To which Hillel International President Eric D. Fingerhut responded, in a letter, “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.”

Fingerhut wrote that it is within the discretion of the organization to prohibit Hillel chapters from partnering with or hosting anti-Israel groups: “Just as the university decides who will teach classes, and what organizations it will allow on campus, so Hillel will decide who will lead discussions in programs it sponsors and with whom it will partner," he wrote.

A spokesman for Hillel International did not respond to specific questions about next steps. However, the logical implication of what Fingerhut wrote is that if the Swarthmore board does not reverse its position, there will not be a place for the chapter under the Hillel umbrella. When asked whether the Swarthmore Hillel is willing to separate from Hillel International if it comes to it, the chapter’s communications coordinator, Joshua Wolfsun, responded, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

“It was our hope in passing the resolution and in writing the editorial, our hope and belief, that Hillel International is committed to listening and participating in dialogue with students and to providing a place where students of different perspectives can come together and talk about things, and we would like to pursue that conversation,” said Wolfsun, a Swarthmore sophomore.

The resolution comes at a time when issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are especially prominent on U.S. campuses, and when the Israel boycott movement in particular is gaining steam. On the faculty side of things, the Association for Asian American Studies became the first U.S. scholarly association to sign onto an academic boycott of Israeli universities in April and the national council of the American Studies Association voted last week to endorse a similar resolution. In the latter instance the matter has been referred to the general membership for a vote, which is ongoing. 

The Swarthmore student resolution was precipitated in part by the inability of Harvard University’s Hillel to host the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Avraham Burg, last month because of the involvement of a pro-BDS, Palestinian solidarity student group as a cosponsor of the event.

In its resolution, the Swarthmore board expressed concern that Hillel International's rules have prevented campus chapters from cooperating with groups such as Breaking the Silence and Jewish Voice for Peace, and asserts that Hillel, “while purporting to support all Jewish Campus Life, presents a monolithic face pertaining to Zionism that does not accurately reflect the diverse opinions of young American Jews.”

More than 900 people have signed a petition on the Open Hillel website calling for the organization to abolish its restrictive "Standards of Partnership" for on-campus Israel activities (although some of the signatories are anonymous).

Wolfsun said that the Swarthmore Hillel chapter is in a unique position to take a stand in that it has a significant amount of autonomy: it is supported by a private endowment and the college’s student activity fund and it does not have a non-student board of directors. It is affiliated with the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.

In response to Fingerhut’s letter, Wolfsun sent an email inviting him to campus for a discussion: “Although we stand by our resolution and our editorial, we look forward to a productive and fruitful dialogue with both you and with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia,” he wrote.

But Fingerhut’s letter suggests there won’t be much room for discussion on the principles on which the Israel activity guidelines are based. Fingerhut took a cue from the students in harking back to Rabbi Hillel’s legacy -- albeit a different aspect of it -- citing his famous statement, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

“We here at Hillel international hold firm to his legacy. We encourage debate and dissent, but we draw the line at hosting groups who would deny the right of the State of Israel to exist. We will stand with Israel, the democratic, open, pluralistic home of the Jewish people,” Fingerhut wrote.

“On that fundamental principle, we are unwavering.”

 

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