Some students are organizing to ask Hillel to reconsider one of its long-held policies regarding event co-sponsorship.
Hillel, which has chapters for Jewish students on campuses nationwide, states in its official guidelines that it "is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations"; thus the organization has long maintained a policy forbidding individual chapters to “partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice… [s]upport boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel." The policy states that the organization is not trying to promote a single view on Israel, but rather "welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner."
Open Hillel, a petition started by Harvard University students, calls for the co-sponsorship policy to be rescinded.
“The current guidelines have two main effects: limiting the Jewish groups that can become affiliated with campus Hillels, and limiting the outside groups with which Hillel-affiliated groups are permitted to co-sponsor events,” states Open Hillel’s web site. “At Brandeis, for example, students founded a local chapter of the organization Jewish Voice for Peace, which, among other things, advocates for targeted divestment from companies that profit off the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.” Open Hillel claims that Hillel’s rule “shut[s] down open discourse” and “discourage[s] dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian groups on campus.”
The petition was started in November of 2012. It currently has 488 signatures, primarily from Harvard.
Julia Wedgle, a Tufts University sophomore who signed the petition, said that she did not see her support for the petition as incompatible with her own Jewish heritage. “I don’t believe that Judaism and Zionism are synonymous,” Wedgle said. “Zionism is a national movement and Judaism is a religion.” Wedgle said that she sees parallels between Israeli policies towards Palestinians and historical treatment of the Jewish people. “For me,” she said, “it is my heritage that brings me to this issue.... My Jewish values have led me to Palestinian solidarity.”
Abi Dauber Sterne, vice president for global Jewish experience at Hillel, said that the co-sponsorship policy was unlikely to be changed regardless of how many signatures the petition garnered. “Our policy was created with many, many professionals in the Hillel field…. It was an extensive process,” Sterne said. “[W]e feel very confident that it’s the right thing to do.”
Wedgle said that she didn’t see the petition as necessarily a question of being pro- or anti-Israeli or Palestinian. “I don’t think that by signing the petition, it means that you support BDS [the movement to boycott Israel and impose sanctions on the country],” she said. “It means that you support free speech, and a variety of opinions.”
Sterne emphasized that Hillel was not opposed in general to dialogue on the subject. “Relationship-building is the core of who we are,” she said. “Hillel is a very, very open organization, and we welcome people of all backgrounds to enter into a discussion. One of our signature programs is a program called Ask Big Questions, and the focus of that program is to bring in meaningful conversation [among] students of different backgrounds about existential issues in life.”
The petition comes amid a debate over a pro-boycott event last week at Brooklyn College. Some groups had called for the event to be called off, or for Brooklyn's political science department to withdraw its sponsorship. The college defended the right of students and faculty members to organize the event. Four members of the college's chapter of Hillel allege that they were removed from the event by security without cause; Brooklyn College President Karen Gould has launched a probe into the matter.