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Swarthmore College’s Hillel chapter is changing its name after facing legal pressure from its parent organization, Hillel International, which objected to the chapter’s programming on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The student board governing the Hillel chapter at Swarthmore passed a resolution in December 2013 declaring itself an “Open Hillel” and asserting that it would not abide by its parent organization’s ban on hosting anti-Israel speakers. Hillel International’s guidelines for Israel-related activities on campuses prohibit individual chapters of the Jewish student group from partnering with or hosting groups or speakers who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, who “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel,” or who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

The Swarthmore Hillel members wrote in an op-ed back in 2013 that “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” -- prompting Hillel International’s president, Eric D. Fingerhut, to respond that under no circumstances would “anti-Zionists” be permitted to speak under the Hillel roof and using the Hillel name.

“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," Fingerhut said.

The more than yearlong showdown ended Monday when the student board for the organization formerly known as Swarthmore Hillel voted to change its name (new name TBD). The precipitating incident was a letter Hillel International’s general counsel wrote to administrators at Swarthmore threatening legal action in regard to an upcoming panel discussion featuring four Jewish civil rights activists who are on a national tour discussing links between their work in the American South in the 1960's and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Open Hillel, a national student movement that opposes the Hillel International guidelines on Israel -- and of which the Swarthmore Open Hillel chapter was a part -- organized the tour in question. When the same group of speakers came to the Hillel at Harvard University in February, The Jewish Daily Forward reported that the presence on the panel of a BDS proponent, Dorothy Zellner, seemed to break with Hillel International policies, even as Hillel officials emphasized that there was no conflict, as the event was not focused on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. 

In a letter to Swarthmore College administrators, Hillel International’s vice president and general counsel, Tracy A. Turoff, wrote that if the focus of the planned program at Swarthmore is the American civil rights movement, it would not violate the organization’s guidelines on Israel activities on campus. “However, if the students or speakers intend for this program to be a discussion in which the speakers present or proselytize their known anti-Israel and pro-BDS agenda, this would cross the clear line for programs that violate Hillel International’s standards of partnership and could be reason for Hillel International to seek to protect its guidelines, name and reputation,” Turoff’s letter continues.                                    

In legal terms, the letter asserts that “Hillel International is the sole and exclusive licensee with the right to use the famous Hillel name and mark in connection with college campus activities, including but not limited to, any confusingly similar goods and services. The Hillel name and mark is registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, is incontestable and has been in use for more than 90 years. Swarthmore College Hillel is an affiliated campus Hillel through its affiliation with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. Along with its exclusive license, Hillel International is charged with protecting the mark from unauthorized use by others.”

"At this point, we realized that given the restrictions and given our commitment to doing open programming to try to include everybody, it just wasn’t tenable to continue to operate under the Hillel name with the obstacles that the organization was putting in place,” said Joshua Wolfsun, a junior at Swarthmore and the Israel-Palestine programming coordinator for the Hillel chapter.

“On several occasions, Hillel International communicated our foundational values as part of our standards of partnership to the students and administration at Swarthmore College,” Turoff said in a statement on Tuesday. “Last night, a group of current Jewish students decided they no longer wish to identify with our guidelines and as such, decided they would not continue to represent themselves as a Hillel. Hillel International cares about Jewish life on campus at Swarthmore and together with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia will continue to look for opportunities to serve Jewish students on the Swarthmore campus.”

Yet the Open Hillel movement blasted Hillel International as not serving but rather “stifling Jewish life on campus and actively driving students away.”

“Rather than empower young Jews who are working to create meaningful programming, Hillel International has tried to bully them into silence,” the Open Hillel movement said in a statement. "As students involved in our Hillels around the country, we demand an immediate halt to any attempts to legally blackmail our peers and ask that supporters of openness in the American Jewish community join us in actively expressing our shame in Hillel International’s actions."

The Jewish student group at Swarthmore does not expect to take a hit to funding. Wolfsun said that the group's funding comes from two sources: Swarthmore funds provided to registered student groups, and an endowment managed by the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia -- which, he said, students have been assured they will continue to have access to. The chief executive officer of the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, Rabbi Howard Alpert, confirmed this, writing in an e-mail that the endowment belongs to Swarthmore and was raised to benefit Jewish student life at the college.

“Swarthmore contracts with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia to oversee use of the proceeds of the fund in accordance with their intended purpose. We will continue ‎to do so,” Alpert said.

"Swarthmore's Jewish student community is diverse culturally, religiously and politically -- their decision reflects their desire to support that diversity through pluralism and dialogue,” Liliana Rodriguez, Swarthmore's associate dean of diversity, inclusion and community development, said in a statement. “We are proud of the deep reflection and thoughtfulness our students have put into making this difficult decision. We expect to maintain a collegial relationship with Hillel International and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and appreciate the guidance they have provided our students these past six years.”

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