Swarthmore Hillel picks fight over campus group’s Israel guidelines

by | Dec 19, 2013 | Other News

NEW YORK (JTA)—With an estimated Jewish population of 275 undergraduates, the Quaker-founded Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia is home to one of the smaller Hillel chapters in the country.

But that hasn’t stopped student activists at the small suburban school from picking a fight of potentially epic proportions with the umbrella group, Hillel International.

On Dec. 8, the Swarthmore Hillel student board announced that it had voted unanimously to defy Hillel International’s guidelines for Israel activities and become the first college to join the Open Hillel movement, a campaign aimed at widening the Israel discourse on campus.

Two days later, Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut responded with a letter declaring the position unacceptable.

“I hope you will inform your colleagues on the Student Board of Swarthmore Hillel that Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines,” Fingerhut wrote. “No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise.”

The conflict comes amid growing criticism of the 2010 Israel guidelines, which some argue stifles debate and excludes too many people from the communal discourse around Israel.

The guidelines forbid individual Hillel chapters from hosting groups or speakers that among other things deny Israel’s right to exist or support boycott or divestment from the Jewish state.

Just how far Hillel will go to enforce the policy remains unclear.

David Eden, its chief administrative officer, declines to say whether the group would strip the Swarthmore group of its name or take other punitive measures. Eden says a meeting between Fingerhut and Joshua Wolfsun, communications chair of the Swarthmore Hillel, would likely take place in January.

“Hillel is an open organization,” Eden says. “We embrace dialogue on all sorts of issues, especially with our students.”

Israel has long been an explosive issue on college campuses, with pro-Palestinian groups routinely sponsoring events like Israel Apartheid Week and pro-Israel activists struggling to determine whether to react to provocations or focus instead on promoting positive aspects of Israeli culture.

The challenges have multiplied with the recent growth of the movement to boycott or divest from the Jewish state, known by the acronym BDS.

Wolfsun, a sophomore from Amherst, Mass., says his board had been thinking for a while about publicly distancing itself from Hillel’s Israel policy. They were moved to act by Harvard Hillel’s decision in November to cancel an appearance by former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg because it was co-sponsored by a student group that supports BDS.

Wolfsun emphasizes that Swarthmore Hillel board members represent a range of views on Israel, but are united in the belief that the chapter should be a place to discuss and disagree.

“It’s not that we all support BDS or even that any of us support BDS,” Wolfsun says. “But we want to make room for everybody who does.”

Ira Stup, director of the campus arm of the liberal Israel policy group J Street, says Hillel’s hard line may have ramifications for efforts to engage Jewish students.

“For so many Jewish students Israel is such an important part of their Jewish identity and how they express Jewishness, so that to not have a space where they can explore challenging issues related to Israel ultimately does them a tremendous disservice,” Stup says.

But David Bernstein, executive director of the David Project, a group that works to educate college students about Israel, says Hillel International is doing the right thing.

“Openness is a great general approach, but it has its limits,” Bernstein says. “I don’t believe those who advocate for BDS or for the elimination of the Jewish state should be included in an official Jewish discussion on Israel any more than angry, racist voices should be included in a campus race-relations dialogue.”

Since the 2010 guidelines were established, some Hillel chapters have refused to sponsor events with the Israeli veterans’ group Breaking the Silence, which opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank by disseminating testimony from soldiers who served there. In 2012, the Harvard Hillel reportedly invoked the guidelines in deciding not to host an event called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation” because a Palestinian solidarity group was a co-sponsor.

In October, the University of California, Berkeley’s Jewish Student Union denied a membership application from J Street U, the campus arm of J Street, though it’s not clear whether the guidelines were a factor in the decision.

Open Hillel was launched last spring “to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels,” according to its website. So far, 944 people have signed its petition calling on Hillel to engage with the “full spectrum” of views on the Middle East.

One reason Swarthmore is the only campus so far to openly flout the guidelines may be that it has more financial independence than other branches. That, Stup says, points to a larger issue within the Hillel movement.

“This highlights the disparity between the political sentiments of a lot of donors and the political sentiments and desires of students,” he says.