Swarthmore College. Photo via Wikipedia Commons
Swarthmore College may have just fired the first shot across the bow in a dispute between the Jewish student organization Hillel International and a growing chorus of members who claim that it should be more inclusive.
On December 8, the student board of the Pennsylvania liberal arts college’s Hillel chapter unanimously voted to adopt a resolution rejecting Hillel guidelines that prohibit partnering with organizations that aren’t pro-Israel. In doing so, Swarthmore’s Hillel has become the first campus chapter to publicly endorse the ideas put forward by the “Open Hillel” campaign, an effort launched by student activists in late 2012 to allow for the inclusion of anti-Zionist and pro-Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) groups in Hillel’s activities.
“Swarthmore Hillel declares itself to be an Open Hillel,” the text of the resolution reads. They refer to themselves as, "an organization that is a religious and cultural group whose purpose is not to advocate for one single political view, but rather to open up space that encourages dialogue within the diverse and pluralistic Jewish student body.”
According to Swarthmore Hillel’s communications director Joshua Wolfsun, the decision is not meant to be taken as a political stance by the group on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“We’re not an advocacy organization,” Wolfsun said. “In our effort to build a diverse and inclusive community here, we felt like we wanted to be able to have an open discussion. We thought that Hillel’s guidelines stopped us from doing that.”
The decision earned Swarthmore Hillel a quick and stern rebuke from Hillel International’s new president, former Ohio congressman Eric D. Fingerhut. Fingerhut, a Democrat, sent Wolfson a letter two days after the passage of the resolution stating plainly that “anti-Zionists will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”
“No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise,” Fingerhut wrote, implying that expulsion may lie in the chapter’s future if it chooses to follow through on its resolution.
Fingerhut did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The root of the debate between Hillel and this rogue chapter lies in a policy Hillel International adopted in 2010 to regulate the types of groups that campus Hillels can work with. The policy states that:
“Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”—Hillel Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities
Wolfsun said that Swarthmore Hillel’s thirteen-member board felt that this policy unfairly limited the voices included in discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict and other issues.
Swarthmore Hillel meeting. Photo via Swarthmore Hillel
The Swarthmore resolution was catalyzed by a recent controversial move by the Hillel at Harvard University. In November, that Hillel barred former Speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg from giving a speech in its facilities, because the event was co-sponsored by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, much to the chagrin of students who had organized the event.
“To have to explain, ‘well, we can have Palestinians involved, or it can be in Hillel, but not both’ was embarrassing. It made us seem petty, especially on a college campus,” said Sandra Korn, a student organizer with Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance. Burg instead gave his speech in an undergraduate dorm’s common room.
In the past few years, other students at campus Hillel chapters have faced challenges as a result of the national organization's strict pro-Israel stance. In 2011, the Brandeis University chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace was denied membership status in Hillel for supporting BDS tactics and sponsoring an “Israeli Occupation Awareness Week” on campus. In December of 2012, a student at SUNY Binghamton was asked to resign from his officer positions in Hillel after organizing a screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary about non-violent Palestinian activism in the Occupied Territories, 5 Broken Cameras.
Until now, no college chapters of Hillel had formally challenged the Israel policy. According to Wolfsun, Swarthmore was better equipped than other schools to push ahead because, unlike fellow Hillel chapters, Swarthmore Hillel is entirely student-run and is funded independently of its parent organization.
Wolfsun acknowledged the consequences that his group may face as a result of passing the resolution, but is hopeful that the situation won’t deteriorate.
“I think for us, what we’ve hoped and believed is that Hillel International and Greater Philly are more interested in meeting and hearing student voices than kicking student voices out and silencing them,” he said.