Prior to winter break, the college’s Hillel chapter, the largest Jewish organization on campus, declared itself an “Open Hillel.” Notably, Hillel is the largest national college campus organization for Jewish students in the country. The policy changes mean that Hillel members will no longer abide by the Hillel guidelines that prohibit chapters from collaborating with speakers or groups that “delegitimize” or “apply a double standard” to Israel. The Hillel dispute has furthered an increasingly hot debate over what entails appropriate discussion and activism concerning Israel and Israeli politics on college campuses.
Joshua Wolfsun ’16, a Hillel Board member, explained that the transition towards an open Hillel began in the middle of the 2013 spring semester, when a group of current Swarthmore Hillel Board members came across Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, and were unhappy with what they discovered.
“If Swarthmore Hillel was ever going to lead discussions within its community, which we knew we might pursue in the future, we needed an open community where people of all political positions were welcome,” Wolfsun said.
Wolfsun further noted that many student board members were uncomfortable with the fact that the Standards of Partnership force speakers and groups to meet a political “litmus test.” He explained that the untenable exclusivity of the Standards of Partnership was made clear when Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, was barred from giving his previously planned talk at the Harvard Hillel house because the event was co-sponsored by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee.
“This was not the first time that the Standards of Partnership led to the silencing of voices within the Jewish community,” Wolfsun said. “As a branch member of the international Hillel community, the board did not feel like it could stay silent about it.”
Nathaniel Frum ’16, however, has expressed concern with Hillel’s recent policy changes, noting that the largest Jewish student group on campus seems intent on becoming a purely left leaning political group. One argument that he and others have raised notes that SPJP already offers a space in which speakers who might be “anti-Israeli” can speak, and members of Hillel who are interested in hearing those views can participate and be involved in those forums.
“There is no shortage of student groups or faculty departments that would be willing to bring an anti-Israel speaker to campus,” Frum said. “There is also a very heavy bias in demonstrations involving the state of Israel. One would think that a Jewish group on campus would be enthusiastic to show the only Jewish state in a positive light to the student body. Sadly, this is not the case. Swarthmore has no shortage of generic liberal student groups and it seems Hillel is one of them.”
A major question in the debate regarding Hillel’s policy changes revolves around what the terms “Zionism” and “Anti-Zionism” necessitate for different people. Varying opinions on the definitions of the terms have led people to feel differently about the changes. Unlike Frum, Wolfsun feels that Anti-Zionism is compatible with Judaism, and that people of all worldviews regardless of their beliefs about the Israeli state, ought to be given a chance to speak under the Hillel roof.
“There are many people, and many Jewish students at Swarthmore, who identify as anti-Zionists. To conflate Judaism and Zionism is to not allow for the incredibly diverse Jewish community that actually exists today. To meet our mission, we’re committed to building a space that allows for all political positions on the state of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We’re really truly committed to pluralism and open dialogue. We believe that the way to learn and engage with issues in a constructive way is to hear from, engage with, criticize, understand and reflect on multiple views.
Marissa Cohen’17 another Hillel member, expressed sentiments similar to those of Wolfsun. She believes that although it may seem as if Judaism and Zionism go hand in hand, that such a pairing is not true for all Jewish people, especially Swarthmore students.
“Not allowing speakers of a certain viewpoint sends a message that students of said viewpoint are also not allowed–or at least not as welcome as others,” she said. “All Jewish people, regardless of political beliefs, should be treated equal. Hopefully, the resolution will thus allow for an increase in attendance. Maintaining the Jewish community is my most paramount concern.”
She further explained that although she identifies as a Zionist, she not frightened by the prospect of “anti-Zionists” speaking in Hillel. She believes that most of the reaction against Open Hillel currently overstates the effects.
If [Anti-Zionist] speakers are coming to campus anyway, why not host them ourselves, in a forum that will allow us to at least influence the situation?” Cohen said. “Students interested in the speakers will follow them to whichever forum they speak at–if we do not host them ourselves, we will lose Jewish students from Hillel who will feel as though their views are better represented elsewhere.”
She also argued that Hillel’s current policies represent a close minded approach.
“By refusing to hear other views, we send the message that we are not confident in our own. Hearing anti-Zionism does make me uncomfortable. But that’s ok. I will better understand opposing arguments, which will help me refute them later.”
Noah Weinthal ’15 offered a middle ground view, pointing to both benefits and detriments of the policy changes. He suggested that plenty of room already exists on campus for Anti-Zionist beliefs, beliefs that he himself is often made uncomfortable by.
“Anti-Zionism to me means a belief in the falsity of the moral and legal justification for the creation and continued existence of the State of Israel,” he said. “It means denying to Israel the right to self-defense while espousing and applauding it for Palestinians. It means vilifying Israel for military campaigns against those who fire rockets at towns and schools that have done nothing wrong except seeking to exist.”
Nevertheless, he notes that Hillel’s stated mission is “to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.”
“Nowhere does it say that one’s Jewish identity is contingent upon Zionism, and I find it hard to see how we may enrich the world if we cannot learn to welcome dialogue with those with whom we disagree,” Weinthal said.
Additionally, he explained that he believes that there is a difference between believing in the State of Israel and believing in the core tenets and principles that make one Jewish.
“I think my concerns about Anti-Zionism are a strong case for why we need a strong Pro-Israel group on campus that provides a safe space for those who wish to learn about the nuances of Israeli politics in more neutral and less vilifying languageThat group, though, has never been the role of Hillel and should never be the role of Hillel.”
Other members of Hillel were contacted and did not respond. Kelilah Miller, the Jewish Student Advisor, declined to comment.