Open Hillel Decision Paves Way For New Discussion

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Swarthmore Hillel’s status change to an open Hillel has led the push for new discussion amongst a wide range of voices at Swarthmore and worldwide, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Now, the organization plans to open up dialogue on the Israel-Palestine conflict – a topic that Swarthmore Hillel has avoided in past years.

When Swarthmore Hillel announced their decision last semester, they flouted Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, which state that Hillel may not sponsor speakers or collaborate with groups that “delegitimize” or “apply a double standard” to Israel.

“Hillel is not a political organization,” Hillel Communications Director Josh Wolfsun ‘16 said. “We are a cultural and religious organization and one of the things that the Standards of Partnership does is make us implicitly take a political position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our mission is to serve the Swarthmore Jewish community. Period.”

In response to Swarthmore Hillel’s decision, President and CEO of Hillel International Eric Fingerhut released a letter to Wolfsun rejecting Open Hillel with a straightforward reply that included the following phrase: “This position is not acceptable.”

Swarthmore Hillel’s move pushes back against the perceived polarizing aspect of the Hillel International policy, which implies that there is only one correct stance to have as a supportive member of the Jewish community. Board members such as Wolfsun recognize that Swarthmore Hillel has a responsibility to give equal voice to all viewpoints on campus.

“If you’re going to represent the Jewish community, you have to acknowledge that there are Jews that are not Zionist, anti-Zionist, etc. [Hillel International’s policies] hem in our ability to have a real open community on campus,” he said.

Nobody is actually clear on what the repercussions would be if Swarthmore Hillel were to act on its decision to reject the Hillel Standards of Partnership. Swarthmore Hillel receives no funding from Hillel International, and hasn’t violated any laws.

As far as any of the Hillel members interviewed know, the only real consequence of violating the Standards of Partnership is that the Swarthmore chapter will no longer be listed as a chapter by Hillel International, and thus may have to change their name. Without the Hillel “brand” at Swarthmore, prospective Jewish students looking for a supportive Jewish environment might look elsewhere, as Hillel is the United States’ largest and most reputable Jewish campus organization.

Despite his condemnation, Fingerhut called for a review of the Hillel Standards of Partnership at a panel on January 12 at UCLA. He stated that the Standards needed to be “updated or modernized.”

This was following an increasing movement nationwide to open Hillel – an initiative encouraging Hillel International to be more open towards Jewish community members who may not identify as Zionist. Swarthmore Hillel’s decision is a landmark step for this initiative, as they are the first Hillel in the nation to officially declare themselves open.

This decision has now spurred national dialogue and a petition supporting their movement that currently boasts 1,428 signatures. The decision was catalyzed by an incident at Harvard University’s Hillel chapter, in which the chapter not allowed to co-host the leftist speaker Avraham Burg with Harvard’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee.  It also came shortly after Hillel International officially partnered with AIPAC [The American Israel Public Affairs Committee], a pro-Israel lobbyist group.  The leaders of these two groups, Eric Fingerhut and Jonathan Kessler, then co-authored an editorial in “The Jewish Week”  encouraging Hillel members to become pro-Israel advocates.

Rachel Flaherman ‘16, a member of J Street, a political advocacy group on campus focusing on Israel-Palestine issues, and a board member of Swarthmore Hillel, noted the possibility to finally begin opening discussions on the Israel-Palestine conflict on campus.

“We haven’t had a history in the last three years or so of engaging with the Israel-Palestine conflict. We haven’t had any discussions or panels or speakers related to the issue because it felt like a painful thing to engage with for our community. I originally thought it would be sort of contrived to begin programming speakers and discussions now, because the decision was originally made simply as a matter of principle,” she said.

Swarthmore Hillel’s decision was not made with the intent to invite a specific speaker that Hillel would not have previously been able to invite. The organization has yet to invite a speaker who would violate Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, but they know they intend to bring such speakers to campus at some point this semester.

“We’ve had such an enthusiastic response from the Swarthmore community that I now think it would be shirking if we were to not engage with the Israel-Palestine issue,” Flaherman said.

Swarthmore Hillel’s move has not just opened the table for the left or anti-Zionists, but for everybody. Marissa Cohen ‘17, a Zionist member of Hillel, expressed appreciation for the strides her fellow Hillel members are taking to understand her pro-Israel views.

“Most people are not soundly acquainted with the Israel-Palestine conflict and there’s a lot of propaganda coming from both sides. So I don’t think it would be possible to bring a pro-Israel speaker to campus without having it coupled with something like Open Hillel. So I see Open Hillel as a way to bring pro-Israel speakers to this campus in a panel or discussion, for example, where they might not otherwise get the opportunity to come at all,” Cohen said.

Featured image taken by David Swanson//The Philadelphia Inquirer

1 Comment

  1. Regarding Hillel and discussing the Middle East in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian situation in particular, I recommend reading Ari Shavit’s recent book “My Promised Land”. It presents modern Israel’s history from a personal and family experience and perspective, but also discusses the bad stuff. I think of it as Israeli history, warts and all. I think it’s as close to a balanced presentation as it’s possible to get, and will be helpful background before inviting speakers for “each side”, who may just end up shouting at each other. (Reminds me of the U.S. Congress just now.)

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