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.
It has been a year since Swarthmore Hillel declared themselves an Open Hillel, a decisive break from international guidelines. On Wednesday, December 3rd, Hillel hosted a discussion about what has happened since their declaration, what being an Open Hillel looks like, and what campus discussions about Israel and Palestine can be.
Joshua Wolfsun ‘16, Swarthmore Hillel’s Israel and Palestine Programming Coordinator, said that Hillel is “entering a new chapter, in terms of our programming […] and what we’re going to do. We’ve put a lot of thought into it, and we’re ready to talk to the community about it.” Now that the group has become more established, he said, he hopes the community can come together and explore what it means to be an Open Hillel, “rather than just asserting the fact that we are one.”
Just under 20 students attended Wednesday’s meeting. Some were freshmen, but there were also a number of upperclassmen and people outside the campus Jewish community. The discussion aimed to be an informational session for those who are not familiar with Open Hillel and a discussion of how it fits into the mosaic of groups that address Israel and Palestine on campus.
The meeting began with an ice breaking exercise where students introduced themselves and filled in gaps in statements such as “When I talk about Israel/Palestine, I worry that people think ____ about my beliefs.” Students used these statements as a starting point to share both positive and negative stories about their experiences in discussions on Israel and Palestine. This segued into a discussion on what kind of space Swarthmore Hillel is trying to build for conversations on campus.
Wolfsun acknowledged that these conversations are not always easy. “Up to this point, conversations in the Jewish community […] around Israel/Palestine generally don’t go so well,” said Wolfsun. “We’re not so good at talking about it. Yet.”
“It was very hard to figure out the right way to do this,” said Wolfsun. “It was very easy to figure out many many ways to do it wrong.” It would be easy to bring in, for lack of a better word, the most extreme views and have a lively discussion, he said, but it might not be very productive.
Wolfsun said Hillel’s ultimate aim is to “build a culture of resilient listening,” where people can engage with opinions very different from their own, while being able to respectfully challenge those views as well. Meeting attendees did caution against calls for dialogue at Swarthmore that are used as a tactic to slow down effective action. “It’s not like we only want people to sit and discuss,” Wolfsun said, “We want people to be out there working […] then at Hillel we can come back together […] and grow and learn.”
In the coming semester, Open Hillel hopes to hear from students about what they want Israel and Palestine programming on campus to look like. While there are not yet official plans for events and speakers, Wolfsun said that Swarthmore can expect programming that allows people to “vehemently disagree, and grow, and listen.” “These can often be difficult discussions,” he said, “but they can be worthwhile discussions and fruitful discussions. I think we have an immense amount to learn from each other.”
Image courtesy of nytimes.com