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 board voted late Monday evening to change their name following an ultimatum from Hillel International. This decision to no longer use the Hillel name comes over a year after Swarthmore Hillel declared themselves open, and a week before the group planned to host an event that would break Hillel International’s standards of partnership. Hillel International threatened legal action if Swarthmore Hillel proceeded to sponsor the event using the Hillel name, which is under copyright.
In a letter to Swarthmore Hillel, Hillel International cited concerns that the event would promote an anti-Israel or pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) agenda. The event, entitled “Social Justice Then and Now: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement,” will feature three activists who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. They will discuss their experiences in the civil rights movement, racial organizing today, and social justice in Israel and Palestine.
Hillel International wrote that if the event focused on the American Civil Rights program it would not be in violation of Hillel International policies. However, in their letter, Hillel International stated that if the program featured a “discussion in which the speakers present or proselytize their known anti-Israel and Pro BDS agenda, this would cross the clear line for programs that violate Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership and could be reason for Hillel International to seek to protect its guidelines, name and reputation.”
In a press release, Swarthmore Hillel said their vote to cease use of the Hillel name “affirm[s] the organization’s central Jewish values of openness and inclusion across differences.” The group plans to choose a new name in the coming weeks, following discussions with the Jewish community and an open submission and voting process.
The board’s vote came after a two-hour meeting in Bond Hall, where members of Swarthmore’s Jewish community — some of whom are active in Hillel, some not — discussed what aspects of Hillel they valued, what the group could do to be more welcoming, and what they did not want to lose from the group.
The group of nearly thirty students featured many divergent views, but certain feelings were shared by most students: both Zionist and anti-Zionist students felt alienated by the discourse surrounding Israel and Palestine within the Swarthmore community. Students voiced concerns about groupthink and exclusion, while others questioned how to reconcile the political, cultural, and religious identities of Jewish students.
At the time of writing, the events that prompted Hillel International’s letter will proceed as planned on Tuesday, March 24 and Wednesday, March 25.
Featured image courtesy of The New York Times.