Under Pressure From Hillel International, Swarthmore Hillel Changes Name


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.

Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).


  1. Proud of Swarthmore Hillel for leading the way on this. Stand strong – many of us are with you. I am contacting Hillel International right now to express my outrage at their threats. Open dialogue, deep listening, and thoughtful engagement is the only path forward. You are modeling how to do exactly that and should be supported, not censured or threatened.

    • Amen sisters and brothers. It’s unfortunate that some people are so closed-minded. Hillel International, social progress comes through open dialogue, not confirmation bias. #swattieforever

    • So disappointing that you have no sense of Jewish history. “Open dialogue, deep listening, and thoughtful engagement” would not have worked with Hitler, it didn’t work in France earlier this year, and it won’t work now with anyone trying to kill off the Jews and Israel. You’re not paranoid if they really ARE out to get you. Here’s an example from the University of California, San Diego, only 5 years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fSvyv0urTE

      How about YOUR planned speakers? Will THEY say, IN PUBLIC, that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state.

      • Is there any room in the 21st century for a country to be defined by a religion? Does Israel have to be labeled as a “Jewish” state? Is there no flexibility, no adaptability to reality? Is there no acceptance for difference? Israel and Palestine are like two foolish kids fighting over the past–the past is dead. Neither side is without sin. Focus on building a united future. Hopefully, the younger generation will have open ears and open hearts to build that future–something that you clearly lack.

        • Ah, atheist, how little you know of “being” Jewish. You are the one with closed eyes, believing the world could be like it is in Lennon’s Imagine. Those in the deli in France were not praying, or annoying others. They simply were Jewish. Just like the hatred Michael Douglas describes his son received in Europe last year, described just a few days ago: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-michael-douglas-anti-semitism-jewish-perspec-0318-20150317-story.html
          It is not a question about “room,” but “need” for a country where Jews can “be” Jews without getting killed for it. Why do you think there is a flood of Jews leaving Europe again to head to Israel?

        • There are 49 Muslim-majority countries. Most have laws prohibiting women from voting, from driving and from getting an equal education. Most have laws that sentence gays to death. Many have laws that allow women to be killed for trying to pick their own husbands or fleeing an abusive marriage (“honor killings”)

          Go ahead, atheist. Please try to change these Muslim countries. But be prepared to be arrested, tortured, imprisoned or killed if you try to even speak out there.

          Or you could be barred from entering the country, as a professor who criticized the use of near-slave labor in building NYU’s UAE campus found out recently when he tried to return there.

          • So you seriously want to talk about human rights violations?

            Go fucking read Leviticus. Oh, and also about Israel’s human rights abuses.

  2. Proud of Hillel International for leading the way on this. Stand strong. Many of us are with them. I am contacting Hillel International right now to express my support.

  3. The real problem here is that Hillel International purports to represent the whole campus community of Jewish students, but they have in place standards of partnership that prohibit particular views. Thus they have essentially conflated being Jewish with being Zionist and non-critical of Israeli policy. And since many Jewish students are neither, these students are excluded from their own community. It is not Swarthmore Hillel that should have to drop the name – rather, HI should have to change THEIR name to signal their Zionist requirement (“Hillel” is certainly not appropiate for signaling that) and exclusive membership. I have no problem with an organization requiring certain standards and beliefs for membership – I do have a problem with an organization focused on Jewish students and Jewish life doing that.

  4. This is hysterical. In Spring 2007, the Swarthmore Jewish Community voted to re-“become” Hillel, after a period of not being Hillel because of the baggage associated with it. One of the big reasons they voted to re-associate formally (Ruach and such were never fully disassociated from Greater Philly Hillel and Hillel International) was that Hillel is a signal for prospective Jewish students, and the platform gives options.

    Certainly Hillel International is questionable in its stance on with whom Hillel chapters can affiliate, and a lot of it has to do with big dollar donors (really, J street and the panic it caused with its founding has a lot to do with it). And the-institution-formally-known-as-Hillel at Swarthmore made its stance known when it rebranded as Open Hillel last year. As a casual alum observer, I found it interesting to watch, and figured since Israel is so divisive in the Swarthmore Jewish community, that it was an “in name only” change.

    I’m fascinated by the speaker series being brought to campus, and somewhat glad to know I was wrong in my assumption that the change would be largely meaningless. That being said, I do notice that while invited speakers are from an array of perspectives, I don’t know that I, or any reasonable onlooker, would call it remotely balanced. Just saying. As a proud alum, I’ve never been somewhere quite like Swarthmore where being a pro-Israel Jew is such a sin. And I’m not talking neo-con, or even moderate. But that’s a whole different can of worms.

    The point I’m making is (yes, I finally got there), it’s interesting to look at Hillel International’s recent response to the lecture series, and the letter states that Hillel will continue to support Swarthmore Jewish life at least to an extent.

    So really, the Swarthmore Jewish community has managed to return itself to pre-2007, and in a number of years will inevitably look to the branding advantages and platform perks of national affiliation. Everyone gets to posture, everyone gets to stand firm, and nobody ever wins.

    tl;dr what a load of rubbish.

    Perhaps one day Swatties will figure out a way to reform national organizations of which they are members instead of publicly severing ties every time there is a spat. I won’t hold my breath.

    • Hard to stay and reform when you are being sued. From what I hear, everyone would have liked to stay and reform Hillel (that was the point, right?) rather than disaffiliate. But they couldn’t make “change” and stay a “Hillel” without being subject to a law suit threatened by Hillel International.

      • I am sure that CAIR and the Muslim Brotherhood will be happy to fund this new “non-Hillel” group.

        But could you please leave the students alone who just want to continue practicing Judaism there, and not start up with antisemitic rhetoric or actions, as has happened in the past at Swarthmore?

        There are better campuses for non-BDS supporting Jewish students.

        • I’m sorry anonymous, I’m confused by your post. Are you suggesting that Institutional memory? is starting up with antisemitic rhetoric or actions? Seeing as Institutional memory? is almost certainly a Jew given the knowledge displayed of the history of the Jewish community at Swat, and seeing as the comment on sin largely suggests that Institutional memory? is at least somewhat pro-Israel, exactly what is antisemitic about the rhetoric or actions?

          Personally, I find the “There are better campuses for non-BDS supporting Jewish students” line to be quite troubling, especially given your preceding comment. I read that to mean “If you dislike BDS, go elsewhere where you are wanted more.” And while I’m certainly taking some liberty there, I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn’t reasonably take that comment to mean some stronger or weaker version of my interpretation. It pretty clearly says that Swarthmore is not a place best-suited for pro-Israel students.

          Now, if the message is just to let Jewish students be Jewish, leave them alone, why is it appropriate to tell certain kinds of Jews, particularly those that have a disposition toward Israel perhaps unlike yours, to go away?

          Personally, I’ve always had a fond spot in my heart for Swat’s approach to diversity, namely that it’s ok to be different, it’s ok to self-actualize and live one’s life, but damn everything if not everyone agrees with me whenever I want them to. I’m just glad that such isn’t currently the case, and that swatties remain open and inviting of a variety of viewpoints…

          • It has been well-known for awhile that Swarthmore is not a comfortable place for Jewish students who don’t like the stridently prejudicial outpouring of anti-Israel/antisemitic voices that are dominant there.

            This is from personal experience from myself and many others. Just the way many Jewish students feel, and therefore do not recommend it there for them. You can disagree with this, but I am just expressing what many feel.

            I know the common answer is that students there are anti-Israel, not anti-Semitic, but the virulent way these BDS and other anti-Israel students and faculty express themselves is also experienced as anti-Semitic. This is difficult and unnecessary to live with and pay for at Swarthmore College. There are other, better choices for higher education.

      • Let’s be real, nobody is suing anybody. The only reason Swarthmore’s not-Hillel-anymore is ever in the news is because someone else puts it there. For all the love I have for Swat, let’s face it, its not-Hillel-anymore doesn’t have the greatest name recognition.

        Is it possible that Hillel International might sue to enjoin Swat’s use of the name “Hillel?” It’s POSSIBLE. Might they seek to accomplish a similar goal through another means? Again, it’s POSSIBLE… There aren’t any damages here that I can see, so it’s not like there’s any money at the end of the rainbow. In that respect, that Swat’s Hillel is so relatively insignificant is actually a boon, since nobody cares it can’t be helping or harming anything to any meaningful degree. if Hillel International sought declaratory judgment that Swat’s Hillel was in violation of its franchise, again, great for Hillel International, but so what?

        Hillel International also has something to lose from prosecuting any claims it may be able to bring against Swat Hillel. It is one thing to tell colleges that there are rules. It is another thing to complain when the rules are broken. But it is ENTIRELY a new level when legal action is taken. While some will see it as sticking with it, others will be appalled at it. It won’t likely send much of a signal since Swat Hillel is largely independent of Hillel International as it is, which is not the case for many more well-known Hillel chapters. And it won’t discourage participation in the broader community, much like what was seen earlier this academic year at Harvard.

        And I feel that I should point out that even if a suit were to be filed, that would actually help Swat not-Hillel-anymore’s cause in attempting to address the rules that it continues to breach. Swat not-Hillel-anymore was previously acting on a natural law theory that the guidelines just could not be right, so should not be followed. Well, change happens when you challenge the status quo, not walk away. Open Hillel is already becoming more of a thing, and you build on it.

    • Hi Institutional Memory! I am a member of Swat formerly-known-as-Hillel, and I must say that institutional memory is something I really wish we had more of! It is hard, though, because most students graduate in four years. If you would be willing to help us with institutional memory, we would love to meet you! I personally always love meeting alumni!

      I totally agree with you that Swat Hillel should ideally have stayed in Hillel and reformed from the inside. That is the best way to make change! And that’s why we declared ourselves an Open Hillel a bit over a year ago. (http://daily.swarthmore.edu/2014/01/30/open-hillel-decision-paves-way-for-new-discussion/)

      But sadly, Hillel gave us an ultimatum. They told college administrators that we could not hold the civil rights event under the Hillel name or they would sue the college. So our hands were tied.

      • As a Swat alum, and former Ruach board member, I’m proud of the current generation of students for taking a stand on this. (Particularly given the election results in Israel this week…ugh…)

        Actually, if anything, I kind of wish the College had been willing to back you guys in fighting it out with Hillel International in court. Personally, I think it’s appalling that the major institutions of the Jewish community (like Hillel) are single-mindedly supporting of the outrageously immoral right-wing agenda of Netanyahu’s government, and I wish there were an opportunity to fight the battle to try to return those institutions to a more neutral position, supporting Zionism but also acknowledging the humanity and plight of the Palestinians. I have no idea what the chances would be for success there, but if any institution is well-positioned to take on this sort of fight, it should be Swarthmore, no? But that’s clearly an issue for the college administration, not the Hillel board.

        As for the history…as another alum has mentioned, we were known as Ruach when I was there (2001-2005). The specific reasons predated me, but my understanding is that it had something to do with wanting independence from Hillel International on Israel politics. (Sound familiar?) Still, the Jewish advisor was hired by Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, so they had some influence on Jewish life on campus, but no direct control over the student organization. It was a complicated arrangement, but it mostly worked.

        The move to adopt the Hillel name, as I understand it, began in 2005 after a Ruach board member happened to speak to the secretary in the admissions office. The secretary asked her, as a representative of the Jewish organization on campus: “Prospective students sometimes call to ask if there is a Hillel at Swarthmore. I tell them no. That’s the correct answer, right?” “Um…do you tell them any more than that?” “No…should I tell them anything else?” “Um…yeah…you should…” So once the name is changed, you will want to be sure to do careful outreach to prospective and new students.

        In any case, good luck with the transition, and if you have other institutional memory, feel free to ask.

  5. What a great move by these feisty students! They have lost major funding and extraordinary cultural programming. The unintended consequence will be the promotion of the heretofor censored Zionist voice expressed by groups like Stand with Us and AIPAC who have felt silenced for too long at Swarthmore and finally have the chance to fill the vacuum left by Hillel. A welcome opportunity. And, alums will back a strong, proud and principled stand in support of the Jewish State. This is the best thing that could have happened for Zionist expression at Swarthmore. Thank you former Hillel.

    • Happy to report that we have lost no funding! Jewish programming will continue as usual. Shabbat dinner is at 7pm each week if you’d like to join us. We are always eager to meet alumni!

  6. Now hopefully Jewish students who share the values that Hillel represents will start a new Hillel, where they can feel comfortable and safe expressing their views, and leave, those interested in staying with the former Hillel, under whatever new name it chooses, to enjoy themselves.

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