Swarthmore Hillel votes to drop ‘Hillel’ from name

Swarthmore Hillel’s board voted on Monday to change their name after receiving an email from Hillel International that threatened legal action against the student organization if it did not change the agenda of an upcoming event so that it aligned with Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. The student group decided to remove “Hillel” from its name so that it could proceed with the planned event, where four activists will be presenting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict next week. The name change will also ensure its autonomy in choosing guest speakers and future topics for discussion.

In its letter to Swarthmore, Hillel International described the four activists as “promoting an anti-Israel agenda” that violated Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. They wrote that if the event focused solely on the speakers’ participation in the American Civil Rights movement, then it would not be in violation of their policy, but that the group needed to correspond with Hillel International for confirmation. They issued an ultimatum demanding that the student group communicate with Hillel International by 5 p.m on Tuesday.

In a press release, Swarthmore Hillel said that the decision to drop “Hillel” from its name was made “in order to affirm [our] central Jewish values of openness and inclusion across differences.” Keeping the Hillel name “would prevent us from continuing to build that inclusive community we want to be,” wrote Joshua Wolfsun ’16, Swarthmore Hillel’s Israel-Palestine Programming Coordinator, via email.

Still, the decision to drop the Hillel name was a difficult one.

“For many of us, we identified with the Hillel name — either as a link to the larger Jewish student community, a connection to Hillel the Elder — the organization’s namesake — or quite simply as just what we have always called ourselves,” Wolfsun wrote. “As an organization that claims to promote pluralism and Jewish life in all its forms, it is deeply disappointing and frustrating that Hillel International has responded to our attempts to create an open and pluralistic community by threatening to sue its students and their college.”

Wolfsun reported that the Dean’s Office had been in contact with the student group, and had been “helpful and supportive” of the student-led decision-making process.

The meeting, which lasted two hours in Bond Hall, was attended by Jewish members both inside and outside of Swarthmore Hillel who discussed which aspects of Hillel they valued and desired to keep. Students also expressed concerns for the group to address going forward, such as feelings of exclusion and unilateral thinking. Having more diverse guest speakers with differing viewpoints is meant to address this issue.

According to its press statement, Swarthmore Hillel has yet to decide on the new name, although it will be chosen in the coming weeks, and the entire Jewish community at Swarthmore inside and outside of the organization will be invited to participate in the selection process.

Hillel International opposes programming that presents an anti-Israel view in any of its affiliated Hillel organizations. As part of a series on social justice issues on Israel and Palestine, Swarthmore Hillel scheduled a discussion entitled “Social Justice Then and Now: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement” with civil rights veterans Ira Grupper, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin, and Dorothy Zellner. Ira Grupper was involved in a 2009 march in solidarity with Gaza victims of Israel’s January 2009 siege. Mark Levy is a civil rights activist who regularly speaks to college groups about the relevancy of the Civil Rights Movement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Larry Rubin works with groups in Washington D.C. and Baltimore connecting the Black and Jewish communities. Dorothy Zellner was the co-editor of the civil rights newsletter “The Student Voice” and is now involved in advocacy work on behalf of Palestinians. They are scheduled to speak about their experiences in the American Civil Rights Movement and its applicability to the current conflict in Israel and Palestine next Tuesday and Wednesday.


  1. Nice article. I appreciate the clarity and care taken to explain this somewhat complex situation. And well done, soon to be renamed Swat Hillel. Principled,important stand. I have been appreciating the thought you took throughout all of this.

  2. In his History of the Jews in Christian Spain Yitzhak Baer tells us that Abner of Burgos, the apostate cited at the beginning of this essay, not only devised a plan for terrorizing and destroying the Jews which “the enemies of Israel were to carry out in its entirety in the year 1391.” “The aging fanatical apostate who wrote these diatribes,” Baer adds,” launched his holy war himself, not only in words but also in deed.” But our new apostates need not work so hard: they can rest content with being accessories to, rather than perpetrators of, murder. The machinery for destruction of the state of Israel is already in place. It exists not only in Iran, whose leaders explicitly call for wiping Israel off the map with nuclear weapons that they are now almost certain to obtain. The neighbors of this tiny country would be delighted to see it reduced to sandy wastes, as would countless citizens of the Dark Continent (Europe, that is) who cannot forgive the Jews for the Holocaust. If many Iranians and Europeans still deny there was a Holocaust, that is because, as the courageous German scholar Matthias Kuntzel has observed: “Every denial of the Holocaust contains an appeal to repeat it.” The BDSers may be obtuse, craven, morally bankrupt; but they would also have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to recognize the link between their efforts and the murderous intentions of those who regret the Holocaust only because—for a time—it gave antisemitism a bad name.
    There is yet one more calamity that has been brought closer by the reckless Jewish promoters of BDS, a calamity that one might have expected at least the Jewish Studies professors among them to think about for just a moment. “In only one respect,” wrote Hillel Halkin in 2007, “are things [now] worse. In the 1930’s the Jews were a people that had lost a first temple and a second one; yet as frightful as their next set of losses was to be, they did not have a third temple to risk. Today, they do. And in Jewish history, three strikes and you’re out.”

  3. Back in October, Holly Bicerano, a Jewish student at Boston University, penned an article for the Times of Israel entitled “Why Hillel Should Welcome Anti-Zionists and BDS Backers.” Extolling the virtues of a group calling itself “Open Hillel” – a moniker adopted in protest at the refusal of the official Hillel student organization to host speakers at its events who advocate the elimination of the State of Israel – Bicerano wrote that excluding such organizations and individuals “would be a serious mistake…Doing so will only serve to divide the community.”
    Two months later, however, Bicerano has undergone a dramatic change of heart.
    In a fresh piece for the Times of Israel, Bicerano, who served as Campus Outreach Co-ordinator for Open Hillel, said that the organization “has something else in mind” other than its stated goals of “open dialogue and inclusiveness.”
    “The people who claim that Open Hillel’s main objective is to garner support for the BDS movement may not realize just how right they are,” Bicerano asserted.
    Bicerano said that while Open Hillel zealously insists on tolerance for the BDS movement, “many Open Hillel leaders are intolerant of pro-Israel voices that they dislike.”
    Bicerano discovered this fact when she invited Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and the author of “Night,” the classic account of his incarceration in the Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp, to a recent Open Hillel conference.
    Shockingly, Bicerano recalled that her Open Hillel comrades “took this as an opportunity to demonize and reject him. They felt that they could not make their point without resorting to name-calling and using curse words against Wiesel.”
    Bicerano also recounted that Open Hillel’s attempts to address the issue of “anti-normalization” – an anodyne term used by pro-Palestinian activists to harass and marginalize pro-Israel students – consisted of inviting two members of the violently anti-Semitic hate group, Students for Justice in Palestine, to address Open Hillel supporters.
    “By presenting the topic from only this ideological standpoint, the committee actually indoctrinated people to hate Israel, rather offering a balance of views – from which people could decide for themselves what to believe,” Bicerano wrote.
    Most damningly, Bicerano stated that “Open Hillel has become a vessel for the BDS agenda…”

  4. just thought i’d add, (for others without a background in this topic), that the acronym used by Arafat–“BDS”–stands for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.” it’s an organization/movement seeking to use economic and political pressure to force a change in Israeli policies.

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