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.
For the first time in recent memory, the Swarthmore Hillel made the right decision — it changed its name. Since the organization changed its status to an “open-Hillel” last year, the Swarthmore Hillel has been a political activist group acting under the facade of a religious and cultural organization. Many argue that the decision was made to allow the organization to be “more open to all viewpoints,” but if this was the true intent, the Swarthmore Hillel has failed spectacularly.
The now former Hillel was not a place that facilitated debate and discussion on a range of diverse subjects. Rather, it was only interested in one: the Israel/Palestine debate. Furthermore, the Swarthmore Hillel made it abundantly clear that it was only interested in presenting one side of this multifaceted argument. This both disappointed and upset many Jewish students because while there are multiple groups on campus that deal with the many sides of the issue, there was only one group for Jewish students at Swarthmore. The Swarthmore Hillel decided, unfortunately, that this was one too many.
On Hillel International’s website, they explicitly write, “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.” It is clear that the organization that has gone under the name of Open Hillel for the last year stands in strong opposition to this statement. On Hillel International’s website, they discuss in its Israel Guidelines the importance of political pluralism:
Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensable partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.
The unfortunate fact remains that there is not a diversity of student perspectives on Israel that have been featured in the campus conversation, and Open Hillel failed to create an inclusive pluralistic community. At Monday evening’s meeting, a number of students, ourselves included, stated that they felt unwelcome and unsafe attending Open Hillel’s events. This is not because we have any desire for an unambiguously Zionist environment for Jewish life. We believe in Hillel’s commitment to exploring our personal relationships with Israel, and we very much want a “safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.” This is not the environment that we have personally experienced.
Within the greater Swarthmore community, there is a strong anti-Zionist perspective. This is often the only voice that is heard, because many of those who would disagree do not feel safe in doing so. Hillel should be the place that Jewish students who believe in the existence of the state of Israel can go to discuss these ideas. While many people involved in Open Hillel pontificated on the importance of wanting a safe space and open dialogue at Monday evening’s meeting, this is so far from the reality that it was almost disturbingly laughable. Students with a clear Zionist perspective are labeled and excluded from the discussion. We have been told we do not belong at this school, that our voices do not belong in the dialogue. We have been accused of supporting apartheid and of being racist. These are some of the “kinder” words and allegations that have been repeatedly hurled at us when we attempt to speak about our beliefs.
What was made very clear at Monday evening’s meeting was that there is a clear desire for a Jewish space that is not dominated by the Israel-Palestine discussion. There is an evident need for a religious and cultural group on campus, and although Hillel International is a Zionist organization, on many campuses this is the purpose that Hillel serves. Open Hillel at Swarthmore has been so purely political that the needs of the religious and cultural Jewish community have not been met. Students seeking this resource have not been able to access it simply because it does not exist. It is likely that even within an organization that is focused more on the religious than political that there would still be discussion of Israel. However, when the group that purports itself to be the sole Jewish organization on campus is so focused on bringing in speakers that reinforce anti-Israel rhetoric, there is little room left for religious space or study. In the wake of recent events, there needs to be some concentration, both on the part of religious advisors and students, to finally serve this need.
Zionism and Judaism have, and continue to be, two ideologies that are inextricably intertwined. For some Jewish people this does provide an internal conflict, and there needs to be a space for those students to work through this. We understand and we respect the necessity for these intellectual inquiries, both as members of the Swarthmore community and as students of Judaism’s tradition of questioning. All that we ask for is that this respect be reciprocated.
Featured image courtesy of The New York Times.