A Response to the Hillel Naming Decision


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.


  1. Swarthmore Hillel hasn’t been providing religious and cultural life? Have you ever walked into the building on Friday night where there is always a home cooked dinner and Friday night services? Or attended services on High Holidays? Or gone to a move night in the Jewish Student Lounge? Or done Talmud study in English? Or been to dinner here over Pesach when students in Swarthmore Hillel single handedly cater kosher for Passover food for the entire Jewish community because the school’s dining hall’s options are inadequate? This piece seems a rather disingenuous of a critique of an organization that has only had two Israel-Palestine events this semester, but has weekly religious and cultural offerings. Or, it’s just grossly ignorant in which case I’d encourage you to do some basic research and ask questions in good faith before attacking a group which you seem to know almost nothing about other than your preconceptions. Also, you seem to know nothing about the actual Israel-Palestine programming series. It includes bringing in Women of the Wall and Yad b’yad, hardly organizations that reinforce “anti-Israel” rhetoric.

  2. Open Hillel’s agenda is clear: to undermine and neutralize Hillel Houses on US campuses on Israel. It succeeded in destroying the Swartmore Hillel leaving most Jewish students with no Jewish space. I eagerly await the day when equals demands are put on Palestinian or Muslim student groups to be open to hearing pro-Israel speakers’ views. Since that won’t happen, and since these groups are singularly focused on demonizing and dehumanizing Israelis at every opportunity it is clear in my mind that Open Hillel willingly plays the role of useful idiots to those who seek to do harm to Israel and the right of the Jewish people to sovereign equality.

    • You really don’t know anything about Swarthmore and Swatties, do you? We aren’t your typical liberal arts college and we aren’t your typical college students. We value thinking for ourselves, not letting an organization define what to think (that is very Orwellian).

      • You Swatties need to realize that the worst human rights struggles are for women and gays in Muslim countries. Gays are murdered in Muslim countries, since it is illegal to be gay. At least 20,000 girls and women in Muslim countries/areas are murdered each year for trying to get an uncensored education or trying to choose whom to love or marry, or leaving an abusive relationship.

        Swatties fall into very stereotypical roles as supposedly “politicized” college students.

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

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

        • wow all muslim countries are so monolithic, i had no idea!
          it might surprise you that in some muslim countries it is not actually illegal to be gay, but whatever, facts are stupid i guess.

  3. I have always found Swarthmore Hillel’s events to be warm, welcoming to everyone (including non-Jews), and utterly “safe.” I don’t go consistently, but enough to experience a real feeling of community every time I do. Maybe if the authors had gone to more (any?) of the numerous Swat Hillel social, cultural and religious events over the past few years they would know that. I went to the first Israel/Palestine program event, and I appreciated what ALL the speakers shared, including one of the authors of this piece, who shared her own story. She was, from what I could tell, warmly and respectfully received. I found her perspective to be valuable and was glad she participated. So I was disheartened to see her writing this here. Claims of feeling unsafe create their own atmosphere of “unsafeness” when they are actually designed to stifle thoughtful dialogue and position anyone with a different opinion as threatening. Which is why I stand with the soon-to-be renamed Swarthmore Hille.

  4. I would love to see you at Shabbat dinner tonight! I am sad that you have never felt welcome before, but hopefully you will come to dinner tonight and see that we don’t talk about politics. Every Friday night, services at 6, dinner at 7:15!

    So sorry and sad that we conveyed the wrong impression to you about our religious events. Hopefully we can rectify this by showing you how lovely and non-political our worship, friendship and food are!

  5. Yitzhak,

    There’s one flaw in your argument. Those that in the past pushed for the Open Hillel are Jews who participate in Hillel. It wasn’t the decision of the school, nor outside activists, to become an Open Hillel. That was the type of Jewish space, one open to debate on Israel, that most Jews that were members of Hillel wanted. Now, I would say that it’s acceptable to challenge Hillel’s regulations and you probably wouldn’t, but regardless the group’s name is being change in accordance with the wishes of the majority (and significantly the meeting where this decision took place was advertised as being open to all Jews on campus, whether or not they generally participated in Hillel).

    Following that logic, I don’t see why Muslim groups should be compelled to hold events with Zionist speakers. If members of the group want to hold such events, then they should of course be supported by individuals not in the group. Isn’t your argument that religious groups should be allowed to practice their religion in a way that feels true to them?


    • Muslim groups do not allow pro-Israel speakers. They don’t even like Jewish organizations to be pro-Israel. CAIR does not support free speech. Or the rights of gays, Christians, dissidents. Maybe one day naive undergraduates will wake up to the fact that the Muslim groups they support do not allow basic human rights to women and gays. Gays are killed in Muslim countries. No freedom to chalk.

      • Anonymous,

        You’ll note the ’14 next to my name, so that makes me a naive graduate.

        Anyways, I think your argument rests on two very questionable assumptions. First, you’re saying that if Muslim groups (which are more diverse than you imply) don’t allow pro-Israel speakers, than Jewish groups shouldn’t bring speakers that could be considered pro-Palestinian? What if the groups themelves want to do that? Why let the behavior of Jewish groups be controlled by groups that are only tangentially related?

        Second, might there be a difference between supporting Hamas and supporting the end of military tribunals for Palestinian children for example? I think the perils of the “you’re with us or against us” logic should be clear after the last fifteen years of American foreign policy.

  6. The implications of your language alone makes it clear that you believe you have to be a Zionist to be Jewish, and everyone just needs to “work through it”. It’s also implicit that you think that not being a “Zionist” means you are somehow “anti-Israel”. This is clearly the same mentality that involves the suppression of reasonable views that recognize there being inherent problems with the operation of the Israeli state, proposing reforms for the Palestinian people to be treated more like human beings, but also not willing for the disappearance of Israel. Regardless of your well written propaganda piece that attempts to frame Swarthmore’s Hillel as “suppressing” “Pro-Israel” Zionist views it seems clear that you are using this complaint as a way to legitimize your viewpoint, which is out of touch. The very fact that you want a Jewish space that doesn’t involve the Israel-Palestine discussion is showing how disconnected from reality you seem. The Israel-Palestine “discussion” seems to be mostly about people who recognize that some of the operations of the Israeli state purposefully disenfranchise people and also treat a race of people as second class citizens, versus those who “Don’t want a space dominated by the Israel-Palestine discussion” and feverishly cling to the archaic manifest-destiny like idea of Zionism and pretend nothing wrong is happening.

    • Comparing Zionism to Manifest Destiny sounds nice in an angry comment, but it’s actually very reductive and only superficially accurate. Secondly, by declaring Nat and Jess’s political viewpoints invalid you’re actually proving them right. It’s nice of you to support the Open Hillel, but you’re not helping this discussion.

    • It’s completely reasonable to not want a space dominated by the Israel-Palestine discussion. I believe Nat and Jess are wrong when they say Hillel is “dominated”, but the point still stands. Asking that every Jewish space to be dominated by the Israel-Palestine discussion is like asking that every room in America be dominated by talk of race issues all the time, except its actually a much less reasonable request than that because some Jews have no connection to Israel. While I agree generally with your political viewpoints, your failure to recognize this double standard makes me really uncomfortable as a Jew.

    • Very well said by someone who can clearly think and speak for herself/himself and make her/his own conclusions without simplifying such a complex issue.

      David Spalter on the other hand sounds like a Fox news headline–blindingly dramatic, oversimplifying, and lacking depth of thought.

  7. The truth comes out. Open Hillel is a fraud. It has absolutely no interest in open discussions. It wishes to amplify the anti-Israel BDS movement. Disgusting. I feel bad for the Swarthmore students who are now left without a place where they can feel comfortable expressing themselves as Jewish Zionists – a term that should be lauded.

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