Defying Hillel rules, Swarthmore chapter invites anti-Zionists to come on in

Israel/Palestine
on 30 Comments
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Hillel logo

Two weeks ago, an Israeli speaker was barred from Harvard Hillel because he was sponsored by a Palestinian solidarity committee. Over the weekend the Swarthmore College Hillel responded with a stunning and unanimous declaration: We defy Hillel International’s rules.

Here are two statements. First, a press release announcing the refusal to accept the international body’s guidelines on speakers and putting out a welcome mat for anti-Zionists, post-Zionists, non-Zionists, everyone. (And not just Jews.) And below that, the resolution itself.

(The Jewish Press has reported this news, angrily. Swarthmore Hillel’s Josh Wolfsun says there’s been no response to the resolution yet.)

Notice particularly the invocation of “our namesake,” Rabbi Hillel, who believed in open debate. Notice the defiant statements about “the true face of young American Jews” against the “monolithic face” that Hillel wants the Jewish community to have. Shattering.

Also hark to the way these young people are now instructing their elders about the mission:

we need to constantly wrestle with how best to meet the collective needs of a diverse community. We need to create a space that is safe and welcoming for all.

For all. In a diverse community. Swarthmore is redefining the modern Jewish community.

1. Swarthmore Hillel declares itself an Open Hillel

By Swarthmore Hillel Board, 2013-2014

On November 11, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset Avraham Burg was supposed to give a talk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Harvard Hillel house. Instead, Hillel barred him from speaking at the Hillel house, and he ended up giving his talk in an undergraduate dormitory on campus. The reason he was barred? His talk was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee.

Sadly, for organizations bearing the name “Hillel,” situations like these are all too common. Across the country, many Hillels have banned Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli soldiers that facilitates talks about the Israeli military and West Bank occupation. Jewish Voice for Peace, which seeks “peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East,” has never been allowed to affiliate with Hillels. On some campuses, J Street has had a difficult time working with Hillels, and events co-sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine or Palestine Solidarity Committees have often been banned.

Across the country, Hillels’ suppression of the freedom to speak and believe things that are not narrowly pro-Zionist are the direct result of Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines. Right after stating in their “Political Pluralism” section that they object to excluding “students for their beliefs and expressions,” they declare that they “will not partner with, house, or host” – in other words, they will exclude – groups and speakers that espouse certain beliefs about Israel. These contraband beliefs include denying the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state and supporting boycotting, divesting, or sanctions against Israel. They also ban those who “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.” No further explanation is provided to clarify these guidelines, but their ambiguity has done nothing to ease the stifling effect they have on individual Hillels’ freedoms of speech, belief, and association. These guidelines would exclude speakers with views like those of Peter Beinart, Judith Butler, and Noam Chomsky.

Hillel, billing itself as the “Foundation for Jewish Campus Life,” is seen by many as the face of the American Jewish college population. And due to these policies, it is a face that is often seen to be monolithically Zionist, increasingly uncooperative, and completely uninterested in real pluralistic, open dialogue and discussion.

We do not believe this is the true face of young American Jews.

In fact, we do not believe there is only one face of young American Jews. We believe there are many faces of this diverse population. In our community, we find this diversity in the conversations we have with each other in our Sukkah, in the group of students meeting in a college coffee bar to discuss Talmudic conceptions of angels, and in the songs we sing together after a Shabbat meal. If we are truly devoted to fostering Jewish Campus Life, we need to constantly wrestle with how best to meet the collective needs of a diverse community. We need to create a space that is safe and welcoming for all. We need to a create a space that invites difference – difference of opinion, difference of belief, difference of background, difference of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

This is hard work. But if we are going to bear the name of Rabbi Hillel, we cannot expect anything less to be asked of us. Rabbi Hillel valued Jewish debate and difference – it was at the core of his practice. We do the same. For us, that is what the name Hillel symbolizes.

Therefore, we choose to depart from the Israel guidelines of Hillel International. We believe these guidelines, and the actions that have stemmed from them, are antithetical to the Jewish values that the name “Hillel” should invoke. We seek to reclaim this name. We seek to turn Hillel – at Swarthmore, in the Greater Philadelphia region, nationally, and internationally – into a place that has a reputation for constructive discourse and free speech. We refuse to surrender the name of this Rabbi who encouraged dialogue to those who seek to limit it.

To that end, Swarthmore Hillel hereby declares itself to be an Open Hillel. All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist. We are an institution that seeks to foster spirited debate, constructive dialogue, and a safe space for all, in keeping with the Jewish tradition. We are an Open Hillel.

We invite you to join us.

2. The resolution. “Swarthmore Hillel is an Open Hillel.”

Unanimously adopted by Swarthmore Hillel Student Board, December 8, 2013

Whereas Hillel International prohibits partnering with, hosting, or housing anyone who (a) denies the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders, (b) delegitimizes, demonizes, or applies a double standard to Israel, (c) supports boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;

And whereas this policy has resulted in the barring of speakers from organizations such as Breaking the Silence and the Israeli Knesset from speaking at Hillels without censorship, and has resulted in Jewish Voice for Peace not being welcome under the Hillel umbrella;

And whereas this policy runs counter to the values espoused by our namesake, Rabbi Hillel, who was famed for encouraging debate in contrast with Rabbi Shammai;

And whereas Hillel, while purporting to support all Jewish Campus Life, presents a monolithic face pertaining to Zionism that does not accurately reflect the diverse opinions of young American Jews;

And whereas Hillel’s statement that Israel is a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students does not allow space for others who perceive it as irrelevant to their Judaism;

And whereas Hillel International’s Israel guidelines privilege only one perspective on Zionism, and make others unwelcome;

And whereas the goals of fostering a diverse community and supporting all Jewish life on campus cannot be met when Hillel International’s guidelines are in place;

Therefore be it resolved that Swarthmore Hillel declares itself to be an Open Hillel; an organization that supports Jewish life in all its forms; an organization that is a religious and cultural group whose purpose is not to advocate for one single political view, but rather to open up space that encourages dialogue within the diverse and pluralistic Jewish student body and the larger community at Swarthmore; an organization that will host and partner with any speaker at the discretion of the board, regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines; and an organization that will always strive to be in keeping with the values of open debate and discourse espoused by Rabbi Hillel.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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30 Responses

  1. Bill in Maryland
    December 9, 2013, 11:07 am

    Bravo to the courageous students at Swarthmore and to the Open Hillel movement. A beautiful and most inspiring development.

  2. Formerly T-Bear
    December 9, 2013, 11:09 am

    Sorry for OT, Am unable to donate, your process does not accept European telephone numbers. Wanted to donate through Paypal which has my mailing address which is different from my bank card address that is required for your processing. There was no place to leave a comment on the donation page that I could find after logging in. It seems to me Paypal should be enough without using these other information barriers to donating. I think what you do is important and should be supported (I also want a copy of the book, but it may be least expensive to use Amazon.co.uk as a source and avoid massive U.S. Post’s mailing charges). I will check back later. Cheers.

  3. W.Jones
    December 9, 2013, 11:47 am

    Does anyone understand what this paragraph means in the news article Phil linked to?

    There is another direction from which the Hillel/AIPAC relationship may receive criticism. But these students don’t demand that Hillel changes, these students seek out other organizations on campus with which to work.

    http://www.jewishpress.com/news/some-students-angered-by-hillels-pro-israel-strds-and-partners/2013/12/09

    What is that other direction from which the relationship may receive criticism?

    • Krauss
      December 9, 2013, 1:10 pm

      The answer to your question is found within the paragraph you quoted.

      Basically, the newspaper says that they should work from within to change, rather than to break free. In short: the criticism is based on how to do the criticism, i.e. stay within the community(and inevitably, be overwhelmed by the status quo), rather than reach the conclusion that the status quo proponents are too strong and cannot be reasoned with, thus necessitating a newly independent approach.

    • Bumblebye
      December 9, 2013, 1:51 pm

      W.Jones
      I think this might be the “other direction”:
      http://rabbibrant.com/2013/12/04/new-hillel-and-aipac-partnership-open-hillel-responds/

      “This just in: Eric Fingerhut, the President of Hillel and Jonathan Kessler, the Leadership Development Director of AIPAC, have just announced in the Jewish Week that Hillel and AIPAC will be formally “working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.”

      What this means essentially is that Hillel, an organization that is meant to serve as an umbrella for the diverse Jewish student communities on college campuses nation wide, is now formally aligning itself with a lobbying group’s specific definition of what it means to be “pro-Israel.””

      • Hostage
        December 9, 2013, 2:15 pm

        What this means essentially is that Hillel, an organization that is meant to serve as an umbrella for the diverse Jewish student communities on college campuses nation wide, is now formally aligning itself with a lobbying group’s specific definition of what it means to be “pro-Israel.””

        It’s not too surprising. Both Hillel and the ADL were established by the B’nai B’rith, a founding member of the Israel Lobby. It also established the BBYO, which (I believe) is the parent organization of the 92nd Street Y that cancels or shuts-out so many anti-Zionist or pro-Palestinian speakers.

    • Annie Robbins
      December 9, 2013, 2:37 pm

      w.jones, imho, you need to read the rest of the article for it spells out what that (another direction) criticism is, in the paragraphs directly below.

      these pro-Israel students on campus, the Hillel method of dealing with anti-Israel activity, rather than being empowering, actually seems to empower the anti-Israel activists.

      iow, these are students who think other hillel members are not pro israel enough:

      That is because the “behind-the-scenes” diplomacy and interfaith gestures Hillels generally favor seem, some believe, to result in pro-Israel students simply remaining silent and ignoring lies and distortions and the painting of Israel as an evil occupier. A preferred method for responding to, for example, BDS conferences is to host inclusive Shabbat dinners. Those are nice, but do nothing to counter the lies

      and then here comes the part where the author references the “other organizations on campus ” these students seek out:

      For these less passive pro-Israel students, there are the more action-oriented groups such as the CAMERA Campus Activist Project, or StandWithUs or the Chabads on campus. The students who work with these groups may still utilize Hillel resources for other activities, but turn to other sources of guidance, and resources, in order to pursue their version of Israel advocacy.

      • W.Jones
        December 9, 2013, 3:35 pm

        Krauss, Annie, Bumble, and Hostage,

        You are all intelligent and well versed in deciphering NewSpeak. However it still does not make sense to me what they are talking about in those two paragraphs:

        Again, this is not a question of whether any group can bring anti-Israel speakers or activities to campus, the only question is whether Hillel donors should be required to pay for it. A quote comes to mind from Cong. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) when talking about the “open-mindedness” of J Street with respect to Israel positions. He said “an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out.”

        There is another direction from which the Hillel/AIPAC relationship may receive criticism. But these students don’t demand that Hillel changes, these students seek out other organizations on campus with which to work.

        For these pro-Israel students on campus, the Hillel method of dealing with anti-Israel activity, rather than being empowering, actually seems to empower the anti-Israel activists. That is because the “behind-the-scenes” diplomacy and interfaith gestures Hillels generally favor seem, some believe, to result in pro-Israel students simply remaining silent and ignoring lies and distortions and the painting of Israel as an evil occupier. A preferred method for responding to, for example, BDS conferences is to host inclusive Shabbat dinners. Those are nice, but do nothing to counter the lies which, when repeated often enough, attain the status of truth to the students who hear them, or who read reports of those events.

        For these less passive pro-Israel students, there are the more action-oriented groups such as the CAMERA Campus Activist Project, or StandWithUs or the Chabads on campus. The students who work with these groups may still utilize Hillel resources for other activities, but turn to other sources of guidance, and resources, in order to pursue their version of Israel advocacy.

        A) What is the other direction the AIPAC-Hillel relationship can be criticized from?
        Krauss says: “the criticism is based on how to do the criticism, i.e. stay within the community”. Krauss is focusing on how the article complains “But these students don’t demand that Hillel changes”. Krauss concludes that it is talking about the direction of students who would be upset about Hillel aligning with the strong positions of AIPAC and criticize the relationship.

        But then who are “these students” that make the criticism? The next sentence says “For these pro-Israel students on campus”, and then it talks about “these students” going to CAMERA and STAND WITH US. Is this article seriously imagining that “these pro-Israel students” who criticize Hillel’s relationship with the conservative AIPAC and “seek out other organizations” will go to CAMERA and STANDWITHUS for help?

        And “for these pro-Israel students”, the Hillel method of interfaith gestures is unfortunately helping anti-Zionists?

        It is strange to think that the author is focusing on students who are even more nationalist than AIPAC and is talking about the risk that they will go to CAMERA instead? Basically, they were OK with Hillel before it aligned with the conservative AIPAC, but now they are looking for more conservative groups instead? And presumably the author knows of students whoa re doing this, because he put the bold paragraph in the present tense (“these students don’t demand…, these students seek”)?

      • Hostage
        December 11, 2013, 6:07 am

        Krauss, Annie, Bumble, and Hostage,

        You are all intelligent and well versed in deciphering NewSpeak.

        You’ve incorrectly jumped to the conclusion that the author of the article in question set-out to string together pearls of wisdom or logic. I pointed out that the author’s normal audience is a bunch of Kahanists who expect her to string together a bunch of snide, backhanded, and insulting remarks. So stop trying to make sense out of the tortured logic and the twisted things she has to say about the subject of Israel, and just enjoy the fact that you can’t understand her.

  4. Shmuel
    December 9, 2013, 12:30 pm

    Great action, great statement.

  5. Hostage
    December 9, 2013, 12:31 pm

    What is that other direction from which the relationship may receive criticism?

    I’m just guessing, but it probably means that even the Closed Hillels aren’t Pro-Israel enough to satisfy Lori Lowenthal Marcus or the many Kahanist readers of her Arutz Sheva and Jewish Press Op-Eds.

    • W.Jones
      December 9, 2013, 12:42 pm

      Hmmm… You could be right, because another direction, as opposed to the Open Hillel direction, would be a more conservative, nationalist one.

      But I am confused how the nationalist direction would make criticism about the relationship between AIPAC and Hillel, the latter of which decided it would not host Burg and has banned cooperating with anti-nationalists.

      • Hostage
        December 9, 2013, 3:06 pm

        But I am confused how the nationalist direction would make criticism about the relationship between AIPAC and Hillel

        The Op-Eds Lowenthal Marcus writes for Arutz Sheva and the Jewish Press are not esteemed for their logic.

  6. pabelmont
    December 9, 2013, 12:57 pm

    This is a great action by Swarthmore Hillel. It seems to be in tune with Quaker values at Swarthmore.

    Reminds me of an old Quaker joke: Quaker leader says, “some of my best Friends are Jews.” This is a PROUD MOMENT. Hope Harvard Hillel members consider this statement and this action.

    • Nevada Ned
      December 9, 2013, 5:09 pm

      Many years ago, I told that same joke in reverse:

      When a Jewish woman told me that her brother was attending Quaker meetings,
      I replied, pseudo-philosophically, “Some of my best Jews are Friends”.

    • W.Jones
      December 10, 2013, 1:08 am

      Pabelmont,

      Can I ask why you have the interesting avatar with 1 2 3? Is it because it forms a neat illusion? I think there are alot of these neat arrangements out there. Yours reminds me of the “2012” Olympics symbol, although I didn’t completely get why there was a square in the middle.

      Anyway, all the best.

  7. Rusty Pipes
    December 9, 2013, 1:02 pm

    This bold decision by Swarthmore Hillel’s board could affect its budget, programming and staffing — because many of the Jewish organizations which support Hillels will not give money to organizations unless they adopt those very Hillel International restrictions. Any who support the concept of Open Hillel could also look into supporting it financially, so that it can continue to provide at least the same level of services to the Swarthmore community.

    • W.Jones
      December 9, 2013, 3:04 pm

      Rusty,

      I think that the claims about financial risk are overworked. Not that donations are meaningless. But in reality schools give donations to religious orgs on campus. They give meeting space, often fund chaplains, provide food services, etc. If The school’s Hillel chapter decides to say No to their national org’s restrictions, the financial issue is not really going to hobble them or make them go limp.

      Usually it’s when the Lobby and its supporters call up schools and tell them to crack down, like in the Florida case, that things are problematic for students. The donors in the Michigan case persuaded the Women’s Center to ax Alice Walker’s invite, but a women’s center is much more dependent on donations than a religious club at a school.

  8. Krauss
    December 9, 2013, 1:12 pm

    Good decision. This deeply ingrained fear of freedom of speech is reprehensible and disgusting. This is the basic instinct of the lobby: always repress any and all individual thinking and independent inquiry. It happens within as well as outside the Jewish community and this is a step in the right, long overdue, direction.

  9. Annie Robbins
    December 9, 2013, 2:13 pm

    this is fantastic. huge imho. the ground is shifting.

  10. dimadok
    December 9, 2013, 2:32 pm

    Send them some money-they’ll need it soon enough. Ask maybe for more from Ron Unz.

    • W.Jones
      December 9, 2013, 3:08 pm

      Dima,
      I am confused why you are saying to send them money. But anyway they do not really need outside donations to run a club at a school, unless they want to make it a big budget thing like having special staff or a nice, separate campus house. I liked to go to Hillel events sometimes at my first school, and they did not really have a house or paid staff. I am not saying donations are bad, I just don’t think they should paralyze decisionmaking for students.

  11. MRW
    December 9, 2013, 3:11 pm

    Lock and load. Good for them.

  12. Nevada Ned
    December 9, 2013, 5:32 pm

    The Hillel, part of the Israel Lobby, is trying to enforce ideological conformity among Jews. If the young rebels at Swarthmore REALLY want to be a pain in the posterior to the Jewish Establishment, they could aim to set up chapters of Open Hillel in parallel to the official “Closed Hillel” chapters. While the manifesto from Open Hillel is well-written, a much bigger threat is forming a separate organization. If the official franchise-holders think that withholding official approval will work, they’re wrong. (“Always look for the Good Hillel Housekeeping seal of approval”).

    The Open Hillel could invite Jewish dissidents (Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Peter Beinart, Max Blumenthal).

    Or even (warning, now this is VERY RADICAL) invite Palestinians to speak. Invite Rashid Khalidi to speak. Invite Ali Abunimah. THAT would drive the Israel Lobby utterly batshit crazy, Jews thinking they could possibly learn something from Arabs, any Arabs.

    And when the condemnation starts from Abe Foxman and Alan Dershowitz, the new Open Hillel chapter(s) can incorporate the abuse into publicity for the speaker.

    HEAR FOR YOURSELF THE TALK THAT ABE FOXMAN DOESN’T WANT YOU TO HEAR!!

  13. tokyobk
    December 9, 2013, 7:06 pm

    This is huge and indeed shows that, as I mentioned to someone here yesterday, the next generation will be more progressive, without giving up the Jewish identity.

  14. K Renner
    December 9, 2013, 9:54 pm

    A decent first step.

    • Annie Robbins
      December 10, 2013, 5:40 pm

      thx dottified. i sent this to phil…

    • Hostage
      December 10, 2013, 5:46 pm

      “No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise.”

      I’d call it Hillel Universal and tell Fingerhut to f*ck-off.

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