When Hillel International head Eric Fingerhut spoke to a Long Island synagogue in January, he did not mention the Open Hillel movement in his prepared remarks. And when he was asked by an audience member about Open Hillel, the group of students seeking to overturn Hillel’s guidelines that bar certain critics of Israel, he said the movement “does not” have legs.
But over the past month, Open Hillel has been making waves in the Jewish community–doing its best to prove Fingerhut wrong.
Those working to change Hillel’s “standards of partnership”–which bar speakers who are supportive of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement or those who believe in a democratic one-state–are attracting support in the Jewish community, which has become increasingly split as Israel’s right-wing consolidates power. The split is buoying liberal Zionist and non-Zionist groups.
Hillel International’s threat to sue the Swarthmore chapter for hosting speakers that buck their guidelines led to a backlash from segments of the Jewish community. The student president of a Hillel chapter resigned over the parent organization’s refusal to host civil rights veterans. And after Fingerhut pulled out of last week’s J Street conference because Saeb Erekat was speaking there, Open Hillel members who attended the J Street confab marched on Hillel’s Washington, D.C., offices and received a promise from Fingerhut to meet with them.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s win has no doubt provided momentum to Open Hillel’s push to open up American Jewish communal spaces to more honest and frank discussions of Israel. Earlier this week, the Jewish Daily Forward, a leading Jewish newspaper, wrote in an editorial that the Jewish community needs “to break apart the ridiculous and increasingly flouted rules governing conversation about Israel in Jewish communal spaces, especially on college campuses.”
Some of the recent controversy has centered on the Open Hillel-sponsored tour of Jewish civil rights veterans. In February, Harvard Hillel agreed to host them, though that was only after a pro-Israel speaker was added to the panel. Still, the event saw Dorothy Zellner, a former member of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), tell a crowd at Hillel that she is “a supporter of BDS. I’m doing the work that I learned from black people and I will keep on doing that work,” as the Forward’s Cara Hogan reported.
But Hillel chapters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, declined to sponsor subsequent events with Zellner, Ira Grupper, Mark Levy and Larry Rubin. And on March 19, Caroline Dorn, the student president of Muhlenberg’s Hillel, announced she was resigning over Hillel’s refusal to host the civil rights veterans.
“I am heartbroken that I feel no place to be both a Jewish student and an academic thinker at Muhlenberg,” Dorn wrote, in a piece published by the Muhlenberg Weekly. “ I am disgusted with Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, and their attempt to set boundaries on who is invited into our Jewish space on campus and what we can discuss. I refuse to be silenced by an organization that is supposed to empower me, and I will not accept anything less than free speech for any organization that I’m a part of.”
Hillel has also been met with backlash over its legal threats to a Swarthmore chapter.
Last year, Swarthmore’s Hillel chapter announced it would become the first Open Hillel chapter. In mid-March this year, Swarthmore Hillel announced it would be hosting speakers “focused on social justice issues in Israel and Palestine.” They include the civil rights veterans and Ali Abu Awwad, a well-known Palestinian activist.
But in response, Hillel issued thinly-veiled threats to take legal action over Swarthmore’s use of the Hillel name. “Hillel International is the sole and exclusive licensee with the right to use the famous Hillel name and mark in connection with college campus activities,” wrote Tracey Turoff, Hillel’s legal counsel, in a letter to Swarthmore administrators. Turoff wrote to object to Swarthmore’s hosting of the civil rights veterans.
Swarthmore’s Hillel then decided to change its name to Swarthmore Kehilah (which means “community” in Hebrew) to duck the legal threats. Over a hundred Jewish leaders signed a statement denouncing Hillel International’s threats to Swarthmore.
Yet another controversy broke out when Fingerhut announced he was pulling out of the J Street conference because Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was speaking there. J Street U students were incensed over the move, and speculated that Fingerhut was caving to donor pressure.
J Street U members decided to march to the Washington, D.C. office of Hillel to demand a meeting with Fingerhut. The Hillel head has since said he would meet with J Street U representatives.
Hillel chapters have welcomed some J Street U chapters within the Hillel fold. But Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization filled with those who question Zionism, has not been invited. JVP remains a bridge too far for Hillel, though Open Hillel is trying to change that.