Trending Topics:

Shocker: ‘NYT’ publishes fair story on Swarthmore Jews bucking Hillel guidelines

on 29 Comments
Hillel logo

Hillel logo

Yesterday the New York Times stunned us by publishing a very fair story about the vote by Swarthmore Hillel to throw out Hillel International guidelines on who is welcome, indicating that it will invite anti-Zionists. Reporter Laurie Goodstein told her story in a calm, thoughtful manner, and clearly tilted toward the liberalism of the Swarthmore Jewish students. While she quoted Alan Dershowitz, she offered a forum for young Jews to describe the Jewish organizations’ muzzling of debate.

Expect David Harris of the American Jewish Committee and Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League to hammer this story in the next day or so from their prescribed places at the top of the New York Times letters column. But savor Goodstein’s reporting in the meantime. Here’s the very straight setup from the Times’ national religion correspondent (who describes herself as “anti-nothing except evil doing”):

At American colleges, few values are as sacred as open debate and few issues as contested as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Hillel, whose core mission is to keep the next generation of Jews in the fold, says that under its auspices one thing is not open to debate: Those who reject or repudiate Israel have no place.

This month, the students at the Swarthmore Hillel rebelled, declaring themselves the first “Open Hillel” in the nation. They will not abide by Hillel guidelines that prohibit chapters from collaborating with speakers or groups that “delegitimize” or “apply a double standard” to Israel.

The Hillel dispute has amplified an increasingly bitter intra-Jewish debate over what is permissible discussion and activism about Israel on college campuses…

Goodstein takes care to document the absurdity of the Hillel standards, from the point of view of the students:

Joshua Wolfsun, a student on the Swarthmore Hillel board, said, “There are a lot of really smart people across the political spectrum on Israel that we want to talk to, and we feel that Hillel should not have a political litmus test on who is allowed and who is not.”…

A nationwide online petition in support of the Swarthmore Hillel’s rejection of those guidelines has gathered 1,200 signatures.

In an interview, Mr. [Eric] Fingerhut said, “If we’re an organization that is committed to building Jewish identity and lifelong connections to the Jewish world and to Israel, then we certainly have to draw lines.” But some students active in Hillel say the lines are either muddy or wrong…

The piece closes with the case of Ben Sheridan, a student at Binghamton University who was forced to resign from a pro-Israel group on campus because he arranged a screening of the documentary, 5 Broken Cameras. Goodstein leaves the reader feeling that Hillel maintains a totalitarian standard of free speech.

Mr. Sheridan, 21, wears a wristband that says “Israel Is Strong” in Hebrew. He spent his gap year in Israel, has an Israeli flag in his dorm room and did an internship at the American Jewish Committee.

“The second I question Israel — Israeli policies, not its existence — all of a sudden I’m a pariah?” he asked. “If Hillel is going to be the group that represents all Jews, how can it say, ‘On Israel we have one policy only’?”

Again, how long before the Israel lobby assumes its designated soapboxes, atop the Times’ letters column?

Maybe the Times Jerusalem correspondents should have a Skype conversation with Goodstein to learn how to cover a highly-controversial matter in an evenhanded fashion.

Update: The article has stung International Hillel. President Fingerhut squawks in this long posting that the Times interviewed him at length and did not quote him enough, and told the story wrong.

Instead of seizing the opportunity to look deeply into this issue, the Times took the easy way and turned its story into a simplistic discussion of free speech on campus and conflict among millennial Jews and their elders.

This article couldn’t be more wrong.

I spoke to the reporter for nearly an hour. David Eden also spoke with her several times. As you can see, we both are briefly quoted in comparison to the few students who are showcased.

Fingerhut seeks to diminish the movement at his door:

The Times reported that a “nationwide online petition in support of the Swarthmore Hillel’s rejection of [the Hillel Israel] guidelines has gathered 1,200 signatures.” It was pointed out to the reporter that there are approximately 400,000 Jewish students on American college campuses, nearly 20 million college students overall, and that a thousand or so names, many from non-students or signed “anonymous,” was not a large number. That fact was ignored. When it was pointed out that there is no groundswell of support for “Open Hillel,” it was brushed aside and not included.

Notice that Fingerhut is afraid of the anti-Zionist trend. We love to talk with all students, he says. Some of whom –

mistake their deeply held disagreements with the policies of the Israeli government as anti-Zionism, while others are swept up in the anti-Zionism of friends or faculty, or simply in the passion of being young and on campus.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

Other posts by .

Posted In:

29 Responses

  1. Les on December 30, 2013, 11:25 am

    Such shocking news that Jewish college students want to hear from and about both sides. How long will it take for the Jewish owners of our media to allow that discussion to take place in our print and broadcast media?

  2. doug on December 30, 2013, 11:55 am

    I was blown away seeing this in the Times.

    There is also a video where the this chapter’s boycott is discussed favorably.

    In the immortal words of neoconservative Michael Ledeen: “Faster, Please”

    • on December 31, 2013, 8:04 am

      Opposing views are somewhat permissible if they are espoused by Jews

  3. annie on December 30, 2013, 12:16 pm

    The Times reported that a “nationwide online petition in support of the Swarthmore Hillel’s rejection of [the Hillel Israel] guidelines has gathered 1,200 signatures.” It was pointed out to the reporter that there are approximately 400,000 Jewish students on American college campuses, nearly 20 million college students overall, and that a thousand or so names, many from non-students or signed “anonymous,” was not a large number. That fact was ignored.

    the ‘fact’ was self evident mr fingernut. people already know there are hundreds of thousands of jewish students on american campuses. if a petition to the WH gets 50,000 signatures just because someone doesn’t point out the US population is over 300 million doesn’t mean a fact was ignored.

    and this from nyt:

    Hillel’s adult staff members on more than a dozen campuses have refused to allow J Street U, an affiliate of the liberal group J Street, to co-sponsor events. The explanation was that donors to Hillel do not support J Street, which supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but is critical of Israeli settlement building and the occupation of the West Bank.

    i wasn’t aware even j street was out of the fold on this many campus hillels. that’s somewhat of a shocker. keep those students in line!

  4. Citizen on December 30, 2013, 12:38 pm

    Yeah, it’s really tough to become a young Jewish American on campus these days.
    And god forbid those who managed to accomplish this really difficult task, actually try to use it to exercise their independent study and view of political issues regarding Israel and the US government’s “special relationship” with Israel and that relationship’s impact on the real humans living in the real world, say in Palestine.

    • RudyM on December 30, 2013, 2:34 pm

      Yeah, it’s really tough to become a young Jewish American on campus these days.

      Surrounded by goyim who might want to marry you.

  5. W.Jones on December 30, 2013, 1:36 pm

    The NYT article has no comments section?

    • American on December 30, 2013, 2:14 pm


      I use to comment regularly on all the NYT articles that were about Israel—-but then suddenly they did away with the comments sections for readers.
      I think we can guess why……the most ‘recomended comments’ by readers were always the ones critical of Israel.

  6. Ellen on December 30, 2013, 2:57 pm

    This was an interesting comment by Dershowitz in the article:

    Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School who was once a faculty adviser for the Harvard Hillel, said in an interview: “I don’t think this is a free-speech issue. The people who want divestment and boycotts have plenty of opportunity to speak on campus. The question is a branding one. You can see why Hillel does not want its brand to be diluted.”

    So if it is a branding (or marketing) issue, what happens when the brand of this organization as it defines itself becomes undesirable, with out interest in the market place of ideas?

    If young college students drift to the Open Hillel’s will it re-brand itself to remain relevant and desirable? Will it compete?

    • piotr on December 30, 2013, 3:36 pm

      I think that the first mistake in creating the brand was to choose the name Hillel rather than Shammai. The name of Shammai would not confuse the members who wish to be tolerant.

      • Shmuel on December 30, 2013, 4:12 pm

        Nah. Shammai just gets a bad rap. How did the guy who said “Study regularly; say little and do much; and greet every person with a smile” get to be the villain? Just as well. At least he doesn’t have people like Fingerhut speaking in his name.

      • piotr on December 30, 2013, 7:23 pm

        I meant here the worldly politics of the House of Hillel which was pacifist and House of Shammai that was much more xenophobic and allied with Zealots. Also, this “say little and do much” has a sinister sound to it if you read the account on the dispute between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai in the house of Eleazar ben Annanias,

        In general, I was pondering “what would Hillel do”, as something relevant to “Hillel” as a brand.

      • Shmuel on December 31, 2013, 2:45 am


        The Hillelites weren’t exactly lambs (the Talmud lays blame with the students of both great men) and the Shammaite’s supposed xenophobia must be understood in the context of the Roman occupation (call the adopted measures “anti-normalisation”, if you like). Some have attributed the difference in attitudes between the schools to Hillel’s pacific Babylonian upbringing vs. Shammai’s tougher, Palestinian experience.

        It’s also important to keep in mind that Hillel was the superstar, revered in both Talmuds (Babylonian and Palestinian), so that the very fact that Shammai’s school won a majority in the Sanhedrin after Hillel’s death didn’t sit well with the “fans” or conditioned posterity.

      • Les on December 30, 2013, 4:42 pm

        Hillel wasn’t a bad name to use, provided he is quoted fully.

        If I am not for myself, then who am I?
        If I am only for myself, then who am I?

      • wondering jew on December 30, 2013, 5:24 pm

        Les- I think this would be a more accurate translation:
        If I am not for myself- who will be for me?
        If I am only for myself- what am I?
        and also:
        If not now, when?

      • W.Jones on December 30, 2013, 4:52 pm

        On a sidenote, regarding the split between the two “schools”, Jesus is sometimes labeled as being in Hillel’s. However this is too generalized: on divorce He was more like Shammai’s “school”.

      • philweiss on December 30, 2013, 7:29 pm

        Thanks for this discussion. Didn’t know about Shammai.
        –The reservoir of ignorance

      • RudyM on January 1, 2014, 1:13 pm

        The reservoir of ignorance

        Is that what appears in the background of your photo?

        Don’t feel bad, I had to remind myself what Pelagianism is when JeffB mentioned it. (So much for the advantage of growing up in a parsonage.)

    • puppies on December 31, 2013, 2:27 am

      ‘s OK. They already got branded as intolerant of free speech, nay totalitarian. All one has to do is make it stick so bad they can’t pull a foot out (I am hoping that some students who define themselves as Jewish still have the last American value in themselves.) All that’s needed is to get the management, Fingerhut, Foxman etc., write two-three more articles. Each article by the Dersh counts double towards our goal.

  7. American on December 30, 2013, 4:09 pm

    Let Hillel remain a zionist cult if its wants—-all that will happen is more young Jews will decamp from it and the ones that embrace it will become even more cultist and militant pro Israel and usher in their eventual demise because of.

  8. piotr on December 30, 2013, 8:27 pm

    Mondoweiss was raising money for investigative reporting and perhaps it would be worth while to dispatch a reporter to Swarthmore. One interesting aspect is that NYT article gave an impression that Hillel International merely gives guidelines, while the chapters are basically controlled by the donors, or professional staffers who are deferential to donors.

    Swarthmore is small college, but it is very highly ranked, so it counts as one of the most elite American institutions and surely it has its share of rich and generous alumni. Some of them probably donate to Swarthmore Hillel. Are they supportive of the students in Swarthmore chapter, or are the student rebelling?

    Another aspect is of course the students. Are they “openminded and clueless” or they have some concrete sympathies? One of the students interviewed by NYT seemed to faintly echo MJ Rosenberg, a liberal Zionist who detests the Zionist establishment and the government of Israel. NYT was very delicate in citing the students.

    Then again, perhaps it may be better to leave the kids alone, and may be they will be spared the worst of the wrath of Hillel International. I was raised on stories what happened to Polish Communist Party went it was disapproved by Communist International. Some lived to tell the tale. Some had ” … fallen victim of unjust accusation” as the last words of their bio entries.

  9. Citizen on December 31, 2013, 1:48 am

    Hey kids, the new Wiesenthal Top 10 List Of Anti-Semitic SlurMeisters is out!

    Quite a few Americans, got a prize!

    • Citizen on December 31, 2013, 1:54 am
    • piotr on December 31, 2013, 9:22 am

      Max Blumenthal got only 9-th spot, even though he was personally recommended by “renowned professor of English, Eric Alterman”. I feel like complaining and wondering if the methodology of Wiesenthal Center was sound.

      The top stop is a no-brainer, Supreme Leader of Iran, and given his stature and a large body of quotable material, even if lacking book form, one has to admit it is a reasonable choice.

      But then spot number two is for Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This was a busy year for Prime Minister who delivered statements blaming all and sundry, including alcoholics, looters, Guelenists, Assad, and there was also “interest rate lobby”. But identifying interest lobby with Jews is not something that Wiesenthal Center should do on its own. So: did Erdoğan do that? I did not find any actual cite, except one “almost cite”, namely a sarcastic column in a Turkish newspaper about Prime Minister blaming “looters” and “interest rate lobby” in one breath, and phonetically transliterating the Turkish word for looters that ends with -JEW” . So we have a rather complex bi-lingual joke by a detractor of Prime Minister, of whom there are many.

  10. pabelmont on January 1, 2014, 3:22 pm

    “But Hillel, whose core mission is to keep the next generation of Jews in the fold * * * ”

    Well, it is not about “branding”, Mr. Dershowitz, but about keeping young Jews “in the fold”. It is about training in propriety (a sort of loyalty oath to Israel, as prescribed from above, a political orthodoxy imposed on a religiously heterodox population in a nominally quasi-religious organization) and about discriminating against the politically heterodox anti-propriety (and disloyalty to Israel) that comes upon young Jews when they become educated as to facts and as to ethics.

    The way we know it is not about “branding” is that Hillel could obviously be more popular (or more populous — is that the same thing?) if they let more people in. Swarthmore Hillel will have a better “brand” but will fail to meet National Hillel’s rigorous loyalty oath requirement.

  11. es1982 on January 2, 2014, 2:39 am

    The New York Times Letter Section has reactions to the article. My personal favorite:

    I’m neither an “Israel right or wrong” person nor a supporter of what has come to be called “the Palestinian cause.” But one question keeps coming back to me when I read about objections to decisions by Jewish campus groups not to invite speakers hostile to Israel: Where is the push for Arab campus groups to roll out their red carpets to unabashed defenders of the Jewish state?

    (Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN
    New York, Dec. 30, 2013

    The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Leave a Reply