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.