This is exciting news. After Swarthmore Hillel voted unanimously last weekend to open its doors to everyone who wants to discuss the conflict, including anti-Zionists, the president of Hillel International yesterday slammed the window on Swarthmore Hillel.
And Swarthmore Hillel has responded, We stand by our resolution.
You can read Hillel President Eric Fingerhut’s letter below, and it is emphatic: No anti-Zionists allowed. On these principles we will never waver. Israel is the “democratic, open, pluralistic home of the Jewish people.” So Israel is open, but not the U.S. (When Jewish life has teemed with anti-Zionists for the entire history of Zionism.)
Swarthmore Hillel has written back to Eric Fingerhut in the most diplomatic language. It is also unwavering. As you read these two letters, judge who is the wiser, and more thoughtful.
Here is the Hillel president’s letter to Swarthmore Hillel’s communications director, Joshua Wolfsun:
Thank you for sending me your resolution and for your offer to engage in conversation. I believe that through discussion, as Hillel the Elder believed, comes learning that is meaningful and inspiring. However, unlike your email, which invites discussion and is welcome, your resolution simply states that the students at Swarthmore Hillel “will host and partner with any speaker at the discretion of the board, regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines.” This position is not acceptable.
Hillel’s Israel guidelines, which were developed carefully with a broad coalition of our organization’s stakeholders, state: “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.” Hillel is also, as the guidelines state, “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.”
In summary, while welcoming debate on the many important and difficult questions that Israel faces, a debate that is vigorous in Israel as well, Hillel International does draw a line. That line is as follows: “Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
I hope you will inform your colleagues on the Student Board of Swarthmore Hillel that Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines. No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise.
Your resolution further includes the statement: “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.” This is simply not the case. Let me be very clear – “anti-Zionists” will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.
Hillel recognizes, of course, that “organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice” violate these guidelines may well be welcomed on campus, according to the policies of the particular college or university. The Hillel on campus, however, may not partner with or host such groups or speakers. This is entirely within our discretion as an organization, and we have clearly stated our intention to make these important decisions to protect our values and our critically important mission. Just as the university decides who will teach classes, and what organizations it will allow on campus, so Hillel will decide who will lead discussions in programs it sponsors and with whom it will partner.
In one of your resolution’s clauses, you invoke “the values espoused by our namesake, Rabbi Hillel, who was famed for encouraging debate in contrast with Rabbi Shammai.” Rabbi Hillel was famed for his openness to others, and his leniency in legal interpretation to advance tikkun olam – “repairing the world.” This spirit is strong in today’s American Jewry, and it is strong in the work of Hillel on every campus. However, Rabbi Hillel is perhaps more famous for his saying in Pirkei Avot, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
We here at Hillel International hold firm to his legacy. We encourage debate and dissent, but we draw the line at hosting groups who would deny the right of the State of Israel to exist. We will stand with Israel, the democratic, open, pluralistic home of the Jewish people.
On that fundamental principle, we are unwavering.
Eric D. Fingerhut
Now here is Wolfsun’s response, sent yesterday.
Dear President Fingerhut,
Thank you for your prompt response. These are important and hard conversations that we are having within our community, but they are necessary. Although we stand by our resolution and our editorial, we look forward to a productive and fruitful dialogue with both you and with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
We would like to invite you come to Swarthmore Hillel to discuss this with us in person at your earliest possible convenience. If you will join us in dialogue, we would love to have you.
Joshua Wolfsun (Communications Coordinator) on behalf of the Swarthmore Hillel Student Board
By the way, the $64,000 question, from the Forward’s coverage:
According to Wolfsun, Swarthmore Hillel has little worry about regarding local censure or financial repercussions that might come from inviting speakers to campus who are not regarded as pro-Israel. “We had a fair amount of autonomy on this decision,” Wolfsun said. “We are funded by our own endowment and have no board of overseers.”
And who will be next? Wolfsun tells me, “Right now there are no other Hillels who look likely to join us in the near future.”
I asked Wolfsun if his group’s original declaration, which made this assertion–
“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”–
was an opening to all on the Swarthmore campus to discuss this question, including non-Jews. He said it was:
The Swarthmore Hillel Board recognizes that the community in which we operate and that we serve cannot be defined by clear boundaries. We are a part of the Interfaith Community at Swarthmore, and welcome people of all beliefs to come and share in our programming. As we move forward, we recognize that this discussion about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is one that will involve the Jewish community and also the larger Swarthmore campus.
That principle, as articulated above, was explicitly discussed by the board and is a part of our mission statement adopted last Spring, which reads, “Hillel is a religious, social, and cultural organization that serves the Swarthmore Jewish community and the campus as a whole through fostering engagement with Jewish cultures and religion, connecting students who are interested in Judaism, and by providing a space for practicing, exploring, and discovering Judaism and Jewish identity.”
Now that is confidence and smarts. These young people are leading the Jewish community.