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Hillel International faces crisis as Swarthmore chapter rebels against its Israel guidelines

In a move that sent shockwaves through the American Jewish community, the Hillel chapter at Philadelphia’s Swarthmore College declared in an open letter last week that it would not comply with its parent organization’s policy of censoring speech critical of Israeli policy.

Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, acts as an umbrella group for more than 550 chapters around the world — but mainly within the United States.

Hillel’s Israel Guidelines forbid chapters from hosting individuals or organizations that oppose Israel’s status as a “Jewish and democratic state” (i.e., its right to discriminate against non-Jews).

The guidelines further ban those who “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double-standard to Israel” (a catch-all for virtually all other forms of criticism). They also rule out any speaker who supports boycotts, divestment or sanctions against Israel (i.e. the use of nonviolent pressure to encourage Israel to comply with international law).

Citing the fact that Hillel’s own namesake was a rabbi known for his steadfast pluralism, Swarthmore Hillel’s student board stated in its open letter published in The Beacon that:

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…

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.

Hillel International responds

Swarthmore Hillel was rebuked almost immediately in a sharply-worded letter from Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut.

Fingerhut insisted that “no campus organization that uses the Hillel name” may decline to comply with the umbrella group’s censorship policy. The letter goes on to state that “ ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”

Hillel International told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Fingerhut would meet with representatives of Swarthmore Hillel in January, but declined to say if any punitive measures would be taken.

Although Hillel’s campus chapters are autonomous entities, Swarthmore Hillel is particularly well-positioned to challenge the policies of the umbrella group. It receives little funding from Hillel International, and unlike most chapters, it doesn’t have a non-student board of directors.

The Swarthmore move is a major leap forward for the broader Open Hillel movement, which was launched at Harvard last year. Open Hillel has started a petition in support of Swarthmore Hillel’s declaration that has already gained more than 1,000 signatures.

Mixing culture and religion with political advocacy

When Fingerhut was hired earlier this year, he said in an interview with JNS.org that the Hillel board’s commitment to its Israel Guidelines was “an important thing” that persuaded him to take the job.

In a recent op-ed authored with Jonathan Kessler, Fingerhut boasted of the way Hillel works alongside lobbying group AIPAC to “develop better and more effective strategies for minimizing the impact of anti-Israel activities on campus.” Kessler is the longtime leader of AIPAC’s campus programs.

Its partnership with AIPAC is only one feature of Hillel’s role in coordinating anti-Palestinian advocacy on college campuses. Seventy Hillel chapters across the United States host “Israel Fellows” employed by the Jewish Agency for Israel, working to increase Jewish students’ “engagement” with Israel, in large part through anti-Palestinian advocacy. Hillel chapters also work closely with “Campus Coordinators” from the David Project, a Boston-based nonprofit which trains students to weave personal networks that can be activated to advance anti-Palestinian initiatives or respond to criticism of Israel on their campuses.

Implications for anti-Palestinian advocacy

In recent years, mainstream US anti-Palestinian groups, led by the Israel Action Network (IAN), have sought to reduce the extent to which they are with identified with overt efforts at censorship, such as attempts to block Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti from speaking at Brooklyn College. This is part of a broader strategy aimed at crafting a “Big Tent” that can leverage voices seen as being on the left to “drive a wedge” between Palestinian rights advocates and potential progressive supporters.

With the Swarthmore declaration, and a growing perception that Hillel and associated institutions are out of touch with their communities and enforce a false consenus through the use of bullying, that strategy faces a serious crisis.

Andy Bachman, a rabbi known for working with IAN to aggressively pressure Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Co-op to continue stocking Israeli products, including settlement-made SodaStream beverage devices, was quick to leap to Swarthmore Hillel’s defense in the pages of the Forward.

While known astroturfer Bachman’s op-ed may be part of a deliberate communications strategy developed by key institutional stakeholders, it’s far too early to predict how this will play out.

Should other Hillels find inspiration in Swarthmore’s bold decision, or should the ideals behind the Open Hillel movement spread to other Jewish communal institutions, the anti-Palestinian leadership of groups like Hillel International may face a crisis larger than they thought.

Comments

 

Apparent support for Swarthmore Hillel’s brave decision from elements of the mainstream needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Here’s how one anti-Palestinian makes the case that pluralism can be used to safeguard exclusivism:   http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/156283/open-hillel-debate

When I first read the news about Swarthmore College ( a local school here) Hillel members disassociating with Hillel International, I thought great, one chapter using some discretion in achieving balanced viewpoints. Now that it has received international attention, I can't be more proud of the gutsy move on their part! My views are not religiously motivated, as I have no religious affiliation. I have Jewish in laws with whom I love deeply for the individuals they are, not because of their ethnicity. All I hope to see is honest dialogue that resolves the occupation and gives Israel a secure future. Unlike right wing Zionists, who see no solution other than complete elimination of non Jews, I am not necessarily talking a two state solution either. The territories have been so dissected in the last 65 years, its impossible to equitably delineate Jewish/Palestinian geographical borders. A one state solution that could make Israel truly "the only democracy in the Middle East" with US and UN security forces in place until stability is achieved. We (the United Stated) provide over $3bn in aid yearly to Israel. Funding security instead of armament would probably be more economical. Halting Israeli expansion, providing the Arab population basic rights, curtailing Palestinian retaliation attacks ( I know, Israel will say they started it), could result in an end to military operations as such. Maybe the time will come when all that is required is a bipartisan police force to keep order. Immediate stumbling blocks at present are Likud and settler sponsored Knesset parties that will only go kicking and screaming when concessions are asked of them. The aberration that is the PA and extremist Hamas are only one of the many obstacles in the path of a free society. One must ask, what are the options? One hundred more years of the so called Peace Talks?

This is an eloquent statement. As a longtime passionate (formerly?) "Jewish"
(heritage) ANTI-ZIONIST I can never accept "democratic and Jewish". Whether the
US is the equal society it claims to be or not (it clearly is not), it does not
and should never have the requirement that its citizens (and potential citizens)
must be white, Christian etc.

I add "under international law" because quite obviously Israel as currently
defined by itself has signed a treaty by whose rules and rulings it never intends
to abide. This is evident in one vote in the General Assembly after another
where the vast number of nations oppose US-Israeli positions.

Israel and Zionism are not "democratic". There are indeed stories in the Old
Testament of intertribal (and intra-tribal) violence. Let us hope that these
stories do not in any way reflect the traditions of Judaism today and while Jews
must be accorded "a homeland" they ought never to be guaranteed brutal,
racist and military persecution over its neighbors who include not only
Muslims but also Greek Orthodox etc. Perhaps Muslims will win some
democratic elections. Those who share Palestine as a "homeland" must
learn to accept this as the result of all democracies. They will perhaps
even be "ruled" by those with whom they fundamentally disagree. The
leaders of an opposition are not to be assassinated for their beliefs.

To be brief: What the hell is "democratic and Jewish" anyway?

Most countries in Europe have their 'official' religion with room for minorities.
Greece is a Greek Orthodox country. Marriages aren't recognized unless they are held in the church. Same for many Eastern European countries.