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.