Hillel threatens Swarthmore chapter over events with Palestinian rights supporters

Hillel International has tried to bully Jewish students critical of Israel “into silence,” activists say. (Photo from Open Hillel’s Facebook page)

Jewish members of Hillel at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania have decided to drop the Hillel name from their group. This comes just days after their parent organization, Hillel International, threatened the Swarthmore chapter with legal action because of their planned series of events featuring Palestine solidarity activists.

The new name, Swarthmore Kehila (meaning “community”), was approved by Jewish students after a vote over the weekend.

Changing the group’s name signifies a widening trend by Jewish students who want to openly discuss Israel’s policies and the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement without harassment or censorship from Hillel International.

Hillel is a nationwide network of campus centers for Jewish students which officially opposes boycott and sanctions efforts against Israel. Hillel International has forbidden its chapters from hosting or organizing events featuring speakers in support of BDS and those who oppose Israel’s self-declared status as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

In 2013, Swarthmore Hillel became an “Open Hillel” in response to Hillel International’s restrictions on speech critical of Israel. As Abraham Greenhouse reported for The Electronic Intifada then, Hillel International’s president immediately issued a letter to the Swarthmore chapter insisting 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.”

Crossing a line?

As part of its social justice event series this semester, Swarthmore Hillel students invited Jewish civil rights activists Ira Grupper, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin and Dorothy Zellner to speak about their current organizing in support of Palestinian rights. Additional invited speakers include Palestinian social justice activist Ali Abu Awwad.

Tracy Turoff, Hillel International’s vice-president and general counsel, sent Swarthmore College and Swarthmore Hillel a letter last week threatening legal action if the event series were to proceed.

“If the students or speakers intend for this program to be a discussion in which the speakers present or proselytize their known anti-Israel and pro-BDS agenda, this would cross the clear line for programs that violate Hillel International’s standards of partnership and could be reason for Hillel International to seek to protect its guidelines, name and reputation,” Turoff wrote in a letter seen by The Electronic Intifada.

Students say that this latest threat was the final breaking point.

In a press release last week, Sarah Revesz, president of the newly-renamed Swarthmore Kehila, said: “We’ve spent more than a year designing high quality, inclusive Israel-Palestine programming to fully represent and best fit the needs of Swarthmore’s Jewish community. Hillel International has repeatedly responded with ultimatums and legal threats. This constraining pressure has driven us to a point where we can only continue to serve the diverse needs of our community under a different name than Hillel.”

“We’ve been dealing with Hillel’s restrictions for a while,” said Joshua Wolfsun in an interview with The Electronic Intifada on Wednesday. “A lot of us were connected to the Hillel name, whether that was a connection with the larger Jewish student community through Hillel, or whether it was through Hillel [the Elder,] the historical figure. But the name is not worth having a community in which all students can’t be included.”

Wolfsun explained that since declaring themselves an “open” Hillel, the group has tried to work with the parent organization to retain the Hillel name. “But we were met with threats of legal action and threats of disaffiliation,” he said.

Wolfsun added that Zionism and Israel are issues that students should be able to discuss freely within both a Jewish and educational context. “Right now, folks can’t have open discussions inside of their official Jewish communities that address all these issues,” he said. “[Hillel’s position] alienates many Jews. I think it’s incredibly problematic and really, really sad.”

In changing the name of their group and continuing with their social justice programming, Wolfsun said that the group will continue the work to “keep holding onto those values of inclusion and openness — and improving our ability to reach out to students and make them feel like this can be their home.”

“Bullied into silence”

Students with the broadening Open Hillel movement, which began at Harvard University in 2012, say they are “outraged” by Turoff’s legal threats.

“Forced to decide between creating their own programming and remaining Hillel-affiliated, Swarthmore Hillel students chose autonomy,” Open Hillel says in a statement that was emailed to The Electronic Intifada last week.

“Instead of providing meaningful Jewish experiences that work towards achieving these goals, Hillel International is stifling Jewish life on campus and actively driving students away. Hillel International has a unique ability to engage young Jews. Instead, they have chosen to devote valuable resources to pursue legal action against their own students.”

Open Hillel adds that “rather than empower[ing] young Jews who are working to create meaningful programming, Hillel International has tried to bully them into silence.”

The four Jewish civil rights activists scheduled to speak at Swarthmore have written an op-ed in The Jewish Daily Forward shaming Hillel International for their actions.

The op-ed says that the four activists have been “blocked” by Hillel International from participating in Hillel-sponsored events on US campuses after Dorothy Zellner, one of the four, spoke at Harvard Hillel last month about her Palestine solidarity organizing.

“Hillel International has recently issued a list of ‘approved’ veterans of the civil rights movement that they will allow to speak to Hillel chapters. We are not on that list,” the activists write.

They add:

Hillel International has chosen to censor what Hillel students can hear, a choice that demeans Hillel’s own constituents. Rather than supporting Jewish students in designing relevant and engaging programming, Hillel threatened to sue students for daring to talk about issues deemed too controversial. Hillel is forcing students to decide between thinking critically about justice and equality for all people, on the one hand, and being a part of the Jewish community, on the other.

Shame on Hillel International and congratulations to the students who have formed Open Hillel to challenge Hillel International’s standards of partnership and attempt to save Hillel International from itself.

Over the weekend, nearly 100 rabbis, professors and other leaders of the Jewish community published a statement condemning Hillel International’s threats against its Swarthmore chapter. “Hillel International is wasting valuable resources that could be used to engage Jewish students instead of pushing them away,” the letter states.

Members of Open Hillel have also organized a national day of action today in which supporters are calling Eric Fingerhut, Hillel International’s chief executive officer, to tell him that they oppose Hillel International’s legal threats against the Swarthmore chapter.




I left Temple University, in search of a REAL progressive Liberal Arts college, that not only offers scholarships to students like me, but a place where I as a Jew who opposes Zionism, can talk freely about my feelings. Swarthmore was on a "maybe" list, but now it's at the top. God, I hope that this school takes me, it is open and progressive. An academic environment, is the perfect place to ask questions and engage with others. I am thrilled to see these students standing up to Philadelphia and it's boot on all of our necks. This school is right outside my city and surrounded by wealthy Zionists. Now if I could just stop SEPTA from displaying an ad for 4 weeks on their buses, that depicts a Palestinian and Hitler in a picture, with a caption that states that Islam = Jew-hating, it's written in the Koran, life would be great. Thanks for this Ali,
Jane Zacher
Student, Philadelphia, Pa. Turtle Island

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).