Swarthmore Hillel Went Too Far


How open should campus Hillels be? This is not a trivial question, and should be treated seriously now that the Swarthmore Hillel student board, in line with a national group called “Open Hillel,” voted to defy Hillel International’s guidelines by opening their doors to anti-Israel speakers and groups.

A broad tent is not an open tent. Hillels, for instance, do not allow groups promoting the missionizing of Jews to speak and worship in their facilities. The reason is clear: missionaries seek the destruction of the Jewish religion. The same holds for the advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which seeks the destruction of the Jewish state. 

Hillel’s guidelines are clear on its support for an “inclusive, pluralistic community” and “political pluralism” regarding Israel.  It takes no position on internal Israeli political matters, allowing for a broad spectrum of viewpoints — from left to right — to be expressed under Hillel’s roof. 

Open Hillel, however, seeks to change these guidelines. It sees no reason to accept that Hillel chapters should refrain from “partnering with, housing or hosting organizations, groups, or speakers that deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders” or support BDS against Israel.

This is because Open Hillel has a political agenda. It is a partner with the anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which seeks to gain entry into Hillels across the county to mainstream the BDS campaign against Israel. This partnership is clear: Open Hillel’s “Testimonials” page is dominated by video endorsements by JVP leaders and JVP refers to “our friends at the Open Hillel campaign.”

The Swarthmore Hillel student board’s statement specifically mentions JVP, lamenting that Hillel’s guidelines have “resulted in Jewish Voice for Peace not being welcome under the Hillel umbrella.” 

There are good reasons why JVP is not welcome at Hillels. At a Stanford forum last May, JVP’s executive director described her group as being “the Jewish wing of the [Palestinian solidarity] movement” and in that role “it is very important to think sort of how we plant a wedge” within Jewish community institutions regarding Israel. 

JVP’s “wedge” is in line with what Arab-American activist Hany Khalil seeks.  “For Americans to be persuaded [to support the Palestinian cause],” he said in 2004, “we have to build support across all sectors of the United States, and that will never happen without a significant and visible split within the Jewish community.”

Open Hillel is JVP’s wedge on campus. 

The Swarthmore Hillel statement also decries how Hillel’s guidelines run “counter to the values espoused by our namesake, Rabbi Hillel, who was famed for encouraging debate in contrast with Rabbi Shammai.” Its resolution further declares how “Hillel [International’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.”

The irony of these two sentences is that Rabbi Hillel made “aliyah” from the Babylonian diaspora to live out his life in Jerusalem.  He went specifically to live a rich Jewish life in Zion, learning and teaching Torah. The notion that Israel is “irrelevant” to Judaism would be utterly foreign to Rabbi Hillel. 

For many within JVP this lack of relevancy about Israel is likely why JVP is officially “agnostic” on Israel’s existence. In the face of the annihilationist and overtly anti-Semitic ideologies of Hamas, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, this agnosticism coming from a Jewish group with respect to Israel’s existence, and thus the safety of millions of Israeli Jews, represents a gross moral failure. 

It is in this light that the Swarthmore Hillel students’ decision should be seen. By embracing Open Hillel, they also hold close JVP and its lack of commitment to the Jewish people’s right to sovereign equality. International Hillel’s decision warning the Swarthmore students that they may not use the Hillel name if they pursue their policy is a correct one. Hillel will not become a party to the global delegitimization activists who seek Israel’s demise and who put Jewish lives into peril. 

Yitzhak Santis is chief programs officer at Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor.