The Swarthmore Hillel Debate: Two Views


Drawing the line on what constitutes an ‘open tent.’

Yitzhak Santis, Special To The Jewish Week

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 evangelizing 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

The case for a broad-based pro-Israel community on campus.

Jacob Plitman, Special To The Jewish Week

J  Street UY student leaders across the country have all had “the conversation.” It’s the moment when your Hillel director calls you into her office and tells you like it is: “If I support the work you’re doing around Israel, we could lose a major funder. It’s either you or $50,000 that will benefit all your peers.”

At Hillels around the United States, some donors constrict the bounds of legitimate discourse on Israel and do a disservice to all of us who work to build the next generation of Jewish life. Hillel staff, caught between serving their students and keeping the lights on and the doors open, are vulnerable to some donors who seek to impose their political ideology over the interests and needs of students. There’s a lot at stake here. Not just for J Street U, but for all of us.

Hillel is dedicated to being a place where “students are challenged to explore, experience, and create vibrant Jewish lives.” But that mission requires a genuine conversation that deals with the most pressing issues for Israel and the Jewish community. This is not just important to progressive Jews, but essential to the very intellectual health of our community as a whole and its relationship with Israel. If we cannot create the space for rigorous discussion and engagement on campus, we will graduate a new generation unable to deal with the complexities and challenges facing American Jewish life. When money challenges these commitments, the Hillel mission suffers.

One striking example of these recent dynamics is the controversy at Swarthmore College. Last week, Swarthmore Hillel’s student board adopted a resolution declaring it an “Open Hillel,” rejecting Hillel’s Israel Guidelines for campus Israel activity; those guidelines declare against any association with groups or speakers that “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel. In response, the new president and CEO of Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut, wrote a sharply worded letter making it clear that no Hillel can collaborate with those groups that do not comply. Since their inception in 2010, the Hillel guidelines were always framed as guidance. In his response to the Swarthmore students, which was posted publicly on the Hillel website, Fingerhut made it clear that the guidelines are now regulations to be enforced under the threat of expulsion from Hillel International.

So why did this happen at Swarthmore and why did the president of Hillel International find it appropriate to warn of expulsion from the Hillel community? Unlike most Hillels, Swarthmore Hillel has no full-time on-site staff and, more importantly, it is funded independently through a university endowment. In other words, there are few to no private donors restricting the political priorities of Jewish students on campus.

But Swarthmore is the exception. On many other campuses, Hillel donors dictate the terms of Israel engagement in ways that often exclude progressive students. For many students like myself, being pro-Israel requires embracing a serious and intellectually rigorous conversation about the most important issues affecting the Middle East and our community. It requires working as Americans — for the sake of our family, friends, and partners in the region — to help end the occupation and bring about a two-state solution. But as some conservative donors demand a tighter conversation and enforce their political values, we risk losing that generation of young progressive Jews who won’t settle for tired hasbara and an Israel right-or-wrong approach.

A recent Pew survey of American Jews found that 70 percent of my peers under age 30 believe in the prospects of a two-state solution, while 50 percent believe that settlements undermine Israel’s security. Those numbers are significantly higher than our older counterparts. Simply put, young Jews want an end to the occupation through two-states, a commitment not as widely shared by some older donors.

As an organization, J Street U talks to everyone, even those with whom we deeply disagree. And in all those conversations, we make it very clear who we are: a pro-Israel organization dedicated to Israel’s security, two-states and a future state of Palestine. We talk to all but we act with those who share our values.

I am proud that the vast majority of our 50 J Street U groups across the country are affiliated with their campus Hillels. Still, our Hillel-related events are often held to a different standard than those sponsored by more conservative groups. We are required to provide a “counter balance” or “context” when we invite the former Israeli soldiers of Breaking the Silence or when we screen movies like “The Gatekeepers,” featuring Israeli security experts. We often hear from Hillel staff that these measures are in reaction to donors. And yet, speakers who call for prolonged occupation or demean Israel’s democratic character are rarely challenged or required to provide “context” or be “balanced.”

If we are invested in a Jewish future that includes young progressive Jews, then we have to be willing to ask our Hillels and their donors to allow space for all the students they claim to serve. It is well past time for our communal donors to stop imposing their political goals on young people, and let us develop our own. To be sure, there are countless donors to Hillel and our communal institutions who do not seek to impose their political commitments on students. Instead, they are invested in the mission to create the next generation of Jewish life with those who will be our future leaders. These generous donors are a model for giving in the Jewish community that empowers students and other young people to build the broad-based pro-Israel community that is necessary for Israel’s future and a two-state solution. Because, at the end of the day, our future — and the future of the pro-Israel community — very much depend on it.

Jacob Plitman is president of the J Street U National Student Board, and a senior at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He tweets at @jacobplitman.