Hillel On The Spot At Swarthmore


Facing a growing debate over the boundaries of student discourse on Israel, the president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life said he is not concerned about rebellion in the ranks after the small chapter at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania openly scorned the organization’s guidelines.

“Swarthmore is an aberration,” said Eric Fingerhut, a former Ohio congressman and nonprofit education administrator who took the reins of the organization earlier this year.

Fingerhut said he had been in contact with student activists at several Hillel chapters around the country with gripes about the guidelines when the seven-member board of Swarthmore surprised him with an open letter on Dec. 9 saying they “will host and partner with any speaker at the discretion of the board, regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines.”

The declaration was published on the chapter’s website, in an online newspaper, The Beacon, and also e-mailed to Fingerhut.

In his open response the next day, Fingerhut emphasized the guidelines banning partnerships with organizations that deny Israel’s right to exist, support boycotts against it or disrupt pro-Israel events on campuses. “No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise,” he warned.

While the drama has all the elements of a standoff, it’s still in the hypothetical stage, with the two sides in dialogue about where to go from here. They will likely meet next month to discuss the matter.

Asked whether the organization was prepared to strip Swarthmore Hillel of its charter, Fingerhut, in an interview with The Jewish Week Tuesday, said there is, so far, no reason to do so. “They made a general statement,” he said. “There has not been an activity sponsored by that Hillel that violates the guidelines.”

The spokesman for Swarthmore Hillel’s student board, Joshua Wolfsun, said as of yet there was no plan to host an event that openly defied the guidelines.

“For us it’s a conversation we have been having for a while about how we want dialogue on Israel-Palestine to work here,” he told The Jewish Week.

The controversy comes at a time when not only is Israel under increasing attack in academia, with the American Studies Association voting to boycott Israeli institutions, but when Israel supporters are sharply divided over the boundary at which criticism of the Jewish state crosses into undermining its survival.

A group of activists has been pressuring UJA-Federation of New York not to fund local institutions that the activists feel are supportive of boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts, or in some cases those that have even fleeting links to them.

American Jews are also divided about Israel’s commitment to the peace process, with 38 percent saying the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu is making a sincere effort, but 48 percent convinced it isn’t, according to the recent Pew Research Center survey of Jewish attitudes. (A much larger share, however — 75 percent — said the Palestinians are not serious about peace.)

In a sign that students want a robust conversation on the matter, more than 1,000 people have signed a petition calling on Hillel to change its guidelines for events, which support political pluralism but bans organizations and people who “delegitimize demonize or apply a double standard to Israel.”

Open Hillel, a Jewish student activist group, claims the guidelines are “counterproductive to creating real conversations about Israel on campus,” and calls on the international Hillel movement to renounce them.

Given that discussion about the guidelines have been in progress since they were enacted in 2010 — with input from national board members, campus Hillel directors, student leaders and non-Hillel organizational leaders — Fingerhut said the only thing that has changed is that “these seven students chose to pass this resolution to seek publicity.”

“I get it, I appreciate their tactic,” he added, “but a number of other students pursued this conversation, and the one thing I have asked them to do is to identify what they would like to do that they feel is prohibited.”

He also said the Swarthmore example was unique because the Hillel has no full-time professional staff and is largely student run. Rabbi Kelilah Miller, the Swarthmore campus rabbi and Jewish life advisor at the Hillel did not return several calls seeking comment.

The Open Hillel movement evidently began after an incident last year at Harvard University involving former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, a dove who was to appear in a forum cosponsored by a group that supports BDS.

Students claim Harvard’s Hillel scuttled the event, but Fingerhut stresses that Burg did get to speak to students at a separate event. “The only thing they didn’t get was the partnership,” he said.

Still, many Jewish student activists feel put off by guidelines over engagement in an environment that encourages open debate and some say they have felt repercussions for events that think outside the box.

Ben Sheridan, who recently graduated from Binghamton University, said that last year he and other pro-Israel students booked an appearance on the upstate campus by Palestinian director Emad Burnat, whose documentary, “Five Broken Cameras,” is harshly critical of Israel’s response to protests against the West Bank security barrier.

Sheridan, who is active in an ad hoc student group, Dormitory Diplomats, asked nothing from Binghamton Hillel, but he claims that he was later forced out of a leadership position with a Hillel-affiliated group, Bearcats for Israel (named for the college mascot) because of the event. He also said Hillel pressured his group to cancel the event.

Shana Teig Kantor, who at the time was Hillel director at Binghamton and is now at the University of Miami Hillel, said that Sheridan was warned beforehand by fellow students that his role in planning the Burnat event went against the Bearcat group’s philosophy.

“He chose to be the main facilitator of the event and students decided they did not want him to be a leader anymore, though they still cared about him and wanted him to be part of the Jewish community,” Kantor told The Jewish Week.

Sheridan said he joined the Open Hillel movement because he felt people like Burnat, who may one day have to be part of a peace agreement with Israel, should be heard. He said he has been in touch with many others who have been “turned away” from Hillel for asking difficult questions. “We want to take our voice back,” he said.

Fingerhut said he was willing to meet with students to discuss the real impact of the guidelines rather than “a theoretical discussion.”

But in defending the guidelines, he said he believed it was fair to ask students “to make compromises in order to help maintain the unity of a diverse community.”

Asked if Hillel should also compromise, Fingerhut said the organization “compromises all the time. Trust me, there are plenty of people who would prefer not to have that speaker in the first place,” he said, speaking in general about controversial lecturers.

Calling from a conference of West Coast Hillel directors in California, Fingerhut said he had heard a “robust substantive discussion” among the 50 or 60 professionals present about the issues raised by Swarthmore and that most of them support keeping the guidelines in place.

He said the organization recognizes that, with a presence on 550 campuses in the U.S. and 55 in other countries, “We are a particular target that [anti-Israel groups] want to impact. We are always improving our professional skills on how to balance the two elements of the guidelines, encouraging robust debate, but also drawing a line.”

Several local campus professionals contacted by The Jewish Week Tuesday said they did not sense any tension between the appetite for programming on campus and the Hillel guidelines.

“We are trying to be thoughtful about how to engage students with Israel,” said Uri Cohen, the director of Queens College Hillel. “I would say on the one hand I would be happy if those conflicts arise, which would mean more student engagement with the question of Israel. At the same time, we hold firmly by our mandate to be a Zionist entity.”

The Hillel director at Columbia University, Brian Cohen, said students at the Ivy League, liberal bastion (which hosted Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2007) have always been eager to hear from all perspectives, but the Hillel has abided by the guidelines that are in place.

“There has not been a large uprising on campus or anything along the lines of what happened in Swarthmore,” said Cohen, who is not related to Uri Cohen. “They made a decision that should not be reflective of the greater Hillel community.”

Wolfsun, the Swarthmore Hillel board member, declined in an interview to specify organizations or people that he considered beyond the pale and unworthy as an event cosponsor.

But the 20-year-old sophomore from Amherst, Mass., said his Hillel group would not partner with “People inciting violence or using hate speech. We are not just going to open our doors to every person. What we said in the resolution is that what speakers we bring will be up to the discretion of the board.”

Wolfsun admits that his organization was moved to publicly disavow the guidelines because of the events at Harvard. “Until this year we haven’t had a lot of dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it’s an area we wanted to move into,” he said.

Is his board prepared to publicly break from Hillel?

“We haven’t made any decision about events for next [semester]. We want to check in with our community,” Wolfsun said of Swarthmore’s Jews. “Our function, first and foremost has to be to serve our Jewish community.”