Factions Clash Over Hillel Israel Policy


A backlash against the growing Open Hillel movement has slowly been gaining support, with nearly 400 students backing Hillel International’s ban on partnerships with groups that delegitimize the State of Israel.

Raphael Fils, a Boston University sophomore and Daniel Mael, a junior at Brandeis, started Safe Hillel in late February after the Vassar Jewish Union became the second Hillel-affiliated group to declare itself “open,” and repudiate Hillel’s Israel guidelines prohibiting partnerships with groups that support BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel or question its right to exist.

Mael and Fils say Hillel should be a refuge where students aren’t forced to defend their pro-Israel views.

“It’s not like I don’t believe these debates should happen, I just don’t believe Hillel is the place for them or that Hillel’s funds should be paying for them,” said Fils.

“Tons of students have reached out to me and explained how they feel uncomfortable on their campus and some of them are afraid to speak up,” he added.

So Fils and Mael started two petitions. The first urges Hillel International to stand strong, while the second asks Open Hillel to stand down.

“Open Hillel has badly slandered Hillel International,” said Mael. “They have attempted to portray Hillel as an unwelcoming space which doesn’t host productive dialogue and isn’t inclusive to all students. Safe Hillel is attempting to organize support for Hillel’s guidelines.”

The first petition was posted on Feb. 26. As of Tuesday morning it had 377 signatures, including nine students from Vassar.

The petition to Open Hillel, posted on the evening of March 1, says that while the petitioners want to be “open and inclusive” there are “some ideas and opinions that are unacceptable in the Jewish community.”

Mael and Fils write that they are concerned about the “safety of Jewish students on campus if Open Hillel were to succeed with its current positions,” and ask “the Open Hillel movement to amend their requests and impose a ban on speakers who advocate terrorism, are pro-Hamas, pro-Hezbollah, and/or favor the end of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.” As of Tuesday morning, it had 71 signatures.

“The Open Hillel petition says that every organization has a boundary and that absolute openness is a farce,” said Mael, adding that the NAACP wouldn’t sponsor a speaker from the Klu Klux Klan.

“So we’re asking them to amend their petition and once they acknowledge that there is a boundary we can have a legitimate conversation about where it should be established,” he added.

Emily Unger, one of Open Hillel’s founders, said her organization has always opposed “calls for violence, terrorism, anti-Semitism, or racism” and has had a statement to that effect on the group’s website for months.

“Thus, it strikes us as strange that Safe Hillel is petitioning us to take up policies that we already support. Personally, I think this suggests that the founders of Safe Hillel have not fully researched our campaign or read most of our materials,” she said in an email to The Jewish Week.

Fils and Mael started their petitions a week after Vassar’s Jewish Union declared itself an Open Hillel in late February. It was the second Hillel to make the declaration, following Swarthmore’s Hillel’s declaration in early December.

The Open Hillel movement itself was started by The Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance a year earlier, in November of 2012, after Harvard’s Hillel asked them to move a discussion, “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation” which they were hosting with the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, to another venue. The event violated Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines, which, in addition to banning partnerships with groups supporting BDS, also prohibit Hillel-affiliated groups from hosting or partnering with groups that “deny the right of Israel to exist … Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel … [or] exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

Over the past 15 months, more than 1,300 people have signed Open Hillel’s petition asking Hillel to get rid of the guidelines, which Open Hillel says exclude some Jewish groups from campus Hillels and stifle “real conversations about Israel.”

“Open Hillel calls for there to be space within Hillel to learn about, discuss, and debate the full range of political views on Israel including views on the right and the left,” Unger wrote in the email. Not only will this “make more students feel welcome,” at Hillel, but it will also let students learn about other perspectives, which is useful whether they end up supporting those views, or use the insights to make stronger arguments against them, she said.

But Mael said via email that this kind of exchange doesn’t have to happen at Hillel. “It’s not about liberal versus conservative. It is about whether or not donors and students should be supporting, funding and providing legitimacy to those who question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Not a specific Israeli policy — Israel herself.”

Originally, Mael and Fils had also planned to grant Hillels a Safe Hillel designation so that students would know that chapter follows Hillel’s guidelines. They also planned to collect reports (signed or anonymous) about Hillels that violate the guidelines, or pro-Israel students being bullied, and send the information to the affected chapter and Hillel International and “work with them until the issue is resolved.”

However, the pair removed those pages from their site over the weekend, saying they didn’t want to give the impression they were trying to censor activity. Instead, they’re hoping the petitions will empower students to voice their support for the guidelines, Mael said.

So far, Hillel’s central office has been circumspect about Safe Hillel. David Eden, the foundation’s chief administrative officer said his organization would be happy to speak with Mael and Fils. “Hillels are both safe and open for all students,” Eden said in a statement last week. “The only Hillel movement I am aware of operates under the umbrella of Hillel International and includes more than 550 Hillels in North America and scores more in 13 countries on five continents, including many in the former Soviet Union.”