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A Delicate Line on Swarthmore

December 18, 2013
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How should the Jewish community respond to the students at the Swarthmore Hillel who have rejected Hillel International guidelines dealing with Israel-related programming? This is a question roiling Jewish circles nationally. The answer has potentially long-term implications not only for Hillel and Jewish students around the country but also for the future of our community.

Hillel International has every right to demand allegiance to its  guidelines, which allow for a wide range of voices but soundly reject any speaker or partner that denies Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish, democratic nation or supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The group’s new president, Eric Fingerhut, did just that in a harshly worded letter sent days after the Swarthmore Hillel voted to become an “Open Hillel” and ignore those guidelines.

But the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia has gone one step better — seeking dialogue rather than confrontation in an effort to educate rather than alienate. The situation requires a delicate balancing act, and the leaders of the local Hillel should be commended for trying to navigate that tricky path.

“In many ways the Swarthmore students are representative of a generation of positively identifying Jews,” Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said after meeting with some of the students on Monday. “The adult Jewish community needs to begin a multigenerational conversation if it wants the students to maintain their ties to the Jewish community.”

And that’s the key. The easy path would be to expel them from Hillel. Don’t follow the rules? You’re out. These students could have taken a less provocative path. If they decide to take the next step and in fact create programming that crosses the line, denying Israel’s right to exist, expulsion could be the right decision.

Or the Swarthmore students may choose to walk away on their own, like the students at Haverford College did when Hillel of Greater Philadelphia adopted its own guidelines a few years back.

 Jewish life at Swarthmore would continue, as it has at Haverford. But we as a community lose our outreach to students whose interaction with the Jewish establishment today could easily influence their connections with Jewish life in the future.

The Swarthmore students claim they want to be part of that larger community. The fact that they are choosing to identify Jewishly on campus — and to explore their questions about Israel under Jewish auspices — is significant. What's going on at some campuses with regard to Israel is appalling. This week's decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities is only the latest sign of these outrageous times. 

But even amid this distubing environment, we need to find credible ways to engage students who still have the potential to learn and grow.    

As Alpert put it: “These kids are either going to walk away from the Jewish community or they are going to be running it 10 years from now. We want them to be running it in ways that are responsible. That requires us to be wise and patient.”

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