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Swarthmore Students, Hillel Officials: Talking But Not on the Same Page

December 18, 2013 By:
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Five students from Swarthmore College met with top lay and professionals leaders of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia this week in an effort to defuse tensions that were set off when Swarthmore’s Hillel repudiated Hillel International’s guidelines on Israel speakers.

Both sides expressed their commitment to continuing the dialogue, but a spokesman for the Swarthmore students said they have no plans to distance themselves from their resolution proclaiming the chapter an “Open Hillel” in which anti-Zionists and supporters of the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement could be invited to speak.

“We absolutely want to be part of the community. Hillel is Jewish campus life,” said Joshua Wolfsun, a Swarthmore sophomore who is acting as the spokesman for the student group. “I don’t think those two things are irreconciliable: Them wanting to uphold the guidelines and us saying that the guidelines don’t represent the diversity of young American Jews.”

On Dec. 16, the students met in Center City with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia’s executive director, Rabbi Howard Alpert; it’s president, attorney Jeffrey Barrack; and the chair of its Israel center, John Cohn, a physician and professor of medicine. Both sides said the substance of the talks were being kept confidential so participants could speak more freely. 

In a move that has been widely reported in the media and has sparked debate in Jewish communities across the country, Swarthmore’s Hillel student board earlier this month adopted a resolution stating that it wouldn’t be bound by Hillel International’s 2010 guidelines. Those  state that Hillels worldwide should be off limits to speakers or partners who reject the notion of Israel as a Jewish state or support the BDS movement.

In a sharply worded letter to Wolfsun, Hillel’s president and CEO, Eric Fingerhut, said the group’s rejection of the guidelines “is not acceptable” and that all organizations “that use the Hillel name” must “adhere to these guidelines.”

In a telephone interview amid his final exams, Wolfsun said the student group hopes to have a separate dialogue with Fingerhut and that he may come to Swarthmore. Hillel officials estimate that the Delaware County school, known as a bastion of liberal activism, has about 200 Jewish students out of a total of 1,400.

Questions that have surfaced include: Will Hillel decide to strip Swarthmore of its affiliation? Will the decision by Swarthmore encourage other campus Hillels to follow suit? 

The officials at the local Hillel of Great­er Philadelphia have taken a somewhat less confrontational approach to the issue than the national office. 

Following the meeting with students, Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Great­­er Philadelphia, said he is not compromising on its opposition to the BDS movement, but thinks there is a way to resolve the issue without alienating the students. His view is that the guidelines need to be part of a broader conversation that leaders have with students about community, responsibility, Israel and Jewish life. “These kids are either going to walk away from the Jewish community or they are going to be running it 10 years from now.”

He said the resolution itself doesn’t cross a red line and that he’s far more concerned about the prospect of students inviting virulent anti-Israel speakers to campus than he is about getting the resolution reversed. Asserting the right to do something, he said of the students’ action, isn’t the same as going ahead and doing it.

Wolfsun said it was unclear whether they intended to invite a speaker that would fall outside the guidelines, but he stressed they won’t reverse their vote.

“We believe Hillel International can have whatever kinds of policies they want,” he said. “But I think we are challenging Hillel International to grow” and include students who have felt excluded because of their political views.

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