Hillel of Greater Philadelphia has adopted a new set of rules to help determine which speakers and programs will and will not receive official support — in other words, who's kosher and who's not.
The development comes after several months of heated rhetoric on Philadelphia campuses. These incidents include a fracas in November over the choice of speakers at Temple University and, more recently, the debate over the University of Pennsylvania Hillel hosting an event sponsored by the national group J Street.
According to Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, the new standards were drawn up not with an eye toward particular speakers or events, but to assist students as they continue the process of forming their Jewish identities — that is, enabling them to strike a balance between exploring Judaism and ideas, even controversial ones, while at the same time suggesting that "there are lines beyond which Jews who support Jews ought not to go."
The new criteria state that Hillel is "inclined not to support" people or groups that are consistently uncivil; that advocate actions "intended to harm Israel or Jewish communities," including boycotts, divestment, sanctions and judicial action; and groups whose sole aim is the advocacy of those actions.
The final wording is less specific than an earlier draft obtained by the Jewish Exponent, which included the point that Hillel could withhold its resources from programs and speakers that feature "slander or disparagement of any form" toward Jews, Israel, and its society and institutions. That language, however, apparently proved too controversial and was therefore scrapped.
The guidelines do allow Hillel a bit of room for wider interpretation, according to members of the executive committee, which adopted the guidelines earlier this month.
"To my taste, it would be best if it was much more specific," said executive committee member Lori Lowenthal Marcus. "On the other hand, every time you're specific, there are bad situations that come up, and you wish you were covered and aren't."
Despite these reservations, she said that including the text about boycotts, divestment and sanctions was of paramount importance.
During the process of crafting the guidelines, there was some division within the committee, with some members uncomfortable imposing any limitations, and others thinking there needed to be a line drawn against allocating resources for groups with views inconsistent with Hillel's mission.
Issue Already Crops Up
Yet even as Hillel begins implementing these new specifications, it's clear that the approved rules only go so far.
La Salle University in Philadelphia — which has a relatively small Jewish student population and does not have a Hillel group — was set to host Hanan Ashrawi on Thursday, March 25, as part of its Diplomat-in-Residence program on campus.
Ashrawi once served as a top Palestinian spokeswoman, and since 1996 has been a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
"Ashrawi kind of takes things to a different level," said Steve Feldman, executive director of the Philadelphia district of the Zionist Organization of America. "She's just incessantly anti-Israel; everything she says is either a distortion of the truth, a defamation of Israel and deceit."
Both Feldman and Alpert of Hillel wrote letters to LaSalle administrators, protesting the speaker's visit.
Feldman expressed concern not just in this instance, but over the larger Diplomat-in-Residence program, which he said has a history of hosting speakers hostile to the Jewish state.
"People go to college to be educated, not mis-educated," said Feldman.
"Because of the lies and defamation" they hear, he continued, they might "be influenced to feel and act negatively toward Israel."
Yet others associated with the university, including education professor Robert Vogel, said that the concerns are unfounded, and that the school has always been sensitive to its small Jewish population and makes an effort to be evenhanded.
He pointed to the fact that Israeli consuls general have visited La Salle over the years, as have individuals like Middle East analyst Asaf Romirowsky.
Vogel himself is in the process of planning a course that will look at the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and even include a 10-day trip to the Jewish state "to explore and understand the issues from both sides, in a fairly treated way."
The Ashrawi event is slated to be hosted by Ed Turzanski, a La Salle professor who is not Jewish, but is a strong supporter of Israel. He balked at the notion that the university was giving Ashrawi carte blanche to spout anything she wants from the lectern.
"It's not as if we're going to enable Hanan Ashrawi to get up there and no one's going to challenge her," said Turzanski.
For Hillel, however, the issue is larger than whether or not a controversial speaker comes to campus.
Alpert observed that because there isn't currently an ongoing relationship between Hillel and the La Salle administration, it makes it hard for the Jewish organization to have "much place in the conversation, other than to be reactive."
For that reason, said the rabbi, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia is seeking funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to establish a Jewish presence at schools like La Salle, Penn State Abington and other area institutions with smaller Jewish populations.
Alpert acknowledged that — even had there been such a pre-existing relationship — Hillel might not have been able to stop Ashrawi's visit. Nor would the Hillel guidelines apply to programs at larger schools, like Penn or Temple, if the programs were non Hillel-sponsored.
But having a presence does make a difference, he noted.
For example, the group would have been able to speak up before the invitation was offered and address the matter as part of the La Salle community, said Alpert, "rather than as outsiders reacting to a decision that we think was ill-conceived. And that's a major difference."