Hillel ensures that Jewish students have a safe place to learn about Israel and openly debate all issues from every side of the political spectrum, the local Federation president writes.
Hillel is more important today than ever before. The Hillels provide a warm, welcoming home on college campuses for Jewish students to socialize, study Torah, plan and execute social service projects like tutoring disadvantaged local youth and advocate for Israel.
Our university campuses have become battlegrounds for Jewish students because organizations that advocate for the boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — a movement known as BDS — are spreading lies about Israel and attempting to delegitimize it as a Jewish homeland. Their tactics are often aggressive and intimidating. It is challenging to be pro-Israel on campuses today. There is an organized effort by anti-Israel organizations to poison the hearts and minds of impressionable students against Israel. There is a difference between criticism and incitement. Calling Israel an apartheid state and an aggressor is misrepresentation and is incitement.
Israel is a democracy, imperfect like all democracies, but with freedom of the press, free speech, equal rights for women, voting rights and representation for all its citizens, including the more than 20 percent who are Arab and Muslim. Israel faces existential threats from neighboring nations who openly pledge to destroy it — from terrorism and from a nuclear Iran.
Students need to be educated about these realities. Students need to understand the difficult choices Israel has had to make in light of the threats it faces.
We have heard about the mock eviction notices that were delivered to the dorm rooms of Jewish students at Northeastern University, the University of Michigan and New York University.
These notices imply that Israelis are summarily evicting Palestinians and making the false accusation that Israel engages in ethnic cleansing. A heinous academic boycott of Israeli academics and institutions was voted on and approved by the American Studies Association , an organization to which many major universities belong. At UCLA, after a BDS resolution was voted down, some student leaders tried to impose a requirement that any student leader who went to Israel on a Jewish-sponsored trip could not serve as a student leader. Even though that didn’t pass, many student leaders at UCLA have signed a pledge not to go to the Middle East with pro-Israel groups.
There have been 67 attempted divestment resolutions at various universities since 2010. During 2014 alone, eight were introduced. Almost all of the divestment resolutions have been defeated so far, and the calls for academic boycotts have largely been condemned by other major academic groups, universities and Jewish organizations as violating academic freedom and holding Israel to a different standard than any other nation. Northeastern University has taken action against those that placed the mock evictions on Jewish student dorm rooms, citing vandalism of university property and disregard for university policy.
But the situation for Jewish students on university campuses today is uncomfortable and even hostile. In this environment, Jewish students must be armed with facts about Israel and its history, and about the difficult, existential choices Israel has to make to protect its own security and to allow its people to live everyday life without terror.
Thanks to the efforts of Hillel and the student leaders, there is a strong pro-Israel atmosphere throughout the universities in the Greater Philadelphia region. In fact, the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee (PIPAC) was awarded the AIPAC Duke Rudman Award, the top honor for campus activists, at the 2014 policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Hillel is a place where pro-Israel students can develop the tools and the confidence to discuss these issues on campus with others, both Jews and non-Jews, and advocate for Israel. Hillel is a forum where debates can be held in a civil atmosphere without fear. Jewish students can learn about Israel and debate safely, freely and openly all issues from every side of the political spectrum.
Hillel is a breeding ground for future Jewish leaders and for strong, self-assured Jewish adults who are proud of their heritage and are equipped to stand up for it. Investing through Hillel in our Jewish students is an investment in klal Yisrael.
Sherrie R. Savett, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia,, was honored at a June 10 fundraising event for Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. This piece was adapted from the talk she gave at the event.