The move comes after Hillel International threatens legal action if Swarthmore students host supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
Students at Swarthmore College have decided to break from Hillel International and drop the organization’s name after facing pressure from the umbrella body not to host speakers who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
But the move by the students at the liberal arts college in suburban Philadelphia will not sever ties between Jewish students on campus and the local Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, both parties say.
The conflict between Hillel and Swarthmore, brewing for months, came to a head this week over the students’ decision to move forward with a program to host a Jewish veteran of the civil rights movement who is a strong supporter of the BDS movement.
Hillel International, the umbrella organization based in Washington, had been in contact with school officials and students over the last couple of months, alerting them that if they hosted such an event, they would be violating the organization’s standards banning speakers who support the BDS movement.
If the students went ahead with the programming, Tracy Turoff, vice president and general counsel of Hillel International, wrote in a March 16 letter to a Swarthmore dean and attorney, “it could be reason for Hillel International to seek to protect its guidelines, name and reputation.”
“We hope that we can come to a suitable arrangement with Swarthmore College this week, and that there is no attempt to damage Hillel’s famous name and reputation with a program that could violate Hillel’s” standards, the letter said.
Joshua Wolfsun, a Swarthmore junior who serves as the group’s programming coordinator for issues on Israel-Palestine, said, “We’ve been trying to schedule programming without restrictions, and we’ve gotten to the point” where pressure from Hillel International “has become untenable.”
Hillel has faced challenges over the last couple of years from students questioning the guidelines and restrictions Hillel has imposed regarding speakers allowed at events sponsored by the organization.
The protest has led to the “Open Hillel” movement, with a handful of campuses — led by Swarthmore as the first — declaring themselves as such. Students at other campuses have seriously engaged in conversation about whether they should pursue that route. By placing restrictions on campus, Hillel says it is aiming to maintain its brand and a pro-Israel agenda, but it has also alienated some students who see the restrictions as limiting their dialogue.
At Swarthmore, the Jewish student group is funded independently by the college rather than by Hillel, so the break could have more of a symbolic impact than a practical one.
Both the local and national Hillel organizations are trying to downplay the rift.
“As far as we are concerned, this is not controversial,” Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said of the Swarthmore students’ decision.
The question comes down to different values, he said. “We are saying what’s most important is support for the Zionist enterprise, whether left wing or right wing.
“Students are saying the higher value is having an inclusive community, which includes anti-Zionist voices if there are Jewish students who want that voice.
“We said, ‘If that’s true, you can’t use our name,’ and they said, ‘OK.’ To avoid conflict, they opted not to use the Hillel name” but they “are not saying they don’t want to be associated with Hillel.”
The conflict between Swarthmore and Hillel International started during the 2013-14 school year, when the students decided to become an Open Hillel, meaning that they would not adhere to Hillel’s ban on speakers who deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; or support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.
After that move, Hillel International sent a letter to Wolfsun in December 2013 stating that breaking from the guidelines “is not acceptable.”
“I hope you will inform your colleagues on the Student Board of Swarthmore Hillel that Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines,” Hillel’s president and CEO, Eric Fingerhut, wrote at the time. “No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise.”
Since then, Swarthmore students have continued to work with their Hillel adviser, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, on Jewish programming and had not made any further announcements about hosting BDS supporters until earlier this month.
As part of a dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the group is planning to host on March 24 a panel of Jewish veterans of the civil rights movement that includes Dorothy Zellner, a former staffer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who has been a supporter of the BDS movement; some of the other panelists have also expressed their support for BDS.
Wolfsun said students have been meeting regularly and were in contact with both the local and national Hillel groups to figure out a way to host such events while maintaining an association with the organization.
After hearing “vague threats of legal action and threats of disaffiliation” from Hillel International, along with the March 16 letter, Wolfsun said, the 11-member student board met on Monday and decided in a 7 to 3 vote, with one member absent, that they would drop the Hillel name, Wolfsun said.
After the vote, Hillel International, like Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said Hillel would continue to serve Jewish students at the school.
“Hillel International cares about Jewish life on campus at Swarthmore and, together with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, will continue to look for opportunities to serve Jewish students on the Swarthmore campus,” according to a statement from the organization.
Wolfsun said the students have been in contact with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and “we would very much like to continue that relationship. I don’t see it hopefully changing that much.”
The Swarthmore chapter enjoys greater financial security than some at other schools because Jewish life at the school is funded by an independent Swarthmore endowment rather than by Hillel. The school then contracts with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia for a staff person, currently Rabbi Miller. Miller did not return requests for comment.
“If there is a program that conflicts with our values, then Kelilah won’t work on it,” said Alpert. “I want to make it clear that there are wonderful Jewish things that go on at Swarthmore College, many of which are created by” the student leaders of the chapter, “and we’ll continue to support that.”
The Swarthmore dean who had been in contact with Hillel International also said she did not anticipate any staffing changes.
“We expect to maintain a collegial relationship with Hillel International and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and appreciate the guidance they have provided our students these past 6 years,” Swarthmore associate dean Liliana Rodriguez wrote in an email to the Jewish Exponent.
Students have not yet picked a new name for their organization, Wolfsun said.
Rachel Flaherman, a junior physics major who served on the Swarthmore Hillel board last school year, said she was saddened to break with the umbrella organization, but "I feel that given the options that Hillel International presented to us, the only moral choice was to leave Hillel."