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Hillel a​t Work on Rules to Govern Speakers

January 14, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Hillel of Greater Philadelphia is fashioning a set of guidelines that will detail just what sort of content is and is not welcome from speakers at the group's events.

This comes after a heated fracas this past fall over what's appropriate for Hillel audiences on area college campuses. It also comes as vitriolic attacks against Israel are occurring at universities across the country.

Hillel's board will meet on Jan. 14 to discuss a draft of these new policies, but according to Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, a final version is not expected to be ready until the next board session in March.

A version of the three-page document obtained by the Jewish Exponent states that Hillel would withhold support in instances when speakers' points of view are inconsistent with the organization's mission and core values; when speakers advocate boycotting Israel or Israeli goods, withholding U.S. aid to the Jewish state, or denying its right to exist; and when guests partake in any "slander or disparagement of any form, directed at the Jewish people, the State of Israel, Israeli society or institutions or the practice of Judaism."

Alpert said that while Hillel needs to be able to accommodate the breadth of issues at stake, "it also needs to set clear boundaries as to what are the points beyond which it will be compromising its integrity, and therefore can't go."

He called the current wording "only a snapshot in time," and said that he expected that a final draft would differ in its language, and would further clarify what's in the statement now.

The section on slander was the main sticking point for several individuals interviewed for this story, even though the text is followed by a caveat that proposed events will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Temple University student Bryan Mann, who directs All Sides, a self-described pro-peace, pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian organization on campus, said that he worried primarily about the slander rule.

Mann said that he believed the document did encourage a back-and-forth, but said that the slander passage "could basically nip any debate or actual discussion program in the bud because they did simply say, 'You're criticizing the State of Israel, so we can't support your program.' "

Responding to Mann's fears, Alpert said that while language in that section has already been changed -- and will likely be even further refined in future drafts -- the issue is not the criticism of Israel, "it's the tone in which it's leveled and the language that's used."

Using the example of the Israeli Defense Force, the rabbi explained that there's a significant difference between a speaker calling IDF members Nazis and war criminals, and saying that the IDF overreacts and uses too much force.

Edward Newman, chair of the Israel Campus Coalition of Philadelphia, said that whatever new procedures arise would not be an attempt to muzzle any particular person or group; rather, this is an "attempt to clarify policy and provide guidance."

'Right to Speak'

Hillel board members, in addition to community and student leaders, including Newman and Mann, were all solicited to provide input on the proposed rules, which also state that in the event of controversy, the final decision rests with Alpert.

Alpert stressed that Hillel is an educational institution that must allow for a broad conversation among students, but he also acknowledged that in the current climate, there are many who aren't shy about expressing ill will toward Israel and Jews.

"We have to make sure these people have the right to speak on campus, for sure," he said, "but we don't have to lend the Hillel facility."


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