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Swarthmore Hillel Breaks From National Group's Guidelines

December 9, 2013 By:
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Swarthmore College students at a Hillel event

The Swarthmore Hillel will no longer adhere to Hillel International's guidelines on Israel, which bar its campus organizations from hosting speakers who do not abide by certain principles related to Israel.

The group's 13-member board voted unanimously to become an "Open Hillel"  on Dec. 8, said sophomore Joshua Wolfsun, communications coordinator at the liberal arts college's Hillel. Open Hillel was started in 2012 by Harvard University students in reaction to conflicts between student groups and Hillel, which bans 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.

But whereas the Harvard Hillel has not changed its policy despite such efforts by students, the effort did inspire the students at Swarthmore to take action to become the first Hillel to break from the umbrella organization's guidelines. 

The decision is likely to spark renewed concern about college campuses, where the boundaries of pro-Israel activity often spark heated debate. 

 The Swarthmore proclamation states that the Hillel will "open up space that encourages dialogue within the diverse and pluralistic Jewish student body"  and "host and partner with any speaker at the discretion of the board, regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines."

The vote came after several weeks of discussion among its members, who range from Orthodox to Reconstructionist, according to Wolfsun. The Swarthmore Hillel had not run into any conflicts of its own related to the restrictions, Wolfsun said, but the group wanted more latitude in determining its programming. He said his group's action was in part prompted by an incident at Harvard, when Avraham Burg,  a former Knesset speaker who has said that Israel should not define itself as a Jewish state, was not allowed to speak at the Hillel because his visit to campus was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee. 

Wolfsun said he is hopeful that Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, which provides support to the Swarthmore Hillel, will provide "constructive critcism or enter dialogue with us rather than cut funding or excise us from their organization."
 
Hillel of Greater Philadelphia's director, Rabbi Howard Alpert, expressed dismay over the developments. The Jewish community "needs to make clear that it cannot abide the anti-Israelism of the BDS movement and of those who seek to demonize and delegitimize Israel," he said, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. "Hillel stands by its guidelines that do not allow its name or resources to be associated with a program or organization that seeks to harm Israel."
 
At the same time, Alpert cautioned against alienating committed Jewish students who are wrestling with these issues. "Without compromising that stance" on the guidelines, he said, Hillel also needs to embrace those Jewish students who are in the midst of developing into responsible, mature Jewish adults and who will be the future of the American Jewish community."
"We need to act as educators," he added.
 
Hillel of Greater Philadelphia's staff person at Swarthmore, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, said she plans to "challenge the students to live up to the commitments they expressed in the resolution they adopted and to really figure out what this can mean as far as having thoughtful conversation." 

For its part, Hillel International warned its Swarthmore chapter that it cannot use the Hillel name if it disregards the international Jewish campus group’s Israel guidelines.

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.”

“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,” Fingerhut wrote. “No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise.”

Wolfsun said he is not sure how much the change will affect programming and discussion at the Swarthmore Hilllel, which he said has about 50 active members and often attracts more than 100 students to events, but he hopes the proclamation sparks a discussion and changes at other campuses.

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