Student leaders at the Swarthmore College Hillel have declared they no longer will adhere to Hillel International’s guidelines on Israel , but what happens next for the group isn’t exactly clear.
Will the first Hillel on a college campus to make such a dramatic gesture by declaring itself an “Open Hillel” lose its affiliation with the Hillel organization — or even possibly its funding?
The development is the latest in a series of flare-ups over who is invited inside the proverbial Jewish communal tent, particularly on college campuses, where the battle for Jewish students’ hearts and minds sparks passion on all sides.
When it comes to programs focusing on Israel, the question isn’t so much who gets to speak on campus, but who gets to speak using the Hillel imprimatur.
Right now, no one is predicting what will happen with the group based at the elite liberal arts college in suburban Philadelphia known for being politically progressive. Of some 1,300 students, an estimated 200 are Jewish.
Joshua Wolfsun, a student acting as the spokesman for the breakaway Hillel group at Swarthmore, said he hopes Hillel International and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia will “enter into dialogue with us rather than cut funding or excise us from their organization.”
Hillel has long sought to create an atmosphere of open dialogue and to provide platforms to those with views that are critical of Israel — an approach that has long miffed donors with more hawkish opinions. Hillel professionals have been wary of alienating left-wing college students or driving them into more radical camps.
At the same time, as Israel is in the ideological crosshairs at many universities, Hillel has tried diligently to ensure that it remains a strong pro-Israel voice.
In early 2010, following a series of brouhahas over local programming, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia adopted guidelines meant to clarify for staff and students which views are permitted and which are not.
Later that year, Hillel International, which is based in Washington, D.C., offered its own set of similar guidelines.
Both documents state that Hillel space and sponsorship should be off-limits to those who reject the idea of a Jewish state or advocate the use of boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel.
The national guidelines, though, also exclude those who “exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior toward campus events or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
In rejecting the national guidelines, Swarthmore Hillel’s 13-member board voted unanimously to “open up space that encourages dialogue within the diverse and pluralistic Jewish student body” and to “host and partner with any speaker at the discretion of the board, regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines.”
In a separate statement that board members drafted, they wrote: “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.”
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, and its beef was clearly with the international, and not the local, guidelines. He explained that his group’s actions were in part prompted by a recent incident at Harvard University, when Avraham Burg, a former Knesset speaker who has said that Israel should not define itself as a Jewish state, was not permitted to speak at the Hillel because his visit to campus was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee.
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.”
When asked what would happen to the Swarthmore Hillel at this point, David Eden, a Hillel International spokesman, said in an email, “There are always unanswered questions. We look forward to engaging the students at the Swarthmore Hillel in a dialogue and at this time it is pointless to speculate about future scenarios that may or may not occur.”
Wolfsun said the group is standing firm by its decision but is eager to engage in discussion with Hillel officials. He said he understands that his group has entered uncharted territory. “We don’t know how it is going to end,” said Wolfsun. “We felt that we were compelled to stand up and say what we think. Absolutely, there is uncertainty in that.”
Wolfsun and other student leaders are in the process of arranging a meeting with Jeffrey Barrack, an attorney who serves as president of the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
For his part, Barrack said he wants to reach out to the students. While there is no question that “Hillel of Greater Philadelphia is a pro-Israel agency, it will continue its practice of communicating and collaborating and coordinating with the students it serves for the purpose of education,” he said.
Shortly after local and national Hillel adopted the guidelines several years ago, Jewish students at Haverford College — in an act that wasn’t publicized at the time — opted to dissociate from Hillel, and give up all the funding that comes with it.
But what will happen with the Swarthmore group remains uncertain. For at least a decade, the college itself has maintained a fund to support Jewish programming and a Jewish student adviser, according to Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
But it was only in the last several years that the group decided to use the Hillel name, in part because students wanted to be part of a larger movement, he said.
Hillel of Greater Philadelphia currently has a contract with Swarthmore. “The college gives us the money and we play banker for them,” Alpert said. “It is enough to cover all programs, staffing and administrative expenses.”
It’s not clear what would happen with the contract if Hillel, national or local, cut the Swarthmore group loose. Some in the community are pushing Hillel to take the toughest possible stance and cut ties with the Swarthmore chapter.
But Alpert stressed that, as much as he thinks the Swarthmore students made a mistake, he doesn’t think Hillel should respond in a confrontational manner.
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 also said the student resolution itself is not in opposition to the guidelines on Israel. “Should they act in a way that brings them outside of the guidelines, then they will cease to be Hillel and be something else.”
Hillel of Greater Philadelphia’s staff person at Swarthmore, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, had been talking to the Swarthmore students prior to their vote and said now 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.”
Sherrie Savett, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said the Federation “strongly supports the action that was taken by Hillel to tell these students at Swarthmore that anti-Zionists will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name under any circumstances.”
She said Federation agrees that the Swarthmore students “shouldn’t be allowed to operate under the Hillel name,” and she emphasized that Federation upholds a similar policy not to allow any Federation funds or facilities to be used for those who are hostile to the state of Israel.
“While we encourage debate and discussion about Israel policy,” she said, “we reject conduct that demonizes, delegitimizes and challenges Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democratic state.”
Exponent Executive Editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report.