Intifada, 23 December 2013
International Faces Crisis as Swarthmore Chapter Rebels Against
its Israel Guidelines
In a move
that sent shockwaves through the American Jewish community, the
Hillel chapter at Pennsylvanias Swarthmore College declared
in an open letter last week that it would not comply with its
parent organizations policy of censoring speech critical
of Israeli policy.
Hillel International, the worlds largest Jewish campus organization,
acts as an umbrella group for more than 550 chapters around the
world but mainly within the United States.
Hillels Israel Guidelines forbid chapters from hosting individuals
or organizations that oppose Israels status as a Jewish
and democratic state (i.e., its right to discriminate against
The guidelines further ban those who delegitimize, demonize,
or apply a double-standard to Israel (a catch-all for virtually
all other forms of criticism). They also rule out any speaker
who supports boycotts, divestment or sanctions against Israel
(i.e. the use of nonviolent pressure to encourage Israel to comply
with international law).
Citing the fact that Hillels own namesake was a rabbi known
for his steadfast pluralism, Swarthmore Hillels student
board stated in its open letter published in The Beacon that:
Hillel, billing itself as the Foundation for Jewish Campus
Life, is seen by many as the face of the American Jewish
college population. And due to these policies, it is a face that
is often seen to be monolithically Zionist, increasingly uncooperative,
and completely uninterested in real pluralistic, open dialogue
and discussion. We do not believe this is the true face of young
Therefore, we choose to depart from the Israel guidelines of Hillel
International. We believe these guidelines, and the actions that
have stemmed from them, are antithetical to the Jewish values
that the name Hillel should invoke. We seek to reclaim
Hillel International Responds
Swarthmore Hillel was rebuked almost immediately in a sharply-worded
letter from Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut.
Fingerhut insisted that no campus organization that uses
the Hillel name may decline to comply with the umbrella
groups censorship policy. The letter goes on to state that
?anti-Zionists will not be permitted to speak
using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.
Hillel International told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Fingerhut
would meet with representatives of Swarthmore Hillel in January,
but declined to say if any punitive measures would be taken.
Although Hillels campus chapters are autonomous entities,
Swarthmore Hillel is particularly well-positioned to challenge
the policies of the umbrella group. It receives little funding
from Hillel International, and unlike most chapters, it doesnt
have a non-student board of directors.
The Swarthmore move is a major leap forward for the broader Open
Hillel movement, which was launched at Harvard last year. Open
Hillel has started a petition in support of Swarthmore Hillels
declaration that has already gained more than 1,000 signatures.
Mixing Culture and Religion with Political Advocacy
When Fingerhut was hired earlier this year, he said in an interview
with JNS.org that the Hillel boards commitment to its Israel
Guidelines was an important thing that persuaded him
to take the job.
In a recent op-ed authored with Jonathan Kessler, Fingerhut boasted
of the way Hillel works alongside lobbying group AIPAC to develop
better and more effective strategies for minimizing the impact
of anti-Israel activities on campus. Kessler is the longtime
leader of AIPACs campus programs.
Its partnership with AIPAC is only one feature of Hillels
role in coordinating anti-Palestinian advocacy on college campuses.
Seventy Hillel chapters across the United States host Israel
Fellows employed by the Jewish Agency for Israel, working
to increase Jewish students engagement with
Israel, in large part through anti-Palestinian advocacy. Hillel
chapters also work closely with Campus Coordinators
from the David Project, a Boston-based nonprofit which trains
students to weave personal networks that can be activated to advance
anti-Palestinian initiatives or respond to criticism of Israel
on their campuses.
Implications for Anti-Palestinian Advocacy
In recent years, mainstream US anti-Palestinian groups, led by
the Israel Action Network (IAN), have sought to reduce the extent
to which they are with identified withovert efforts at censorship,
such as attempts to block Judith Butler and Omar Barghoutifrom
speaking at Brooklyn College. This is part of a broader strategy
aimed at crafting a Big Tent that can leverage voices
seen as being on the left to drive a wedge between
Palestinian rights advocates and potential progressive supporters.
With the Swarthmore declaration, and a growing perception that
Hillel and associated institutions are out of touch with their
communities and enforce a false consenus through the use of bullying,
that strategy faces a serious crisis.
Andy Bachman, a rabbi known for working with IAN to aggressively
pressure Brooklyns Park Slope Food Co-op to continue stocking
Israeli products, including settlement-made SodaStream beverage
devices, was quick to leap to Swarthmore Hillels defense
in the pages of the Forward.
While known astroturfer Bachmans op-ed may be part of a
deliberate communications strategy developed by key institutional
stakeholders, its far too early to predict how this will
Should other Hillels find inspiration in Swarthmores bold
decision, or should the ideals behind the Open Hillel movement
spread to other Jewish communal institutions, the anti-Palestinian
leadership of groups like Hillel International may face a crisis
larger than they thought.
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