We Are an Open Hillel (Updated Again)

9 Dec

Hillel is one of the rabbis in the Jewish tradition most associated with the spirit of questioning, argument, and debate. Indeed, so intense and multiple were his disagreements with Shammai that a saying emerged from their disputes: “The one law has become two.”

So it seems entire appropriate for the Jewish students of the Swarthmore College Hillel to have adopted the following resolution, declaring themselves to be an “Open Hillel.” The backdrop to this resolution is the decision two weeks ago of the Harvard Hillel not to allow an anti-Israel speaker on its premises. That decision was in keeping with Hillel International’s policy of refusing to work with or or to host anyone who opposes the State of Israel, including the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset (because he was being brought to the Harvard campus by an anti-Israel student group).

Here is the resolution of the Swarthmore Hillel:

Whereas Hillel International prohibits partnering with, hosting, or housing anyone who (a) denies the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders, (b) delegitimizes, demonizes, or applies a double standard to Israel, (c) supports boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;

And whereas this policy has resulted in the barring of speakers from organizations such as Breaking the Silence and the Israeli Knesset from speaking at Hillels without censorship, and has resulted in Jewish Voice for Peace not being welcome under the Hillel umbrella;

And whereas this policy runs counter to the values espoused by our namesake, Rabbi Hillel, who was famed for encouraging debate in contrast with Rabbi Shammai;

And whereas Hillel, while purporting to support all Jewish Campus Life, presents a monolithic face pertaining to Zionism that does not accurately reflect the diverse opinions of young American Jews;

And whereas Hillel’s statement that Israel is a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students does not allow space for others who perceive it as irrelevant to their Judaism;

And whereas Hillel International’s Israel guidelines privilege only one perspective on Zionism, and make others unwelcome;

And whereas the goals of fostering a diverse community and supporting all Jewish life on campus cannot be met when Hillel International’s guidelines are in place;

Therefore be it resolved that Swarthmore Hillel declares itself to be an Open Hillel; an organization that supports Jewish life in all its forms; an organization that is a religious and cultural group whose purpose is not to advocate for one single political view, but rather to open up space that encourages dialogue within the diverse and pluralistic Jewish student body and the larger community at Swarthmore; an organization that will host and partner with any speaker at the discretion of the board, regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines; and an organization that will always strive to be in keeping with the values of open debate and discourse espoused by Rabbi Hillel.

And here are some excerpts from their press release:

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 American Jews.

…Rabbi Hillel valued Jewish debate and difference – it was at the core of his practice. We do the same. For us, that is what the name Hillel symbolizes.

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 this name. We seek to turn Hillel – at Swarthmore, in the Greater Philadelphia region, nationally, and internationally – into a place that has a reputation for constructive discourse and free speech. We refuse to surrender the name of this Rabbi who encouraged dialogue to those who seek to limit it.

To that end, Swarthmore Hillel hereby declares itself to be an Open Hillel. 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. We are an institution that seeks to foster spirited debate, constructive dialogue, and a safe space for all, in keeping with the Jewish tradition. We are an Open Hillel.

Update (December 10, 10:40 pm

The head of Hillel International has responded to Swarthmore Hillel. This from the Haaretz.

Hillel International warned its Swarthmore College chapter that it cannot use the Hillel name if it flouts the international Jewish campus group’s Israel guidelines.

The Hillel student organization delivered the warning on Tuesday in a sharply worded letter following the Swarthmore chapter student board’s decision to repudiate Hillel guidelines prohibiting partnerships with groups deemed hostile toward Israel.

In his letter, Hillel’s president and CEO, Eric Fingerhut, warned Swarthmore Hillel’s student communications coordinator, Joshua Wolfsun, that the chapter’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.”

Swarthmore Hillel had said in a statement: “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.”

Fingerhut, in his letter, rejected the formulation.

“Let me be very clear – ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances,” he wrote.

Update (December 11, 11:30 am)

There is now a petition protesting Hillel International’s policy of banning non-Zionist and anti-Zionist speakers and associations with Hillel. I urge you to sign it.

Also, Inside Higher Ed has a very good piece on the controversy.

4 Responses to “We Are an Open Hillel (Updated Again)”

  1. Joanna Bujes December 9, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    Awesome!

  2. BillR December 9, 2013 at 11:39 pm #

    If you don’t want the next 20 years of “dialog” to be like the last 20 years, break on through to the other side, i.e. BDS as a great rocker, born a few weeks apart from Jim Morrison, advised over the weekend.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Touching the third rail of American Jewish life | A secular Jew in Indianapolis - December 12, 2013

    […] We Are an Open Hillel (coreyrobin.com) […]

  2. A Response to Michael Kazin on BDS and Campus Activism | Corey Robin - December 13, 2013

    […] Jewish norms and traditions against the State of Israel and its defenders. Indeed, just this week, Jewish students at Swarthmore made international headlines when they sought to retrieve the figure of Hillel from the campus […]

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