An Academic Exercise

Swarthmore Hillel is in danger of losing its Hillel label because it says it won’t be bound by International Hillel’s guidelines. (Provided)
Swarthmore Hillel is in danger of losing its Hillel label because it says it won’t be bound by International Hillel’s guidelines. (Provided)

Four months into his tenure as CEO of Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut says he understands several things.

“Everyone understands that the discussion about Israel on campus has gotten complex. There are legitimate areas for discussion, and Hillel wants to foster robust dialogue and build [the students’] connection to Israel, which is my ultimate goal.”

In the middle of the controversy over his exchange of public letters with the student board of Swarthmore Hillel, which on Dec. 9 declared itself an “open Hillel” that will not abide by Hillel International’s guidelines on Israel, Fingerhut says he understands the students’ motivations.

“I understand that part of the culture of college is challenge, and so I’m open to being challenged and petitioned by students,” he said. “But I support the guidelines and will enforce the guidelines.”

At issue are Hillel-affiliated groups that wish to co-sponsor programs with pro-Palestinian groups. Fingerhut terms such pro-Palestinian groups “anti-Zionist,” and whose goals include “destroying the State of Israel.”  Others see the guidelines, which weren’t instituted until 2010, as the danger.

“The Pew study [on American Jews] showed that young American Jews are more progressive than their elders,” said Asher Mayerson, student president of Dartmouth Hillel and a Rockville native. “We’re losing them. We need to open up the conversation [about Israel].”

Swarthmore Hillel has done nothing to break the guidelines; it has merely declared that it won’t be bound by them. In response, Fingerhut said Swarthmore’s position is “unacceptable” and that the group is in danger of losing the right to wear the Hillel label.

So far, there’s no sign of an insurrection. But student critics of Israel’s policies in the territories suddenly find they have won attention for their thesis that being pro-Israel doesn’t always mean being pro-Israeli government and that dialogue often means talking with people who don’t share your views.

“This raises some important questions about the nature of dialogue about the Arab-Israeli conflict on campus,” said Benjy Cannon, a junior at the University of Maryland and a representative to the Hillel Jewish Leadership Council. “Hillel’s response wasn’t representative of the student interests it was supposed to serve.”

In declaring itself an open Hillel, Swarthmore Hillel aligned itself with the year-old Open Hillel movement, formed at Harvard after the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Hillel group, planned a program called Jewish Voices Against Occupation. When the Hillel director learned that the Palestine Solidarity Committee was a co-sponsor, the event was canceled, said Emily Unger, a founding member of Open Hillel.

“We felt [Hillel’s response] was counterproductive and against the values of pluralism,” she says. “It’s preventing dialogue with Palestinian groups.”

Unger said she and her friends soon learned that other pro-Israel groups that were also sympathetic to the Palestinians were “experiencing similar problems on other campuses.”

When the Swarthmore Hillel story broke on Dec. 9, Open Hillel posted a petition in favor of the Swarthmore group. It gained 800 signatures in the first day and a half, Unger said, and now has more than 1,000 names.

Why Burg Crossed The Road
Last month, Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, a former chairman of the Jewish Agency, an Orthodox Jew and son of a long-serving government minister, came to Harvard. As with the Jewish Voices Against Occupation event, the Hillel group sponsoring Burg’s appearance at Hillel partnered with a pro-Palestinian group. And again, when the Hillel director learned of the association, he banned the gathering from Hillel.

Sort of.

“We hear [criticism] from Open Hillel students that the guidelines are so broad that they could ban a member of Knesset from speaking,” Fingerhut said. “Hillel welcomed Burg separately to speak.”

In the end, Burg spoke at Hillel during an invitation-only dinner. The gathering included members of the Palestinian group.

The difficulties involved in staging the event embarrassed organizer Sandra Korn, who wrote on the Forward website:

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