An Academic Exercise


“We devised an awkward and complicated two-part event where a Hillel-affiliated student group hosted a small invitation-only dinner in Hillel and an open-to-the-public talk across the street. … The only reason we had a dinner in Hillel in the first place was because Hillel had declared that Burg’s open talk could not take place in the ‘center for Jewish life on campus,’ and we wanted to invite the former speaker of the Knesset to our campus Hillel.

“Having a whole group of people walk across the street so that Palestinian voices could be included probably seemed like an exercise in absurdity to nearly everyone involved. It did to me, at least.”

“This area is a contentious one, one in which we should be fearlessly inclusive,” said Joshua Wolfsun, spokesman for the Swarthmore Hillel student board. “We have to allow for the fact that people are going to disagree about how to approach the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

Spit On Swarthmore
Swarthmore has now become the fault line between the battling pro-Israel left and right.

In a debate Dec. 16 at the 92nd Street Y, Commentary Editor John Podhoretz, depending on who’s telling it, either said “students at Swarthmore College deserve to be spat upon” (Chemi Shalev in Haaretz)  or “if you advocate anti-Zionism, you are calling for the destruction of the homeland of my family. You are free to do so, and I am free to revile you and spit upon you” (Podhoretz, in reply to Shalev).

All of which dismays Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, under which Swarthmore Hillel operates. With its own endowment, Swarthmore does not rely on Hillel International for funding, and its sole governing body is the student board, a rarity among Hillels.

“Clearly, we believe the student leaders are making a terrible mistake,” Alpert said. “But we don’t question their honesty, their seriousness or that they’re trying to do the right thing.”

What the guidelines do is differentiate “honest criticism of Israeli policy and those who use sophistry or dishonest intellectual tricks to challenge Israel’s legitimacy.”

Like the Palestine Solidarity Committee.

Like Hamas.

What if Shimon Peres were to come to campus, and his appearance were co-sponsored by the Palestine Solidarity Committee?

“Shimon Peres wouldn’t fall into that trap,” said Alpert.

Maybe not, but there are “gray areas” in Hillel parlance that speakers or groups could fall into. The guidelines call for local Hillels to “create their own Israel guidelines that are consistent with this document and reflect the local environment.”

That has resulted in a tussle over groups such as Breaking the Silence, composed of Israeli reservists who publicly criticize Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory. Speakers from the group have been banned by certain Hillels, but not all.

“Breaking the Silence draws heavy criticism from traditional pro-Israel groups,” said Ariel Berkowitz, a senior at University of Maryland and president of Kedma Orthodox community. “Here it wasn’t problematic. It’s possible to have open and compelling dialogue.”

Berkowitz is in favor of the guidelines and abiding by them. Of Fingerhut’s tough response to Swarthmore Hillel, he said, “It’s nice to see somebody say, ‘This is what we stand for. If you want to be part of our organization [you have to follow the rules].’”

There is a larger point, he added. “Many young Jews don’t share the same views as Hillel.”

Asher Mayerson agreed. “This points to a larger trend that the interests of students and donors don’t align.”

“I don’t think these parameters are being defined by students,” Benjy Cannon said, adding, “It’s upsetting because I have an incredible relationship with Hillel.”

Fingerhut, Alpert and the Swarthmore Hillel student board plan to meet early next year. What’s clear is that the issue is bigger than a renegade campus. There are fault linesbetween students and establishment, between those who believe in unfettered dialogue and those who say giving license to disagreeable speech is dangerous.

“The Jewish community needs to work with the students, to guide them and mentor them,” Alpert said.

Open Hillel is looking for more campuses to join its movement. “A lot of the goal is to get people thinking about whether these policies make sense and maybe change them. We’re hoping this is going to happen at other schools,” Unger said.

Hillel International seems to be taking the brunt of student criticism. Everyone seems to like his or her own Hillel. Said Joshua Wolfsun of Swarthmore, “Aside from this issue, Hillel is a wonderful place.”

David Holzel writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.

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