In early December, news came out that the Hillel Jewish student group at Swarthmore College, a small school outside of Philadelphia, had voted to break from Hillel International’s guidelines on Israel and embrace a model supported by a student group called Open Hillel. The collective of Jewish activists “[encourages] local campus Hillels to adopt policies that are more open and inclusive than Hillel International’s guidelines, and that allow for free discourse on all subjects within the Hillel community,” according to the Open Hillel website.
Swarthmore’s Hillel is the only one thus far to move in that direction. Almost immediately, Eric Fingerhut, president of Hillel International, made his organization’s position unequivocally clear: “Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility,” according to an open letter posted on Hillel’s website.
Given that Hillel chapters do, for the most part, operate autonomously, questions about what it means for Hillels on campuses across the country have emerged, including in Seattle. The answer, according to Oren Hayon, executive director of Hillel at the University of Washington, is not much.
“Swarthmore Hillel is not a bellwether for the rest of the Hillel world; this does not indicate that Hillel as a movement is out of touch with students or local campuses when it comes to its Israel policy,” Hayon told JTNews via email from Los Angeles, where he was attending a conference of the Western Hillel Organizations.
Fingerhut spoke at the conference, and Hayon said he “left the discussion feeling completely assured that Eric and his office are truly committed to a pluralistic approach to student engagement with Israel and that he deeply respects the autonomy of individual Hillels and their leadership when it comes to creating our own individual approaches to Israel programming.”
Hayon said his staff is committed to supporting Israel, but also to differences of opinion, and the international guidelines allow for that.
“The guidelines don’t specify any groups in particular at all (Eric Fingerhut made an emphatic point about this the other day) in order to let individual local Hillels determine whether groups (Palestinian student clubs, Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street, etc.) in their community are considered ‘in’ or ‘out,’” Hayon wrote. “We are an incredibly diverse community, and we constantly strive to remain accessible to all young Jews, regardless of their background, their level of religious observance, or their political perspective.”
He added that “it’s very important to me personally that I and my organization will be able to inspire students and Jconnectors [the young adult program] to deepen their connection to Israel as the Jewish homeland, but individuals will never be turned away from Hillel because they don’t share my feelings about Israel.”
That said, Hillel UW has every intention of upholding the Israel guidelines.
“I don’t think that Hillel UW would benefit from cosponsoring programming with organizations who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish, democratic state,” he wrote. “Our openness to an honest appraisal of modern Israel does not mean that Hillel UW will open its doors to the organizations that spread lies or demonize Israel.”
Another vote this month has fewer direct ramifications for Hillel as an organization, but can be reflected on campuses at large. On Sunday, the American Studies Association voted, by a two-thirds majority, on an academic boycott of Israel. The association, which according to its website is “devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history,” applies to institutions and not individual Israeli academics. But the announcement sends a larger message that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel is gaining legitimacy.
Unlike other campuses in Washington State, most notably The Evergreen State College, the BDS movement has not made significant inroads at the UW, Hayon said. But given precedent at colleges like Evergreen, he worries about the effects of BDS, which make Jewish students feel threatened and alienated.
“Successful BDS campaigns on campus often go hand-in-hand with the weakening of local Hillels, the dissolution of civil discourse on campus, and the growth of feelings of fear and alienation in Jewish students,” he wrote. “My job is to ensure that every Jewish student feels safe on UW’s campus, and that no one is made to feel intimidated or afraid because of their religious identity or ideological convictions.”
Mikael Kvart, Hillel UW’s board president, acknowledged that the education on Israel the Hillel staff has been engaging in has come at the expense of other work the organization should be doing.
“Although BDS activities on campus in some ways are an opportunity for educating our constituents about Israel and what is really going on, it is also to some extent a distraction from Hillel UW’s core mission of being a catalyst towards a meaningful Jewish life for young Jews,” he told JTNews.
Hayon said Hillel UW has spent “an enormous amount of time this year working to keep our students and young adults educated about the issues,” but in a way that he said can help them have an informed dialogue while staying true to their own values.
At the end of the day, Hayon believes Jewish students should feel free to organize in any way they wish, and it’s not the role of Hillel to change itself based upon the desires of a specific campus while giving rights to its name and resources.
“If an individual McDonald’s franchisee unilaterally decides to stop selling hamburgers, or to paint the golden arches blue,” he said, “it won’t be very long before he has to change the sign outside his restaurant.”