In recent months, colleges around the nation have started challenging Hillel International over their policy surrounding Israel discourse. The movement first started at Harvard, where the local Hillel was barred by the national organization from co-sponsoring a discussion with a Palestinian student group.
Swarthmore became the first “Open Hillel” in early December, declaring that they will no longer abide by the guidelines presented by Hillel national. In their official statement, Swarthmore’s Hillel declared that, “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.”
Hillel’s official guidelines specify that groups or speakers that deny the right of Israel to exist, support the BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement or, “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel” will not be hosted by the organization.
The movement has been met with backlash, especially from the national Hillel organization. As quoted in the New York Times, Eric Fingerhut, the president and chief executive of Hillel, responded to the movement by stating that, “ ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”
The movement is traced to many controversies surrounding the participation of groups such as leftist Jewish organization’s and Palestinian solidarity organizations. At Harvard’s campus, Hillel refused to host an event with a leftist former speaker of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) because it was co-sponsored with the Palestine Solidarity Committee. J Street U, a leftist Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestinian organization, was originally barred from Hillel’s because the organization openly challenges many of Israel’s policies, including their continued occupation of the West Bank and settlement building. While J Street U is now welcome at many Hillel’s across the nation, Hillel still refuses to work with leftist organizations that support the BDS movement such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Student’s for Justice in Palestine.
(Full disclosure: the author is affiliated with J Street U, but not Open Hillel)
The Wesleyan Jewish community joined the Open Hillel movement this past week, stating, “At Wesleyan, values of inclusion are central to our identity both as Jews and as participants in the wider Wesleyan community. We believe that no one should be made to feel excluded, marginalized or unsafe in a religious or cultural space because of their political beliefs, and that welcoming an individual while censoring their opinions represents little more than probationary community membership. We reject the idea implicit in Hillel’s guidelines that Jewish plurality gives way to Zionist unanimity, and are acutely aware that many individuals have formed robust, meaningful Jewish identities that do not comport with traditional Zionist ideas.”
“There are many ways to express Jewish identity and many of them do not fall within the boundaries that Hillel International has constructed for discourse within Hillel’s,” said Danny Blinderman ’14, the organizer of Open Hillel’s movement on Wesleyan’s campus. “If our mission is to build a fully inclusive Jewish community, it is important in a community as diverse as ours to affirm that all viewpoints and Jewish identities are equally welcomed and valued.”
While Wesleyan’s move is largely symbolic, as the campus does not have an official Hillel building, but is still a Hillel affiliate, it expressed solidarity with the many campuses across the nation where Jewish student’s feel discriminated because of their viewpoints.