Swarthmore Students Criticize Jewish Chapter’s Break from Hillel

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Students say the Hillel chapter had become a political organization rather than a place for Jewish religious and cultural programming.

Not all Jewish students at Swarthmore support the decision by their peers to drop the Hillel name and break from its parent organziation.

The board of the Hillel chapter at Swarthmore College voted March 16 to break from Hillel International, the umbrella organization, after a back and forth with the group over the chapter's decision to host an event featuring civil rights veterans who have come out in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The board voted 7-3 — with one member absent — to drop the Hillel name and go forward with the programming.

In an op-ed published in the school's Daily Gazette newspaper, two students criticized the student leaders of the chapter, which they said did not welcome open debate but only presented one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group had become a "political activist group acting under the facade of a religious and cultural organization," the piece stated.

In response, student leaders of the former Hillel chapter said they have had very few political events over the last couple of years and a wide variety of cultural and religious programming.

The conflict between Swarthmore and Hillel International started during the 2013-14 school year, when the students decided to become an Open Hillel, meaning that they would not adhere to Hillel’s ban on speakers who deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; or support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.

The school had not announced any programming related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until earlier this month, when it announced a series of events, including one featuring BDS supporters.

"The now former Hillel was not a place that facilitated debate and discussion on a range of diverse subjects," wrote students Jessica Seigel and Nat Frum, the son of conservative commentator David Frum. "Rather, it was only interested in one: the Israel/Palestine debate. Furthermore, the Swarthmore Hillel made it abundantly clear that it was only interested in presenting one side of this multifaceted argument.  This both disappointed and upset many Jewish students because while there are multiple groups on campus that deal with the many sides of the issue, there was only one group for Jewish students at Swarthmore."

Meanwhile, Hillel International sent a letter to supporters this week, detailing the discussions that preceded the Swarthmore students' decision.

"We suggested that if they wanted to go forward with the program as planned, then they simply needed to remove the Hillel sponsorship from this one particular program, recommending that another campus organization might want to sponsor it," Hillel International president and CEO Eric Fingerhut stated in the letter. "We gave them multiple opportunities to have a meaningful program under Hillel sponsorship or to continue as planned without Hillel sponsorship. We explained to the administration and the students that a program with the clear intention of promoting an anti-Israel and BDS agenda could not be held under Hillel sponsorship. In the end, it became clear that the student organizers’ intent was to hold this event for the express purpose of advocating a pro-BDS and anti-Israel platform in Hillel’s name."

"The situation is unfortunate, as many students disagree with the decision of the current student leaders.  We will continue to support these students as we care deeply about Jewish life at Swarthmore," the letter states.

The authors of the piece in the Gazette stated that they had attended the March 16 board meeting and told board members that they "felt unwelcome and unsafe attending Open Hillel’s events."

"What was made very clear at Monday evening’s meeting was that there is a clear desire for a Jewish space that is not dominated by the Israel-Palestine discussion," the opinion piece states. "There is an evident need for a religious and cultural group on campus, and although Hillel International is a Zionist organization, on many campuses this is the purpose that Hillel serves. Open Hillel at Swarthmore has been so purely political that the needs of the religious and cultural Jewish community have not been met. Students seeking this resource have not been able to access it simply because it does not exist."

In reponse, Joshua Wolfsun, a Swarthmore junior who serves as the group’s programming coordinator for issues on Israel-Palestine, told the Exponent that the group  has hosted only three political programs in his three years at the school but it has hosted weekly Shabbat dinners and services, Talmud study and other programming around Jewish holidays, as well as cultural events such as Jewish poetry readings and song-sharing events. 

In addition to the panel featuring BDS supporters, the Swarthmore chapter plans to host a co-founder of Hand in Hand, which operates Israel's largest joint Arab-Israeli school in Jerusalem.

The op-ed authors "portrayal of the programming doesn't seem to match to what I know to be true, so I'm curious about how they have come to their understanding of these things," said Wolfsun. "If they feel uncomfortable, I'm not going to say we've done things perfectly, but certainly we're not a political organization or a political activist group."

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