Latest update: February 21st, 2014
Over the last few months, Jewish student groups on two American campuses affiliated with the Hillel International Foundation publicly rejected Hillel’s guidelines for partnership.
The first to stick out its tongue at the mother ship was Swat Hillel, the Hillel group at Swarthmore College, in suburban Philadelphia. On December 8, the group approved a resolution declaring itself to be an “Open Hillel.”
According to the resolution, the Swarthmore College group rejected Hillel International’s guidelines “which privilege only one perspective on Zionism, and make others unwelcome.”
This week a second Jewish campus organization, the Vassar Jewish Union at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, declared it also would not abide by Hillel’s Israel guidelines.
Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, issued a firm and swift public response to each of those public declarations.
First, what are those guidelines the two groups cannot abide?
Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. 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.
In other words, you can think whatever you want, even about Israel, you just can’t use Hillel to provide a platform for haters of Israel.
College students tend to rebel against any kind of guidelines, even the most benign ones, and that’s pretty much what the Jewish students at Swarthmore and Vassar did.
Eric Fingerhut, the tall, amiable-looking relatively new head of Hillel International, immediately responded to the public pouts with cordial, yet firm, responses.
Within two days of Swarthmore’s vote to reject Hillel’s guidelines, Fingerhut wrote: “Let me be very clear – ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”
The Swarthmore resolution included this: “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.”
Vassar rejected the Hillel guidelines on Tuesday, Feb. 18.
Fingerhut again responded cordially but firmly in a statement released on Thursday, Feb. 20.
Hillel’s vision is to help Jewish students build an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. Israel is a critical part of the Jewish people’s shared history and identity, and we will always encourage students to engage with Israel in a meaningful way. Hillel will not, however, give a platform to groups or individuals to attack the Jewish people, Jewish values or the Jewish state’s right to exist. This includes groups or individuals that support and advance the BDS movement, which represents a vicious attack on the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Our expectation is that all Hillel affiliates will continue to uphold these standards for partners and co-sponsors. We look forward to helping every Hillel meet the goals of Jewish student exploration, education and identity.
While Fingerhut’s statement is a firm declaration of its commitment to its own guidelines, it makes no mention of what will happen should an affiliated campus group refuse to abide by those guidelines.
WHEN CONSEQUENCES WILL BE TRIGGERED
The Jewish Press pressed that point, and extracted some level of clarity about what Hillel International intends to do, and when it intends to do it, to campus groups which flout the guidelines.
A senior official close to Hillel with authorization to speak about the matter explained that “at this point, the only thing that has happened at both Swarthmore and Vassar, is an expression of a viewpoint.” Virtually any viewpoint can be expressed without triggering any negative consequences.
“If, however, either of the campus groups which have disavowed the guidelines acts in a manner that is inconsistent with the guidelines, such as holding an event at which a BDS proponent speaks, that will trigger a response,” the official said.
“That organization then will lose the right to use the name Hillel, as well as lose access to resources which Hillel provides.”
The official explicitly referenced not only funding that comes directly from Hillel, but also resources used for professional training, grants and development, all of which would be forfeited should a campus group explicitly and affirmatively violate the guidelines.
And the disaffiliation would not simply apply to the particular event which triggered the response, it would be a long-term consequence which could only be rectified through a re-affiliation process.
It is relatively easy to understand that an invitation to an advocate of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement would trigger a disaffiliation from Hillel.
“But how will Hillel determine whether an event is one that “delegitimizes or demonizes the Jewish State,” this Jewish Press reporter asked.
“Those questions are ones that will be answered with a localized view, on a case by case basis,” was the response.
Another murky area is whether certain viewpoints which some students might consider to be too “right wing” would be protected by the guidelines.
Still more questions are raised by situations in which the college Hillel group has not renounced the guidelines, but where it has hosted events or speakers that violate those guidelines.
Several Hillels have hosted “Breaking the Silence,” an organization which some would readily classify as one which demonizes and delegitimizes Israel. But those terms are subjective; there may not be a clear-cut consensus about to who or what they should apply.
There are, however, Hillels which have hosted BDS advocates. For example, the Brandeis Hillel, through its affiliate group J Street U, hosted the Palestinian Arab Sam Bahour in the fall of 2013. Bahour is an ardent BDS supporter. There have been no apparent consequences to date. Multiple messages were left for members of the administration at Hillel at Brandeis, but no calls were returned before this article was published.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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