On November 11, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset Avraham Burg was supposed to give a talk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Harvard Hillel house. Instead, Hillel barred him from speaking at the Hillel house, and he ended up giving his talk in an undergraduate dormitory on campus. The reason he was barred? His talk was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee.
Sadly, for organizations bearing the name “Hillel,” situations like these are all too common. Across the country, many Hillels have banned Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli soldiers that facilitates talks about the Israeli military and West Bank occupation. Jewish Voice for Peace, which seeks “peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East,” has never been allowed to affiliate with Hillels. On some campuses, JStreet has had a difficult time working with Hillels, and events co-sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine or Palestine Solidarity Committees have often been banned.
Across the country, Hillels’ suppression of the freedom to speak and believe things that are not narrowly pro-Zionist are the direct result of Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines. Right after stating in their “Political Pluralism” section that they object to excluding “students for their beliefs and expressions,” they declare that they “will not partner with, house, or host” – in other words, they will exclude – groups and speakers that espouse certain beliefs about Israel. These contraband beliefs include denying the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state and supporting boycotting, divesting, or sanctions against Israel. They also ban those who “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.” No further explanation is provided to clarify these guidelines, but their ambiguity has done nothing to ease the stifling effect they have on individual Hillels’ freedoms of speech, belief, and association. These guidelines would exclude speakers with views like those of Peter Beinart, Judith Butler, and Noam Chomsky.
Hillel, billing itself as the “Foundation for Jewish Campus Life,” is seen by many as the face of the American Jewish college population. And due to these policies, it is a face that is often seen to be monolithically Zionist, increasingly uncooperative, and completely uninterested in real pluralistic, open dialogue and discussion.
We do not believe this is the true face of young American Jews.
In fact, we do not believe there is only one face of young American Jews. We believe there are many faces of this diverse population. In our community, we find this diversity in the conversations we have with each other in our Sukkah, in the group of students meeting in a college coffee bar to discuss Talmudic conceptions of angels, and in the songs we sing together after a Shabbat meal. If we are truly devoted to fostering Jewish Campus Life, we need to constantly wrestle with how best to meet the collective needs of a diverse community. We need to create a space that is safe and welcoming for all. We need to a create a space that invites difference – difference of opinion, difference of belief, difference of background, difference of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
This is hard work. But if we are going to bear the name of Rabbi Hillel, we cannot expect anything less to be asked of us. Rabbi Hillel valued Jewish debate and difference – it was at the core of his practice. We do the same. For us, that is what the name Hillel symbolizes.
Therefore, we choose to depart from the Israel guidelines of Hillel International. We believe these guidelines, and the actions that have stemmed from them, are antithetical to the Jewish values that the name “Hillel” should invoke. We seek to reclaim this name. We seek to turn Hillel – at Swarthmore, in the Greater Philadelphia region, nationally, and internationally – into a place that has a reputation for constructive discourse and free speech. We refuse to surrender the name of this Rabbi who encouraged dialogue to those who seek to limit it.
To that end, Swarthmore Hillel hereby declares itself to be an Open Hillel. 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. We are an institution that seeks to foster spirited debate, constructive dialogue, and a safe space for all, in keeping with the Jewish tradition. We are an Open Hillel.
We invite you to join us.