Defining Moment: Hillel International Confronts Swarthmore College Chapter on Zionism

Eric Fingerhut

Eric Fingerhut, Pres. & CEO Hillel International

For more than a decade we have been witness to Hillel Chapters on college and university campuses drifting to a policy of tolerating leftist Jewish ‘progressive’ and Muslim groups advocating delegitimization of Israel.  We have seen it in Hillel chapters abetting efforts of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice for Palestine, Muslim Student Association chapters putting on annual Israel Apartheid Awareness Weeks on college campuses across the US. In too many instances they were supported by local Jewish Federations in programming activities, as well as Jewish and Israel studies programs and faculty.  This ‘tolerance of the intolerant’ by Hillel campus chapters may have been supported in the past by Hillel International: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life  (HI). However, with the arrival in April 2013 of HI’s new President and CEO, Eric Fingerhut, this legacy of former HI President Wayne Firestone has ended.

The confrontation between the Hillel Chapter at elite Swarthmore College near Philadelphia and Fingerhut over the chapter’s so-called Open Hillel policy of presenting speakers delegitimizing Israel marks a new and potentially important development for this Jewish campus organization.  The controversy has come to a head when recently the Harvard College Hillel Chapter barred a presentation by former Knesset Speaker, Avraham Burg,  co-sponsored by an anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions group.   Burg is a controversial leftist proponent of delegitimizing Israel internationally, who lives in self imposed exile in France. The incident at Swarthmore  also comes at a time when two academic associations in the US, Asian American Studies and Council of the American Studies Association endorsed resolutions calling for boycott of Israel universities akin to  similar  efforts in the UK and EU higher education professional groups. These developments are  the focus of two articles, “Going Rogue” in the Inside Higher Ed blog of The Chronicle of High Education and another  in The Jewish Press by  US Correspondent, Lori Lowenthal Marcus, “Hillel CEO: You can’t use our name if reject Zionism”.

Swarthmore is not unlike other campuses in that the student groups have virtual autonomy from national affiliations, supported by local endowments and student activity fees.

We have written about these episodes  at colleges and universities across the US.  Professor Tammi-Rossman Benjamin at UC Santa Cruz went on a national speaking tour in 2012 to raise attention to the problem. We continually addressed the problems of the Olive Tree Initiative at UC Irvine and other major California campuses. We witnessed the indictment and conviction of 11 members of the combined UC Irvine/Riverside Muslim Student Association chapters on charges of conspiring to deny the free speech of former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in February 2010.

Watch this brief video of UC Santa Cruz lecturer Rossman –Benjamin’s presentation at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Stoughton, Massachusetts in 2012.

The current kerfuffle between HI’s Fingerhut and the Hillel Swarthmore chapter arose when the later published a series of rebuttals last weekend  concerning the latter’s Open Hillel resolution in defiance of new standards adopted by HI. The Inside Higher Ed  blog noted:

The student board at Swarthmore College’s Hillel chapter has unanimously passed a resolution saying it will not abide by the international Jewish student organization’s ban on hosting anti-Israel speakers.

Declaring itself an “Open Hillel,” in an allusion to a broader movement against Hillel guidelines on campus-based Israel activities, the Swarthmore chapter resolved that it will “host and partner with any speaker at the discretion of the board, regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines.”

The president of Hillel International has responded with a rebuke, describing the chapter’s position as “not acceptable” and saying that no organization that uses Hillel’s name can choose to violate its guidelines. Those guidelines stipulate that Hillel chapters will not partner with or host organizations or speakers that deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or that seek to “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” or that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel

The premise of the Swarthmore Hillel chapter resolution was:

That Hillel International’s rules have prevented campus chapters from cooperating with groups such as Breaking the Silence and Jewish Voice for Peace, and asserts that Hillel, “while purporting to support all Jewish Campus Life, presents a monolithic face pertaining to Zionism that does not accurately reflect the diverse opinions of young American Jews.”

Swarthmore sophomore Hillel student leader Wolfsun offered an olive branch via email to Fingerhut saying:

Although we stand by our resolution and our editorial, we look forward to a productive and fruitful dialogue with both you and with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.

Fingerhut in his letter to the Swarthmore chapter noted Rabbi Hillel’s famed dictum “If I am not for myself then who a am I?” saying:

We here at Hillel international hold firm to his legacy. We encourage debate and dissent, but we draw the line at hosting groups who would deny the right of the State of Israel to exist. We will stand with Israel, the democratic, open, pluralistic home of the Jewish people. On that fundamental principle, we are unwavering.

Given our exposure to problems on US campuses over a decade, we applaud what Fingerhut at HI is doing.  We presume that he has the backing of the principal funder of Hillel International programs, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Let us hope Fingerhut’s arrival as President of Hillel International isn’t too late to reign in anti-Zionist efforts like the Swarthmore Open Hillel initiative on many US college campuses.

A tip of the chapeaus to Judy Block and Lori Lowenthal Marcus.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.

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