Four months into his tenure as CEO of Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut says he understands several things.
“Everyone understands that the discussion about Israel on campus has gotten complex. There are legitimate areas for discussion and Hillel wants to foster robust dialogue and build [students’] connection to Israel, which is my ultimate goal.”
In the middle of the controversy over his exchange of public letters with the student board of Swarthmore Hillel, which on Dec. 9 declared itself an “open Hillel” that will not abide by Hillel International’s guidelines on Israel, Fingerhut says he understands the students’ motivations.
“I understand that part of the culture of college is challenge, and so I’m open to being challenged and petitioned by students. But I support the guidelines and will enforce the guidelines.”
At issue are Hillel-affiliated groups that wish to co-sponsor programs with pro-Palestinian groups. Fingerhut terms such pro-Palestinian groups “anti-Zionist,” and whose goals include “destroying the state of Israel.” Others see the guidelines, which weren’t instituted until 2010, as the danger.
“The Pew study showed that young American Jews are more progressive than their elders,” says Asher Mayerson, student president of Dartmouth Hillel and a Rockville native. “We’re losing them. We need to open up the conversation [about Israel].”
Swarthmore Hillel has done nothing to break the guidelines; it has merely declared that it won’t be bound by them. In response, Fingerhut said Swarthmore’s position is “unacceptable” and that the group is in danger of losing the right to wear the Hillel label.
So far there’s no sign of an insurrection. But student critics of Israel’s policies in the territories suddenly find they have won attention for their thesis that being pro-Israel doesn’t always mean being pro-Israeli government and that dialogue often means talking with people who don’t share your views.
“This raises some important questions about the nature of dialogue about the Arab-Israeli conflict on campus,” says Benjy Cannon, a junior at the University of Maryland and a representative to the Hillel Jewish Leadership Council. “Hillel’s response wasn’t representative of the student interests it was supposed to serve.”
In declaring itself an open Hillel, Swarthmore Hillel aligned itself with the year-old Open Hillel movement, formed at Harvard after the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Hillel group, planned a program called “Jewish Voices Against Occupation.” When the Hillel director learned that the Palestine Solidarity Committee was a co-sponsor, the event was canceled, says Emily Unger, a founding member of Open Hillel.
“We felt [Hillel’s response] was counterproductive and against the values of pluralism,” she says. “It’s preventing dialogue with Palestinian groups.”
Unger says she and her friends soon learned that other pro-Israel groups that were also sympathetic to the Palestinians were “experiencing similar problems on other campuses.”
When the Swarthmore Hillel story broke on Dec. 9, Open Hillel posted a petition in favor of the Swarthmore group. It gained 800 signatures in the first day and a half, Unger says, and now has more than 1,000 names.
Why Burg crossed the road
Swarthmore Hillel’s declaration directly followed Avraham Burg’s visit to Harvard in late November. Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, former chairman of the Jewish Agency, Orthodox Jew and son of a former long-serving government minister, was scheduled to speak at an open event at Harvard Hillel. As with the “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation” event, the Hillel group sponsoring Burg’s appearance at Hillel partnered with a pro-Palestinian group. And again, when the Hillel director learned of the association, he banned the gathering from Hillel.
“We hear [criticism] from Open Hillel students that the guidelines are so broad that they could ban a member of Knesset from speaking,” Fingerhut says. “Hillel welcomed Burg separately to speak.”
In the end, Burg spoke during an invitation-only dinner at Hillel. The gathering included members of the Palestinian group.
The kabuki involved in staging the event embarrassed organizer Sandra Korn, who wrote on the Forward website:
“We devised an awkward and complicated two-part event where a Hillel-affiliated student group hosted a small invitation-only dinner in Hillel and an open-to-the-public talk across the street. … The only reason we had a dinner in Hillel in the first place was because Hillel had declared that Burg’s open talk could not take place in the ‘center for Jewish life on campus,’ and we wanted to invite the former speaker of the Knesset to our campus Hillel.
“Having a whole group of people walk across the street so that Palestinian voices could be included probably seemed like an exercise in absurdity to nearly everyone involved. It did to me, at least,” she wrote.
“This area is a contentious one, one in which we should be fearlessly inclusive,” says Joshua Wolfsun, spokesman for the Swarthmore Hillel student board. “We have to allow for the fact that people are going to disagree about how to approach the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”
Spit on Swarthmore
Swarthmore has now become the fault line between the battling pro-Israel left and right.
In a debate Monday at the 92nd Street Y, Commentary Editor John Podhoretz, depending on who’s telling it, either said “students at Swarthmore College deserve to be spat upon” (Chemi Shalev in Haaretz) or “if you advocate anti-Zionism you are calling for the destruction of the homeland of my family. You are free to do so, and I am free to revile you and spit upon you” (Podhoretz, in reply to Shalev).
All of which dismays Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, under which Swarthmore Hillel operates. With its own endowment, Swarthmore does not rely on Hillel International for funding and its sole governing body is the student board, a rarity among Hillels.
“Clearly we believe the student leaders are making a terrible mistake,” Alpert says. “But we don’t question their honesty, their seriousness or that they’re trying to do the right thing.”
What the guidelines do is differentiate “honest criticism of Israeli policy and those who use sophistry or dishonest intellectual tricks to challenge Israel’s legitimacy.”
Like the Palestine Solidarity Committee.
What if Shimon Peres were to come to campus, and his appearance were co-sponsored by the Palestine Solidarity Committee?
“Shimon Peres wouldn’t fall into that trap.”
Maybe not, but there are “gray areas” in Hillel parlance that speakers or groups could fall into. The guidelines call for local Hillels to “create their own Israel guidelines that are consistent with this document and reflect the local environment.”
That has resulted in a tussle over groups like Breaking the Silence, composed of Israeli reservists who publicly criticize Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians. Speakers from the group have been banned by certain Hillels, but not all.
“Breaking the Silence draws heavy criticism from traditional pro-Israel groups,” says Ariel Berkowitz, a senior at University of Maryland and president of Kedma Orthodox community. “Here it wasn’t problematic. It’s possible to have open and compelling dialogue.”
Berkowitz is in favor of the guidelines and abiding by them. Of Fingerhut’s tough response to Swarthmore Hillel, he says, “It’s nice to see somebody say, ‘This is what we stand for. If you want to be part of our organization [you have to follow the rules].’ ”
But there is a larger point, he adds. “Many young Jews don’t share the same views as Hillel.”
Asher Mayerson agrees. “This points to a larger trend that the interests of students and donors don’t align.”
“I don’t think these parameters are being defined by students,” Benjy Cannon says adding, “It’s upsetting because I have an incredible relationship with Hillel.”
Fingerhut, Alpert and the Swarthmore Hillel student board plan to meet early next year. What is clear is that the issue is bigger than a renegade campus. There are fault lines between student and establishment, between those who believe in unfettered dialogue and those who say giving license to disagreeable speech is dangerous.
“The Jewish community needs to work with the students, to guide them and mentor them,” Alpert says.
Open Hillel is looking for more campuses to join its movement, Emily Unger says. “A lot of the goal is to get people thinking about whether these policies make sense and maybe change them. We’re hoping this is going to happen at other schools.”
Hillel International seems to be taking the brunt of student criticism. Everyone seems to like his or her own Hillel. Says Joshua Wolfsun of Swarthmore, “Aside from this issue, Hillel is a wonderful place.”