Four Things You Don’t Know About the Swarthmore Hillel Controversy


The obligatory picture of Swarthmore’s Parrish Hall. | CC via Wikimedia Commons

I have some reasonable propositions for how Hillel International should respond to the Swarthmore Hillel debacle based on four important facts missed by most other pundits on this subject.

The first fact is that Swarthmore Hillel is uniquely financially independent. Swarthmore University has an endowment for all its religious groups on campus, and as the only official Jewish group, Hillel receives all of Swarthmore’s Jewish funding, covering its entire budget. This means the student board did not have to worry about how funders might react to its decision like nearly every other Hillel would.

The second is that Hillel International gives virtually no financial support to any of its campus branches. When Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut sent a letter to the Swarthmore insurgency threatening to revoke the Hillel name if they invited speakers or organizations that violated the organization’s Israel guidelines, he was invoking the only disciplinary tool at his disposal.

The third is that Hillel’s Israel guidelines were agreed to by all interested parties—Hillel staff and students included—at a meeting in 2010. This means that no matter how flawed these guidelines may be, this is not a case of the old establishment trying to impose its views on the younger generation. The student delegates who agreed to these guidelines did so for good reason. As seen recently at San Francisco State and Rutgers, and with the recent boycott by the ASA, campus can be a scary place for those of us who love and support Israel. It is thoroughly reasonable that traditionally Zionist Jewish students would want Hillel to be a refuge.

But a refuge can also be dangerous. In a refuge, students can learn the answers so well that they forget the deeper meaning of the uncertainties they were originally meant to address. In a refuge Hillel, students become so secure in Israel’s absolute rightness they can forget that, at its core, the opposition has a point. Since most people on campus, including most Jews who aren’t coming to Hillel, are discerning enough to know that the pro-Israel talking-point camp is at least as much as a distortion of the “real” Israel as the Apartheid fantasy presented by many anti-Israel groups, this refuge ultimately doesn’t do Israel on campus any favors. I know this from experience.

I should note here that while every Hillel professional I have spoken to has emphasized that no student conversation on Israel is forbidden at Hillel, these conversations do little good if they’re only being had by students predisposed to going to Hillel under its current Israel guidelines.  When students with dissenting views are told they can talk all they want but can never be trusted to lead programming (as Mr. Fingerhut does in his latest statement) it undermines the point of true mature conversation—namely, to change minds.

The fourth is that Swarthmore Hillel has yet to host a controversial speaker. Their statement was merely an assertion of their right to do so if and when they choose to.

Things change fast in college life and opinion, and that goes double for the iPhone generation. Hillel’s on campus staff is far better suited to respond to the changing needs of their constituencies than middle-aged executives in Washington. Virtually no one who helped draft the current guidelines in 2010 is still an undergrad; certainly no one currently at Swarthmore had any say in them.

Therefore, since Hillel International has so little control over its franchises, and since students and Hillel staff on campus know their own student body better than the headquarters, Israel guidelines should be the purview of the individual Hillel, not the umbrella organization.  In other words, the way it originally was.

Corollary to this, I think Hillel International should let Swarthmore go.  Corporations often experiment with new ideas at certain strategically placed branches, why not let Swarthmore be that test case?

Swarthmore, for its part, should take fullest advantage of its position as an Open Hillel—if they truly want to start an open dialogue, they need open themselves up to the Judith Butlers of the world as much as to the Avigdor Liebermans, who (speaking of double-standards on Israel), were the guidelines applied fairly, should also be banned from speaking at Hillel since their views likewise promote a double-standard on Israel and undermine it as a democracy.

Regardless of the speaker’s extremity, speaking at a Hillel ought to mean something. It ought to mean going into an environment of engaged young Jews hungry to explore their relationship with their heritage. As editor of New Voices, I know from daily experience that Jewish students can, in fact be trusted to form their own opinions and do not need grown-ups to help them think correctly about Israel or anything else. I also know that students won’t stand by and tolerate hatred, bigotry, and falsehood. If Noam Chomsky speaks politics at a Hillel, he should expect a markedly different crowd and atmosphere there than if he speaks before Students for Justice in Palestine. If he doesn’t, the problem runs far deeper than a Hillel’s choice of speaker.

But of course, this isn’t what it’s really about. This controversy has much more to do with funding than with Israel programming on campus. If a Hillel invites speakers from the far-left, many important donors would back out, thus they cannot allow it. Yet as Swarthmore doesn’t receive a penny of Hillel funding anyway, donors who cancel pledges to Hillel based on that branch’s actions would be seriously endangering campus Jewish life with zero effect on the threat they are protesting. By looking the other way on Swarthmore, Hillel International gains the opportunity to show students Hillel really can be a place for open debate, that dialogue is a more constructive means of communication than counter-protests and, most importantly, that Hillel understands that limiting conversation on Israel is dangerous to serious engagement with Israel in 2014.

The new year brings new opportunities for engaging a new generation of students on Israel. Hillel: Are you up to the challenge?


Derek M. Kwait graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and is the editor in chief of New Voices.

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