At Harvard, the Jewish student group Hillel was barred from co-sponsoring a discussion with a Palestinian student group. At Binghamton University, a Hillel student leader was forced to resign after showing a film about Palestinians and inviting the filmmaker’s brother to speak. On many other campuses, Hillel chapters have been instructed to reject collaboration with left-leaning Jewish groups.
At U.S. colleges, few values are as sacred as open debate and few issues as contested as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Hillel, whose core mission is to keep the next generation of Jews in the fold, says that under its auspices one thing is not open to debate: Those who reject or repudiate Israel have no place.
This month, the students at the Swarthmore Hillel rebelled, declaring themselves the first “Open Hillel” in the nation. They will not abide by Hillel guidelines that bar chapters from collaborating with speakers or groups that “delegitimize” or “apply a double standard” to Israel.
The Hillel dispute has amplified an increasingly bitter intra-Jewish debate over what is permissible discussion and activism about Israel on college campuses. In a major step affecting that dispute, professors in the 5,000-member American Studies Association voted this month to boycott Israeli academic institutions over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
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Hillel’s defenders say that, in an atmosphere so hostile to Israel, Jewish campus organizations must draw parameters, and that this is why Hillel established new guidelines in 2010.
Alan Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School who was once a faculty adviser for the Harvard Hillel, said in an interview: “I don’t think this is a free-speech issue. The people who want divestment and boycotts have plenty of opportunity to speak on campus. The question is a branding one. You can see why Hillel does not want its brand to be diluted.”
In interviews, some students said college should be a place for no-holds-barred discussions about Israel and Hillel should host those discussions.
“Hillel does a fantastic job of bringing together Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular students, and respecting everyone’s different religious practice,” said Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a student active in the Hillel at Harvard. “But in the political realm, that sort of pluralism just doesn’t exist, and students who have more dissident views on Israel are excluded in many ways.”
Joshua Wolfsun, a student on the Swarthmore Hillel board, said: “There are a lot of really smart people across the political spectrum on Israel that we want to talk to, and we feel that Hillel should not have a political litmus test on who is allowed and who is not.”
In a manifesto, the Swarthmore Hillel students proclaimed: “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.”
But the president of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, told them in a letter that “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”
The organization’s guidelines specify it will not host or work with speakers or groups that deny the right of Israel to exist; “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel”; support boycotts, divestment or sanctions against Israel; or “foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
In an interview, Fingerhut said: “If we’re an organization that is committed to building Jewish identity and lifelong connections to the Jewish world and to Israel, then we certainly have to draw lines.”