Jewish student group divided by stance on Israel
Hillel's Harvard chapter rebelling against rules that set limits on debate about the country
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 his position after showing a film about Palestinians and inviting the filmmaker's brother to speak. And on many other campuses, Hillel chapters have been instructed to reject collaboration with left-leaning Jewish groups.
At US universities, 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 guidelines that prohibit chapters from collaborating with speakers or groups that "delegitimise" 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 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 that country's treatment of the Palestinians.
Hillel's defenders say that, in an atmosphere so hostile to Israel, Jewish campus organisations 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."
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 and chief executive of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, responded to the Swarthmore group in a letter saying that "'anti-Zionists' will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances".
Hillel's adult staff members on more than a dozen campuses have refused to allow J Street U, an affiliate of the liberal group J Street, to co-sponsor events.
The explanation was that donors to Hillel do not support J Street, which supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is critical of Israeli settlement building and the country's occupation of the West Bank.
J Street is challenging the dominance of the more conservative establishment Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.