Swarthmore Hillel’s student board voted to drop its affiliation with Hillel International and change its name, citing Hillel International’s restrictions on Israel issues.
Following an extended debate, the 11-member board elected late Monday night in a 7-3 vote to drop the affiliation, effective immediately (one board member was absent).
In December 2013, the Hillel of Swarthmore College declared itself an Open Hillel, saying it would not abide by Hillel International’s rules prohibiting partnering with or hosting groups or speakers who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish or democratic state; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; or support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.
The move by the Swarthmore, Pa., school, located about 30 miles from Philadelphia, helped galvanize several other Hillel chapters to follow suit, including those at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Open Hillel activists pushed for changes to Hillel’s rules and gathered at Harvard University for a national conference last fall.
On Monday, Hillel International emailed a letter to Swarthmore deans threatening legal action if students at the college’s Hillel chapter hosted an upcoming program with speakers espousing anti-Israel or pro-BDS viewpoints. The letter prompted the Swarthmore Hillel’s immediate name change, the student board said.
“We’ve spent more than a year designing high quality, inclusive Israel-Palestine programming to fully represent and best fit the needs of Swarthmore’s Jewish community,” Sarah Revesz, the president of the student board, said in a statement.
“Hillel International has repeatedly responded with ultimatums and legal threats. This constraining pressure has driven us to a point where we can only continue to serve the diverse needs of our community under a different name than Hillel,” she said.
The event at issue, scheduled for next week, is titled “Social Justice Then and Now: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement.” It’s slated to feature Dorothy Zellner, Larry Rubin, Mark Levy and Ira Grupper — four Jewish veterans of the civil rights movement who are on a national speaking tour sponsored by Open Hillel called “From Mississippi to Jerusalem: In Conversation with Jewish Civil Rights Veterans.” The four also are supportive of BDS tactics. Zellner, for example, penned an article in Jewish Currents in 2012 titled “Why the BDS movement is effective and right.”
Others scheduled to participate in the event are Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awwad, the executive director of Women of the Wall, Lesley Sachs, and the co-founder of Israeli Jewish-Arab education center Yad B’Yad, Lee Gordon.
“If the students or speakers intend for this program to be a discussion in which the speakers present or proselytize their known anti-Israel or Pro BDS agenda,” Hillel International’s vice president and general counsel, Tracy Turoff, wrote Monday to Swarthmore officials, “this would cross the clear line for programs that violate Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership and could be reason for Hillel International to seek to protect its guidelines, name and reputation.”
Hillel International declined to respond to JTA inquiries for comment for this story, but the organization’s president, Eric Fingerhut, has said Hillel is committed to inclusiveness, including of those critical of Israel, but not to giving a platform to those who want to attack Israel.
Swarthmore Hillel’s student board hosted a communitywide discussion Monday on its future within Hillel before holding its own extended debate and then voting.