Swarthmore Hillel votes to disaffiliate with Hillel Int’l

Uriel Heilman

NEW YORK (JTA) — 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.

The decision came in a vote late Monday night by the student board at the Hillel of Swarthmore College, which is located about 30 miles from Philadelphia.

“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.

“As we make this transition, we reaffirm our commitment to building a space where all can learn from different viewpoints, and hold fast to the values of openness, inclusivity, and pluralistic dialogue espoused by Hillel the Elder.”

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In December 2013, Swarthmore Hillel 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.

On Monday, Hillel International sent a letter to Swarthmore deans threatening legal action if students at the college’s Hillel chapter hosted a program with speakers espousing anti-Israel or pro-BDS viewpoints.

The event in question is being billed as a “civil rights event” and includes several veterans of the U.S. civil rights movement who are also open supporters of BDS. Among them is Dorothy Zellner, who in the 1960s was an activist with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and in 2012 penned an article in Jewish Currents titled “Why the BDS movement is effective and right.” She and fellow veteran civil rights activists are on a national speaking tour called “From Mississippi to Jerusalem: In Conversation with Jewish Civil Rights Veterans.”

“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 in her letter 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.”

After the letter was sent, Swarthmore Hillel’s student board hosted a communitywide discussion Monday on its future within Hillel. The 11-member student board then held its own extended debate on the issue and took a vote, electing 7-3 to drop its Hillel affiliation. Swarthmore Hillel’s new name is yet to be determined.

“The only thing we could really think to do to is at least try to continue to work toward having a community where everybody feels like they have a place and to hold to our values of openness and inclusion,” Joshua Wolfsun, the board’s Israel-Palestine programming coordinator, told JTA. “We voted to drop the Hillel name because we didn’t have another choice and we were dealing with lots of restrictions and pressure. It was not a unanimous decision. Folks expressed a lot of ambivalence.”

There are no real financial ramifications to disassociate with Hillel International, Wolfsun said, citing the student group’s own endowment and the funds it receives from Swarthmore College.

Hillel International officials did not respond to JTA inquiries seeking comment.

Uriel Heilman is JTA’s senior writer and former managing editor. Follow him on Twitter at @urielheilman.