An article in The New York Times regarding the recent brouhaha over Swarthmore College Hillel’s decision to host anti-Zionist speakers, or any speaker who calls for the dismantling of the Jewish state, (“Members of Jewish Student Group Test Permissible DIscussion on Israel,” NY Times, Dec. 20), elicited the following response from the president and CEO of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut:
On Sunday, Dec. 29, The New York Times published an article regarding the “Open Hillel” vote, which took place three weeks ago at Swarthmore College. It is teased on the front page and appears on page 21 of the A-section; it is also available online. As you know, there have been many articles on this topic, and we expect more. Although this article has been in the works for weeks, the Times does little more than repeat claims made in other publications by a handful of students. Instead of seizing the opportunity to look deeply into this issue, the Times took the easy way and turned its story into a simplistic discussion of free speech on campus and conflict among millennial Jews and their elders.
This article couldn’t be more wrong.
I spoke to the reporter for nearly an hour. David Eden also spoke with her several times. As you can see, we both are briefly quoted in comparison to the few students who are showcased. Information was sent refuting the alleged Harvard incident, the Swarthmore vote (including that only seven out of a 14-member student board voted “unanimously”), and the alleged Binghamton College incident (which was noted).
This article took the position that 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.” Hillel has never said any such thing, and the Times knows it.
First, Hillel’s “core mission,” clearly expressed on our website and repeated to the Times reporter several times, is to build an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. We are pursuing this mission vigorously every day. More importantly, our guidelines on Israel refer explicitly to rejecting partnerships with organizations and speakers that seek to harm or destroy Israel. Nowhere does Hillel declare that any Jewish student has “no place” at Hillel, nor would I or anyone associated with Hillel International say such a thing.
As we have said many times, Hillel welcomes all students, Jewish and non-Jewish, to discuss and debate topics that are sensitive on many topics, including Israel. We welcome students who have a diverse range of political views and who may be aligned with a broad range of political organizations to talk about a wide variety of issues. We are an open, accepting, educational, humanistic organization, and any suggestion to the contrary is false and a disservice to the student and professional leaders that make Hillel such a special place on 550 campuses across five continents.
The Times reported that a “nationwide online petition in support of the Swarthmore Hillel’s rejection of [the Hillel Israel] guidelines has gathered 1,200 signatures.” It was pointed out to the reporter that there are approximately 400,000 Jewish students on American college campuses, nearly 20 million college students overall, and that a thousand or so names, many from non-students or signed “anonymous,” was not a large number. That fact was ignored. When it was pointed out that there is no groundswell of support for “Open Hillel,” it was brushed aside and not included.
Where Hillel draws the line, and what we have said consistently, as reported in the Times and elsewhere, is that “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” The Times also noted our Israel guidelines that spell out that Hillel “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.”
This is hardly a policy of censorship or free speech. As Alan M. Dershowitz said to the Times: “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 2010, Hillel developed its Israel guidelines precisely because every responsible organization needs to establish certain rules. Ours, created with a wide group of stakeholders, are appropriate and we intend to maintain them. I was quoted correctly in the Times saying, “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.”
We have drawn that line. We are unwavering.
Hillel will continue to reach out to all college students who have questions about Israel. Some have deeply held disagreements with Israel’s policies and still consider themselves Zionists. Others mistake their deeply held disagreements with the policies of the Israeli government as anti-Zionism, while others are swept up in the anti- Zionism of friends or faculty, or simply in the passion of being young and on campus. With all students, our professional and student leaders will work heartily to provide knowledge and build trust. But there are some who are simply not interested in any such thing. We will still welcome them as students for Shabbat dinner and other events, but we cannot and will not let them guide our programming.
Hillel loves Eretz Israel because it is part of our Jewish identity. It is our job, together with other Jewish organizations and leaders, to encourage Jewish college students to embrace this love of Jewish life, learning and Israel as part of the character and self-identities they are building while in college. We will continue to take all necessary steps to support and promote this mission.