Eric Fingerhut and Hillel International have a problem. But it can be a good problem.
Jewish students at Swarthmore College’s Hillel have voted to open their doors to groups and speakers who do not support Israel, and can be defined as anti-Zionist.
Since Bastille Day of this year, Fingerhut has been the President and CEO of the 90 year old Hillel International, a network of over 550 centers that primarily serve Jewish college students. An innovative leader and former member of the U.S. Congress and Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, Fingerhut knows how to debate and doesn’t shy away from controversy.
Hillel International bars its chapters from sponsoring or co-sponsoring events or hosting speakers who oppose the State of Israel’s right to exist or support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The leaders of Swarthmore’s Hillel voted unanimously to throw off the yoke of this restriction and be “open” to hosting any speaker or partnering with any organization. The Swarthmore resolution states, in part: “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.” Swarthmore’s Hillel leaders said they are reclaiming the name of Hillel the Elder, who “was famed for encouraging debate.” Also, some of the Swarthmore student leaders were not fond of Hillel International’s decision to partner with AIPAC to promote Israel and Israeli policies on college campuses. A copy of their op-ed can be found here.
Swarthmore Hillel’s vote follows this past Spring’s move by some Harvard students to form a group called “Open Hillel” which also challenged Hillel International’s guidelines for sponsorships and hosting. It has garnered over 1,000 signatures on its petition calling for “open” Hillels. Emily Unger, a graduate of Harvard University who co-founded “Open Hillel,” said that current students (those born since 1990) are familiar with Israel as a powerful nation in the Middle East that is an “occupying power in Palestinian territories.”
Fingerhut and Hillel International’s spokesperson, David Eden, stated that Hillel International welcomes civil debates and robust discussions on the many issues facing Israel, but it does “draw a line.” Fingerhut wrote to the group, “Let me be very clear – ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” Eden said, “Hillel has boundaries, and those boundaries stop at anyone that advocates for the destruction of the state of Israel and they stop at hate speech.”
The good news for Fingerhut and Hillel is that college students are active, engaged, outspoken, involved, and seek open vigorous debates. They seek to be inclusive. The bad news is that this openness can be leveraged by others who have no interest in open exchanges of ideas. I am sure a middle ground will be found, and all parties will be better off by learning how to organize, communicate, promote, and lead.
In related news, on Thursday, January 9 in Chicago, the Modern Language Association (MLA) will host the following special session panel on academic boycotts against Israel. And look how balanced the panel is. The moderator is Samer M. Ali of the University of Texas, Austin. Speakers are Omar Barghouti (listed as an Independent Scholar, but also founder of the BDS movement); Barbara Jane Harlow (she already applauded the ASA’s boycott of Israel), University of Texas, Austin; David C. Lloyd (founding member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel), University of California, Riverside; and professor emeritus Richard M. Ohmann (who wrote that the U.S. is supporting Israel’s project of ethnic cleansing?), Wesleyan University. As Mr. Ali noted, the question that panelists will be debating is not whether Israel is violating the rights of Palestinians, but what to do about it. “If people want to come and debate occupation, I think it will be a waste of their time, because that’s not what the round table is about,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is balance out a broader public discourse in America,” one that currently supports Israel’s policies.”