The Controversy Over Hillel at Swarthmore

Hillel is an unrivaled center of Jewish life on college campuses. Swarthmore College students decided this week to give up the Hillel name, and thereby break from the organization, because they thought it absolutely critical that its chapter host speakers and cooperate with organizations that denigrate Zionism and wish to expel Israel from the family of nations.

At issue are Hillel’s Standards of Partnership which, among other things, obligate Hillel affiliates not to partner with organizations or sponsor speakers who “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders,” “demonize” Israel, or call for “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against” Israel.

Hillel developed these standards in the context of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses. BDS calls for an economic, cultural, and academic boycott of Israel until it ends its “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” As I’ve noted here, the call is studiously vague, in order to keep in the BDS coalition both those who wish to destroy Israel and those who merely think Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since 2005, the BDS movement has supported Israel Apartheid Week, an event devoted to persuading students and others that Israel should be a pariah state.

BDS revives the “Zionism is racism” line taken by the U.N. General Assembly in 1975. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said prior to the vote that the “United Nations [was] about to make anti-Semitism international law” and after the vote that “a great evil [had] been loosed upon the world.” Although the U.N. rescinded the resolution in 1991, the BDS movement is now spreading and strengthening that very evil. BDS proponents aim to demonize supporters of the Jewish state, which includes the vast majority of Jews left, right, and center.

It’s not surprising, then, that Hillel considers the BDS movement antithetical to its core values and feels it shouldn’t provide a platform to an idea that Moynihan, who had no special obligation toward Jewish students, strongly denounced.

When Swarthmore’s chapter insisted on sponsoring BDS advocates, Hillel simply stood by its values. The organization said that the Swarthmore chapter couldn’t host the event and continue to use the Hillel name. Swarthmore’s chapter decided that if Hillel was unwilling to abandon its values, it would abandon Hillel.

Open Hillel, an organization formed to challenge Hillel’s standards of partnership and, according to one knowledgeable source, to advance BDS, has asked that “supporters of openness . . . join us in actively expressing our shame in Hillel International’s actions.” But standing for nothing is not a principle, and Swarthmore should be ashamed.

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks, author of "Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education," is professor of politics at Ursinus College.

5 thoughts on “The Controversy Over Hillel at Swarthmore

  1. My old friend John K. Wilson is, I think, overcome with irritation (he surely cant think the essay makes “no sense”).

    He misrepresents Hillel International, which, at least I’d guess, doesn’t agree with some of the wide range of views that can be not just expressed (that covers all views) but sponsored at Hillel. So it’s not just not true that “Hillel requires a total ban on events with those who disagree.” Nor is saying that you won’t have someone over your house or cooperate with them the same as saying you won’t debate with them; I certainly think there are limits on whom one should be willing to raise up by sharing a stage with them, but there is a difference between saying that there are such limits and that one won’t debate opposing ideas.

    As for why Swarthmore ought to be ashamed, I was not speaking strictly of the administration. However, the dean of diversity should be ashamed for pretending that the position, say, that Daniel Patrick Moynihan took against “Zionism is racism,” a position that Open Hillel and the dean both apparently reject, is an attack on “pluralism” rather than a defense of a substantive and, in my view, essential and meritorious principle.

    Of course Hillel could have taken, on libertarian grounds, for example, the position that having everyone speak under the Hillel banner no matter what his or her views, was the right thing to do. In that sense, it is technically possible for Hillel to stand for *something* and still be willing to sponsor anything. But in the context of the dispute, Hillel is indeed being asked to stand for nothing. It’s one thing to say that one ought to let people who you think encourage the loathing of Jews march through Skokie. It’s another thing to say you ought to offer them your banner or home. You’re certainly free to disagree with Moynihan that declaring Zionism is racism fosters the loathing of Jews and if you say that many who support the movement have no intention of fostering such loathing, some Jewish, I’d agree with you. But I don’t think your apparent position–that it ought to be irrelevant from Hillel’s standpoint on what it will or won’t sponsor or cooperate with whether or not BDS does or does not foster the loathing of Jews–is not tenable.

  2. This essay makes no sense. “Swarthmore should be ashamed.” Why? For allowing students to make their own choices?
    Nor is it logical to argue that the only alternative to Hillel’s censorship is “standing for nothing.” Plenty of people (and organizations) stand for strong principles but are willing to debate those with opposing ideas. The problem here is not that Hillel requires its affiliates to reject BDS and harsh criticism of Israel, but that Hillel requires a total ban on events with those who disagree. That principle is fundamentally antithetical to the ideals of intellectual life, and it deserves to be condemned, not defended.

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