Last Monday, Swarthmore Open Hillel decided to stop using the name Hillel in order to better meet the needs of students with a full range of views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In response to this, Jess Seigel and Nat Frum, two Jewish Swarthmore students, published an opinions piece in The Daily Gazette arguing that the organization formerly known as Swarthmore Open Hillel is not a functional cultural center, and that “students with a clear Zionist perspective are labeled and excluded from [Swarthmore Hillel’s political] discussion.” Their article raises two questions, both of which go unanswered. First, what specific facts or personal experiences led them to these conclusions? And second, what do they mean by “clear Zionist perspectives”? I cannot speak to Jess and Nat’s experiences, but I would like to provide some background on the word “Zionist” and share my own contrasting story as a Zionist who believes strongly in the value of Open Hillel.
For a word used so commonly in discussions of Israeli-Palestinian politics, the meaning of Zionism is surprisingly ambiguous. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines 21st century Zionism as “an international movement… for the support of modern Israel” but what does it mean to “support” Israel? Some Zionists believe this necessitates an unconditional backing of everything Israel does, but others are frequently critical of its policies. Israeli essayist and playwright A. B. Yehoshua wrote in 2013 that modern Zionism cannot be considered an ideology, but “merely a very broad platform for various ideologies that may even contradict one another.” Understanding of the broad scope of Zionism is an essential step in talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both globally and at Swarthmore: it’s important to avoid making general statements about what Zionists believe, and to understand that while Jess, Nat, and I are all Zionists—Jess and Nat do not speak for me, and none of us speak for any larger segment of the Swarthmore Zionist community.
My personal definition of Zionism is the belief that a Jewish state should exist in Israel today and that it, like the United States, has a responsibility to act ethically. I also believe that, like many US policies, many of Israel’s current policies are unethical including its continuing actions in Gaza. However, the way I define Zionism has changed a lot during my time at Swarthmore.
I came to Swarthmore a staunch supporter of all of Israel’s policies, but I hadn’t been exposed to other viewpoints. None of my religious-school teachers legitimized criticisms of Israel, and some did exactly the opposite. In ninth grade, during the Gaza War of 2008, my religious-school teacher showed my class a video from the Israeli army defending Israel’s actions but gave us no information from unbiased or Palestinian sources. “If anyone at your high school criticizes Israel’s actions in Gaza,” she told us, “show them this video.” I don’t mean to entirely devalue my Jewish education—I had many great teachers who taught me to be open-minded in disagreements. It’s also important to understand where this institutional fear of criticisms of Israel comes from—many anti-Semites masquerade as anti-Israel political activists. Nonetheless, my Jewish education failed at preparing me to engage in a political conversation on Palestine and Israel.
I became very distressed during my freshman spring in 2013 when Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine (SPJP) held a demonstration to raise awareness about Israel’s occupation of Gaza. Using my real name in a comment on a relevant Daily Gazette article, I expressed shock that SPJP would “subject the campus to such a blatantly biased, one-sided demonstration that vilifies Israelis.” I was noticed by Hillel, but not excluded. Instead, several active members of the group asked to hear more about my opinions and recommended I join J-Street—a political Jewish student organization. Additionally, Kelilah Miller, Swarthmore Open Hillel’s advisor and Rabbi, emailed everyone in Hillel to offer us a private, non-judgmental space for expressing discomfort. With their help, I’ve engaged in a respectful and ongoing dialogue that has helped me reconcile my schooling with new information and redefine what Zionism means to me. Swarthmore Open Hillel has also been an important cultural resource for me, a place I go to celebrate Jewish holidays.
I share my story because I believe it is not unique, and that it demonstrates the need for an Open Hillel. Swarthmore is the only place where I hear a true variety of views on Palestine and Israel, and Hillel plays an important role in deciding which opinions are seen as valid within the Jewish community. I believe all opinions not rooted in prejudice should be legitimized—any lasting peace in the Middle East must be achieved through dialogue, after all, and we cannot engage in a productive conversation if we refuse to hear certain perspectives. One might argue that a Hillel should not be a political organization, but it becomes one when it adopts Hillel International’s explicitly pro-Israel agenda. Only by casting this agenda aside can Swarthmore Open Hillel truly become a kehilah kedoshah, a holy community.