In the many debates over Swarthmore Hillel’s changes, critics contend that the process of opening Swarthmore Hillel and ultimately ending its affiliation with Hillel International has been a political one that marginalizes the voices of many Jewish students. Of course, the other side to this statement is that before it became open, Hillel was an apolitical organization that did not marginalize the voices of Jewish students. This is completely false, and a number of students at last Monday’s meeting expressed how it was only after Swarthmore Hillel became open that they felt welcome.
Hillel International does not encourage a safe space for all Jewish students; instead, it explicitly forbids the expression of political beliefs held by many Jews while claiming its own particular version of Jewish identity as the only one. When Hillel International forced Swarthmore Hillel to choose between leaving Hillel and a lawsuit, Swarthmore Hillel correctly left an organization that excludes many Jewish students.
Before I continue further, I would like to describe my own background. First, I have not been particularly involved with Swarthmore Hillel. Second, my mother is Jewish while my father is not, and we did not attend a congregation throughout my childhood. I am very proud of my Jewish background, but it coexists with multiple other facets of my identity. I do not think this disqualifies me from speaking about Hillel and Jewish identity, but I thought I should make clear the angle I am coming from.
Additionally, while my particular relationship with Jewish identity may be unique, its complexity is not. Jewish students define their Jewish identities in a multitude of ways, and it is the role of the Jewish campus organization to accept and welcome all students who want to be Jewish regardless of how they choose to be Jewish. Hillel International does not permit this.
In last Friday’s edition of The Daily Gazette, Nat Frum and Jessica Seigel’s piece “A Response to the Hillel Naming Decision” argued against the opening of Hillel. One of their central arguments is that “Open Hillel at Swarthmore has been so purely political that the needs of the religious and cultural Jewish community have not been met.” First, this strikes me as a very selective reading of Swarthmore Open Hillel’s activities. It has held Shabbat dinner every Friday and holds additional events for holidays, and by the end of this year it will have only had five political events in a year and a half as an Open Hillel.
Additionally, the authors also overlook that Swarthmore Hillel could not be an apolitical organization as long as it followed Hillel International’s Israel guidelines. Hillel International’s guidelines are based around the clearly political view that “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders,” and they also contain further provisions that stifle criticism of Israeli policies. Hillel International feels so strongly about its political stances that it prefers Swarthmore’s Jewish students to not be a part of Hillel than to allow an invited Jewish speaker to present political views outside Hillel’s guidelines. It strikes me as odd that Open Hillel is being criticized as excessively political when the entire process of becoming open was based upon the elimination of political requirements. While Zionist students have every right to complain if their views are marginalized in Open Hillel, that it allows the presence of opposing voices cannot be seen as such.
An Open Hillel — or Kehilah, as Swarthmore Hillel is now called — could take the form of a completely apolitical organization, where it has no political affiliation and politics are not discussed. However, an Open Hillel could also actively engage with politics from a Jewish perspective, while not holding any explicit political views itself. This is the route Swarthmore Hillel has taken, and this option also requires a break with Hillel International. Although it is still primarily a religious and cultural group, it has also held political events related to Israel and Palestine. While these events have been criticized for being disproportionately “anti-Israel,” this sort of thinking excessively separates political beliefs into a pro- or anti-Israel dichotomy, where legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies are typically seen as maliciously anti-Israel.
Furthermore, despite Nat Frum and Jessica Seigel’s allegation that Open Hillel is an exclusively anti-Zionist enterprise, many members of Swarthmore Hillel and its board are Zionists of varying political beliefs. Joe Boninger’s article in Monday’s edition of The Daily Gazette provides just one example of how Zionist Swarthmore students can support Open Hillel. Swarthmore Hillel’s invited speakers, too, do not just push an anti-Zionist agenda; in fact, the majority of them are Zionists. The premise of an Open Hillel is not that Zionist ideas are wrong and anti-Zionist ones are right; rather, it is that no idea can be deemed correct solely by being the only one on offer.
I feel that Swarthmore Open Hillel’s approach of allowing its members to engage with politics without the organization itself holding political views is a better reflection of the full range of Jewish identities. For me, my grandparents’ Holocaust experiences are the central part of my Jewish identity. The lessons of the Holocaust, including the need to protect all people’s rights and the dangers of restrictive ethnic nationalism, influence my political beliefs in a number of contexts beyond just Israel. However, they have also led me away from Zionism. I do not think in any way that Israel’s actions can be equated with the Holocaust, and I realize the Holocaust causes many people to come to the opposite conclusion.
Nevertheless, my Jewish background leads me to these political beliefs. My Jewish identity is primarily exercised politically, and at last Monday’s meeting a number of students also expressed the importance of politics, especially regarding Israel, to their Jewish identity. Many students choose to express their Jewish identity religiously and culturally. Swarthmore Hillel should absolutely provide a space for this, but to restrict Hillel to a solely religious and cultural space excludes those who would like to express their Jewish identity in a wider range of forms. Open Hillel has made the necessary choice to not prescribe to particular political beliefs, as Hillel International does, but its choice to engage with politics is in no way in opposition to its mission to provide a Jewish space on campus. While the transition has had difficulties, as would any organization going through such an uncertain change, Swarthmore Hillel has made an admirable effort to provide for all Swarthmore’s Jewish students since it became an Open Hillel.
Implicit in the defenses of Hillel International is a specific view of what it means to be Jewish. This view requires, at the very least, Zionist political beliefs, and it often includes a disdain for criticism of Israeli policies even when the critics still support Israel as a Jewish state. Those who do not hold these political beliefs are often seen as not truly Jewish. This view ignores the long history of Jewish contention over the legitimacy of Zionism. My grandfather, a survivor of Buchenwald, was one such case. While he did not call for the abolition of Israel, he did not support its founding, and under Hillel International’s guidelines he would not have been allowed to speak. Supporters of Hillel International may argue that they want a safe, pluralistic environment for Jewish students, but they only really want this space to be available to Jewish students who fit the limited range of political beliefs they deem properly Jewish. I am glad that Swarthmore Kehilah welcomes me, even if Hillel International won’t.