Hillel’s 'Loyalty Test’ Puts the Kibosh on Left-wing Israel Events, Critics Say

U.S. Jewish student organization’s guidelines on Israel programs paint organizations like Breaking the Silence with the BDS brush.

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NEW YORK – When Leanne Gale was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania last winter, she didn’t think she’d have too much trouble getting the campus Hillel to host a lecture by a former Israeli soldier who opposes the occupation.

But then she and J Street U, the student arm of the left-wing Israel lobby whose campus chapter she headed, ran into the brick wall of Hillel’s Israel guidelines.

J Street U was initially told the Israel Defense Forces veteran couldn’t speak because Breaking the Silence, the Israeli group to which he belongs, didn’t meet those rules, which prohibit the Jewish student organization from working with groups or speakers “that as a matter of policy or practice deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

Gale was told that Hillel of Greater Philadelphia also said Breaking the Silence, which encourages veterans to speak about their experience in the territories, supports BDS and a one-state solution, seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel and has speakers who are uncivil. None of those things is true, Gale said.

The 2010 guidelines are intended to protect students connected to the Hillels on more than 550 campuses worldwide from anti-Zionism, according to Hillel’s president and CEO, Eric Fungerhut. But some critics say that instead they function as a sort of loyalty test. If students want to host a speaker who is viewed as too critical of Israel, the critics say, then both the guidelines and Hillel’s fear of a potential loss of donor funding are invoked as a way to quash the event.

“In no way would we ever seek to censor things on a college campus,” Fingerhut told Haaretz. Acceptable speakers at Hillels “run the gamut from [a] Zionist who is critical of Israel’s policies to those who don’t support the idea of a Jewish state. Recognizing where that line is and drawing that line is not always the most simple of matters. But it’s an important line for Hillel to draw because we are a Zionist pro-Israel organization. We’re building Jewish identity, and at the heart of Jewish identity is love of Israel as the Jewish homeland. We’re looking to foster that belief.”

In practice, though, even when a speaker or event has no connection to the BDS movement, the mere suggestion that it might is enough to keep the program out of the local Hillel, said Gale and other J Street U leaders.

Though Gale eventually won the battle to bring a Breaking the Silence speaker to Penn, the experience left her feeling dispirited, she said.

“What happened at Penn is a microcosm of what’s happening at campuses and congregations around the country,” said Gale. “Students like me who come to their Hillel and want to have an event that might be controversial end up feeling like they have to go through this long process to prove their loyalty to Israel and the Jewish community end up feeling alienated. I certainly felt that way.”

Policies that lead to college students feeling marginalized by Hillel will exact a toll long after they graduate, said Steven M. Cohen, a demographer who is a research professor at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

“The guidelines are liable to alienate the most curious, free-thinking and liberal students from Jewish discourse in general and Hillel and Israel specifically,” said Cohen. “Intermarriage is the major force in driving down engagement with Israel. In recent years political positions have begun to contribute to alienation as well. At a time when non-Orthodox Jews are declining in number, alienating the minority who would otherwise support Israel means that going forward, there will be fewer liberal non-Orthodox advocates for Israel in the American Jewish population.”

Hillel International’s Fingerhut said he doesn’t think the Israel guidelines are posing a problem.

“I don’t think there’s that much upset about” them, he told Haaretz in an interview from Israel, where he was welcoming Hillel students arriving on Taglit-Birthright trips.

Criticism about the Israel guidelines has been widely overlooked amid widespread coverage of Swarthmore College students who broke away from Hillel International In December and declared theirs an “Open Hillel” so they could bring in groups and speakers who do not support Israel. At a time when the BDS movement is getting a significant amount of attention, the decision has sparked a firestorm of controversy about Hillel’s Israel guidelines.

Fingerhut said the sentiments of the students at the Pennsylvania liberal arts college represent “a very small minority of Hillel student opinion.”

The director of J Street U disagreed, as did students involved with the organization at several of the 53 college campuses where it operates.

“A different standard gets applied to our events and work,” said J Street U director Ira Stup. “Numerous times we’ve done screenings of ‘The Gatekeepers’ or brought in speakers from Breaking the Silence, and we’re told we need to provide balance or there has to be a counter-speaker on stage or they’ll deem it not within the guidelines,” he said. “We’re told they can’t speak unless there’s another solider with the complete opposite perspective who says theirs is rubbish. I’ve never heard of a situation where a speaker on the far right requires a counter-speaker from the left.”

Though J Street U is a national partner of Hillel International and affiliated on most campuses with the local Hillel, there are regular tensions rooted in the Israel guidelines and threats relating to donor funding, said Stup.

“The feeling of frustration with the Hillel guidelines [at Swarthmore] is not an aberration but is significantly shared” by students at other colleges, said Jacob Plitman, a senior at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and president of the J Street U national student board. “Many J Street chapters have had the conversation where Hillel staff says, ‘If I support your work I could lose a donor and some amount of funding for you and your peers.’”

The Hillel-Swarthmore conflict has shined a light on the funding issue, said Plitman and others.

Even as Fingerhut defends his group’s right to draw lines between what is acceptable discourse on Israel and what is not, others at Hillel International say they need to work harder to ensure they don’t leave students feeling excluded.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the realm of Israel conversation,” said Sheila Katz, Hillel International’s point person on J Street U. “We need to do more to allow students and staff members and everybody to have open conversations about Israel without shutting down.”

She said funding “is not a valid reason to not work with J Street U students,” and added that Hillel wants to make sure the campus chapters realize that and “follow up with any directors where this is happening.”

As for the University of Pennsylvania event, the campus Hillel did ultimately allow the Israeli soldier to speak, six months after he was originally supposed to come, said Gale.

At the beginning, said Gale, “We didn’t think it would be a problem. We were just naive.”

When J Street U students ran into the unexpected roadblocks, they created a student petition that was signed by leaders of Penn Hillel, the AIPAC affiliate and each of the denominational groups at Hillel. They presented the petition to the board of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, which runs the Jewish student centers on about 15 campuses regionally. The board voted to allow the Breaking the Silence speaker in the Hillel building on three conditions: that no press be allowed, only Penn students be permitted to attend and the event be introduced as one held out of love for the State of Israel, Gale said.

Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, corroborated Gale’s account and said J Street U was held to Hillel’s program guideline. The students who identify with J Street have done “an excellent job” in showing their love for Israel, he said, but “there are people in the Jewish community who don’t understand J Street.”

Gale now lives in Jerusalem, where she is a New Israel Fund-Shatil fellow at Ir Amim, a nonprofit that seeks to make the city more equitable and sustainable for Israelis and Palestinians alike. “I live here and see suffering and violence on a daily basis,” said Gale. “The fact that in the U.S. people are arguing about who they’re willing to allow in and out of the building is really disappointing.”

The Swarthmore College chapter voted unanimously to reject Hillel International's restriction on Israel boycott programming.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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