U. Penn Hillel Co-hosts Event With pro-Palestinian Group

The event, which featured a speech by former Knesset speaker and Jewish Agency head Avraham Burg, appears to be a violation of Hillel's policy.

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Avraham Burg, a former Knesset Speaker and past head of the Jewish Agency, speaking at the U. Penn Hillel event, April 26, 2015.
Avraham Burg, a former Knesset Speaker and past head of the Jewish Agency, speaking at the U. Penn Hillel event, April 26, 2015.Credit: Gili Getz
The Forward
Batya Ungar-Sargon

Hillel’s strict pro-Israel guidelines may have suffered another blow Sunday as the group’s chapter at the University of Pennsylvania openly hosted an event co-sponsored by a pro-Palestinian student group that supports boycotting the Jewish state.

The event, which appears to be a clear violation of the international campus umbrella group’s policy barring cooperation with groups that support boycotting Israel, featured a speech by Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and past head of the Jewish Agency.

Billed as an “open conversation” between the Israeli left and the Palestinians, the event was organized by Open Hillel, a student group that is pushing for more tolerance for anti-Israel opinions; along with J Street U, the campus arm of the pro-peace group; and Students for Justice in Palestine.

Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, attended the talk. He insisted that the event did not violate Hillel’s controversial guidelines, even though the edict explicitly bars partnerships with groups like Students for Justice in Palestine that support the BDS movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.

Alpert instead focused on Burg’s bona fides as a speaker — calling his views “acceptable” and portrayed the pro-Palestinian co-sponsors as mere “guests.”

“As far as Hillel is concerned, the event was done at the invitation of a member of the Hillel community — J Street U — and that’s who’s using the space and that’s who’s hosting Burg,” he said. “Whoever they brought in as their guests is their business.”

Hillel International enforces a set of strict guidelines dictating which individuals and organizations Hillel “welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of.” Excluded from partnership with Hillel are those who deny Israel’s right to exist “as a Jewish and democratic state,” as well as those who “apply a double standard to Israel,” and those who support BDS.

For the past three years, Open Hillel has been demanding a more inclusive conversation about Israel. Some campus groups have declared themselves ‘open Hillels’ while the chapter at Swarthmore has said it plans to leave the umbrella group altogether after the international group threatened it with a lawsuit.

Burg was introduced by Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at Penn, and addressed a crowd of about 40 mostly students and professors at the Ivy League school.

While Burg himself does not support BDS or hold beliefs that violate the Standards of Partnership, Hillel International barred Burg from speaking at Harvard Hillel in 2013 because the event was co-sponsored by Palestine Solidarity Committee, a group with similar goals as Students for Justice in Palestine. (Hillel did allow him to speak at a private, invitation only dinner).

The event could represent the second major dent in the Hillel rules in as many months.

Harvard’s Hillel chapter invited Dorothy Zellner, an outspoken supporter of the BDS movement, to speak on a February panel about the 1960s civil rights movement. Even though she reaffirmed her support for boycotting Israel at the event, Hillel officials asserted it did not violate the guidelines.

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