On December 8, 2013, after months of internal debate, a group of Jewish students at Swarthmore College voted unanimously to declare its Hillel an “Open Hillel,” making it the first Hillel center officially willing to partner with organizations and students regardless of their opinions about Israel and Zionism. Swarthmore’s decision to come out as an Open Hillel took many older members of the Jewish community by surprise.
Despite Swarthmore’s small size, its unexpected declaration has brought the Open Hillel movement to the national stage. Until now, most Jewish college students assumed that open dialogue on Israel was a taboo topic in Hillel—Swarthmore debunked that myth.
Swarthmore’s Hillel is part of Hillel International, the umbrella organization that has a presence on hundreds of college campuses around the world. Self-described as the “foundation for Jewish campus life,” its community centers aim to provide Jewish college students of all religious stripes a place to worship, socialize and engage with Jewish culture on campus.
But as much as Hillel should be applauded for its commitment to religious pluralism within the Jewish community, it remains ideologically monolithic on one highly charged political topic: Israel. According to Eric Fingerhut, a former US congressman and the current president of Hillel International, Hillel draws the line when it comes to partnering with groups or individuals who identify as “anti-Zionist” or who support boycotts against the Jewish state. “Let me be very clear,” he wrote in a letter addressed to the communications director of Swarthmore Hillel’s student board, “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” By declaring themselves an Open Hillel, the board of Swarthmore’s Hillel openly defied Hillel policy.
The idea of Open Hillel was first introduced by Jewish college students at Harvard after an event planned at Harvard’s Hillel was cancelled by the local Hillel director amid pressure from local Jewish sponsors. The sponsors argued that the planned event violated Hillel International’s policies by partnering with a student organization that supported boycotts against Israel. Many Harvard students were surprised—and outraged—after hearing about the cancellation, and several of those students went on to create the Open Hillel movement. “We seek to change the ‘standards for partnership’ in Hillel International’s guidelines, which exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel,” reads the “About” page on Open Hillel’s website.
As someone who believes in Open Hillel’s campaign to promote free speech at Hillel, I find it exciting to see that it now draws support from college students around the country. Emily Unger, a co-founder of Open Hillel and a former student at Harvard, says that the movement already has recruited activists from all around the country. “Students from more than a dozen schools are actively part of our leadership,” she says. These activists have, in addition to lobbying other campus Hillels to become Open, written letters to Hillel’s president urging him to change Hillel International’s official policies.