Would a center for tolerance on campus invite a member of the Ku Klux Klan to speak? Would it partner with the KKK to jointly sponsor an event? Not likely, and to Hillel International, hosting an event with a pro-BDS organization is of the same ilk.

Hillel International, a global organization on 550 campuses across five continents, prides itself on its tolerance and “big tent” thinking. The centers are nondenominational, nonpartisan and ostensibly largely influenced by student needs and desires; all have student boards and only 200 of the Hillel houses are professionally staffed.

Today on most campuses in the United States, the Hillel house is the center for Jewish life.

Recently, however, a grassroots movement of students calling itself Open Hillel has begun protesting Hillel’s “censorship” in not allowing speakers who have voiced contentious political opinions on Israel to participate in Hillel-sponsored activities.

Case in point: This week the Santa Barbara Hillel decided not to host a former Hillel employee with far-leftist views on Israel. Author/activist David Harris-Gershon was barred from speaking at the Hillel, which cited blog posts in which he praised the boycott movement as a viable method of sanctioning Israel to achieve peace.

Even more newsworthy — reported in the Jewish press and even The New York Times — in early December the small Swarthmore Hillel decided to “secede” and has thrown over Hillel’s 2010 Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities in publishing a resolution in which it adopted the name “Open Hillel.”

Newly appointed Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut sternly rejected the resolution in an open letter to the Swarthmore Hillel communications officer, writing, “I hope you will inform your colleagues on the Student Board of Swarthmore Hillel that Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines.”

The struggle over the guidelines centers on the following statement: “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, 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; exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

The board at the Hillel chapter of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania is openly rejecting guidelines on Israel debate adopted by the international umbrella group. (photo credit: Wikicommons/via JTA)

The board at the Hillel chapter of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania is openly rejecting guidelines on Israel debate adopted by the international umbrella group. (photo credit: Wikicommons/via JTA)

Recent applications of the guidelines at Harvard, in Maryland and now in Santa Barbara have Open Hillel students wondering whether the principles are meant to serve the population Hillel International should reach out to — all Jewish students — or the 90-year-old organization’s political agenda.

Aryeh Younger, a Yeshiva University student and editor of its former school paper, The Beacon, calls himself an an activist in the Orthodox Jewish community. “As an advocate for Open Hillel, I do not believe that the current Hillel model accurately allows for the type of freedom of speech sufficient to properly accommodate the diverse opinions in the younger Jewish community,” says Younger.

“Given Hillel’s unique standing in the Jewish world, it has the unique responsibility to help preserve the broader Jewish community. Political censorship is simply not something that most younger people, Jewish or not, want to encounter,” says Younger.

But Hillel International’s new number two, chief administrative officer David Eden says, “Open Hillel is a tautology — Hillel is the most open pluralistic campus organization in the world, let alone the most open Jewish campus organization in the world.”

The guidelines, says Eden, are not a “clamp down” from Washington or a freedom of speech issue. Each local Hillel can decide how to apply the framework according to its student body and surrounding community.

Eden says students from all walks of life, Jewish and gentile, are invited in all Hillel houses for, say, a meal and informal debate — what he calls a “Jewish value.”

“Under Hillel’s roof Jewish students are welcome to criticize Israel… Students from Justice in Palestine are also welcome to come into Hillel and have Shabbat dinner and express their opinions. But to co-sponsor an event with an organization whose stated policy is to end Israel as a Jewish state? That conversation can be had anywhere on a campus, not at Hillel,” says Eden.

Michael Dickson, Israel director of the campus pro-Israel advocacy StandWithUs, says it’s a matter of stating “what is beyond the pale.”

An anti-Israel protest at the University of Texas, Austin, in 2009. (photo credit: CC BY monad68, Flickr)

An anti-Israel protest at the University of Texas, Austin, in 2009. (photo credit: CC BY monad68, Flickr)

“Israel is not beyond criticism — both Israel’s supporters and detractors do this all the time — but Jewish organizations need to set parameters. Those who promote boycotts and use misinformation to demonize Israel can and will spread this poison if they wish, but that does not mean that Hillel or other established Jewish organizations should give a platform for this,” says Dickson.

Alon Friedman, director general of Hillel Israel, agrees. “If we welcome all agendas into our tent, we would no longer have a tent.”

But a recent example of a Hillel center invoking the guidelines to bar a speaker blurs the boundaries stated by the guidelines.

‘If we welcome all agendas into our tent, we would no longer have a tent’

Writer Harris-Gershon‘s spring lecture in Santa Barbara for the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara’s annual event was recently canceled in light of his published sympathies for the BDS movement.

Harris-Gershon’s wife was severely injured in a bombing at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2002, which took the lives of two close friends. Harris-Gershon struggled with PTSD until finding personal healing in reaching out to the family of the bomber, which he records in his 2013 book, “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried To Kill Your Wife?”

He is a self-affirmed Zionist who pushes for a two-state solution and writes voraciously about the need for peace in Israel-Palestine. In a contentious July 9, 2012, blog post for Tikkun, Harris-Gershon “comes out” and supports BDS. “As an American Jew invested deeply in Israel’s success and survival — which in turn drives my investment in stopping one of the greatest moral challenges of my generation: the occupation — I have no choice but to formally endorse and embrace BDS.”

David Harris-Gershon (photo credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/JTA)

David Harris-Gershon (photo credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/JTA)

After reading this post in support of BDS, a movement linked to denying the right of Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state, says Eden, students at the Santa Barbara Hillel requested Harris-Gershon not be hosted there.

The Santa Barbara Hillel states: “Although the speaker was not intending to speak about BDS, our Executive Director, the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors, and most importantly, the Student Board did not feel it was in the best interest of the students at Santa Barbara Hillel to host and co-sponsor a speaker who would undoubtedly distract from the core mission of Hillel.”

Strangely, Harris-Gershon had been told through a third party that if he publicly disavowed BDS, he would be allowed to speak. So he wrote in another Tikkun blog post on January 5, 2014, his personal creed.

“I am a progressive Zionist who believes firmly in the idea that Israel should be a Jewish, democratic state, despite the inherent challenges and contradictions such an existence presents. I am also one who fully supports a two-state political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which each side is able to live within defined, secure borders.

“I believe that economic sanctions, such as boycotts, are legitimate forms of nonviolent protest, in contrast to, say, violence or vandalism. I do not, however, subscribe to the BDS movement or its implicit vision of a single, bi-national state as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

(After this blog post Harris-Gershon’s spring lecture was officially canceled. Interestingly, Santa Barbara Hillel writes in its lengthy statement, “Santa Barbara Hillel does not require speakers to adhere to specific political positions or make specific statements in order to earn the right to speak at Hillel.”)

Professionally, Harris-Gershon is a day school educator. Primarily since his book’s publication, he also speaks in synagogues, Jewish community centers and, yes, Hillel houses across the US. (He’s scheduled to speak at the University of Pittsburgh Hillel on January 23.)

In an ironic twist, Harris-Gershon is a former Hillel employee. He served in the late 1990s as a prestigious Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps (JCSC) fellow at Indiana University, where he met his wife Jamie. His job there was to engage with the broader Jewish student population and bring in those who wouldn’t necessarily normally enter a Hillel house or any other Jewish environment.

As a former Hillel employee he says, “I would ask Hillel how its goal of being an inclusive dynamic space for all Jewish students on campus to gather and engage with one another can be maintained when significant segments of the Jewish population are officially barred from being in the building.”

He cites the recent Pew Study, which reports that a significant number of college students who are invested in Israel are also willing to critique the country.

A man dressed as an Israeli soldier guarding a 'checkpoint' during an Apartheid Week event at UC Berkeley. (photo credit: CC-BY James Buck, Flickr)

A man dressed as an Israeli soldier guarding a ‘checkpoint’ during an Apartheid Week event at UC Berkeley. (photo credit: CC-BY James Buck, Flickr)

“If Hillel is viewed as a space that is cut off from dialog about Israel, it’s not a space that students will go to,” says Harris-Gershon.

Open Hillel’s Younger agrees and says, “Even as an Orthodox Zionist, I have many friends who subscribe to positions regarding Israel that Hillel’s board refuses to hear. As the Forward reports, Swarthmore’s Open Hillel declaration has increased Shabbat attendance at it’s Hillel.”

Younger says the movement has received supportive emails and phone calls from students around the country. “Our activists come from cities from around the country — and it is apparent that we have a national presence… There is every reason to believe that, given our momentum in younger Jewish community, there will be more Hillels to follow Swarthmore’s lead.”

In the Swarthmore resolution, the student board states, “Hillel, while purporting to support all Jewish Campus Life, presents a monolithic face pertaining to Zionism that does not accurately reflect the diverse opinions of young American Jews.”

And perhaps this statement is the key to the whole struggle: Is Hillel out of touch with the community it is meant to serve?

Not to Eden.

“We’re not changing our mission. It sustained us for 90 years and it will sustain us for another 90,” says Eden.