Swarthmore Hillel changes name after ‘threats’ from parent body

Jewish students vote Monday to stop using the name Hillel in favor of freedom to invite speakers critical of Israel

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

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)

Students at the first college campus to call itself an “Open Hillel” voted Monday to stop using the “Hillel” brand name after a series of “ultimatums and legal threats” from Hillel International, said Jewish students at Swarthmore College.

In December 2013, the student board at the Swarthmore Hillel voted unanimously to defy the controversial Hillel International “guidelines,” its Standards for Partnership, and invite to the Jewish student center speakers who promote critical and even anti-Israel views, including support for BDS, the boycott, divest and sanctions movement.

The Quaker-founded college has a population of some 1,500 students. The Jewish student center, Swat Hillel, welcomes students of all Jewish backgrounds and is a program of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.

In response to Swat Hillel’s “succession,” in mid-December 2013 head of Hillel International Eric Fingerhut wrote the student board, “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. No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise.”

This was apparently no idle threat.

The Swarthmore Hillel recently opened its two-month series of events on social justice issues in Israel and Palestine, including a session with civil rights veterans Larry Rubin and Dorothy Zellner “who are currently doing Palestine solidarity organizing,” scheduled for March 24.

Hillel International, which serves 550 campuses in North America, wrote the Swarthmore chapter a letter March 16 stating the organization recently became aware that Swarthmore intended to “use the programming model of Open Hillel, a campaign with the known purpose of promoting an anti-Israel and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) agenda. This effort includes the promotion and presentation of specific speakers known as the ‘Freedom Summer Veterans Tour.'”

In the letter, Tracy A. Turoff, a Hillel International vice president and its general counsel, wrote, “Hillel International is the sole and exclusive licensee with the right to use the famous Hillel name and mark in connection with college campus activities, including but not limited to, any confusingly similar goods and services. Along with its exclusive license, Hillel International is charged with protecting the mark from unauthorized use by others.”

In response to the Hillel International letter, about 30 of Swarthmore’s Jewish students held a meeting Monday in which they voted to stop using the Hillel name.

“We’ve spent more than a year designing high quality, inclusive Israel-Palestine programming to fully represent and best fit the needs of Swarthmore’s Jewish community. Hillel International has repeatedly responded with ultimatums and legal threats,” said the chapter president Sarah Revesz.

“This constraining pressure has driven us to a point where we can only continue to serve the diverse needs of our community under a different name than Hillel. As we make this transition, we reaffirm our commitment to building a space where all can learn from different viewpoints, and hold fast to the values of openness, inclusivity, and pluralistic dialogue espoused by Hillel the Elder,” said Revesz.

The Swarthmore Jewish community will meet in the coming weeks to choose a new name.

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