What is Hillel International?
Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is a pluralistic Jewish organization that facilitates Jewish religious, cultural, and educational events and fosters Jewish community. It has chapters on university campuses across the US and abroad, and Hillel International is the umbrella organization to which these local affiliates belong.
According to Hillel International's website, "Hillel's mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. Hillel student leaders, professionals and lay leaders are dedicated to creating a pluralistic, welcoming and inclusive environment for Jewish college students, where they are encouraged to grow intellectually, spiritually and socially."
What are Hillel International's current standards?
Hillel International currently publishes "Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities". Under the section "standards for partnership," they state:
"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 full text of Hillel International's "Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities" can be found here.
What are the effects of the current standards?
The current guidelines have two main effects: limiting the Jewish groups that can become affiliated with campus Hillels, and limiting the outside groups with which Hillel-affiliated groups are permitted to co-sponsor events.
At Brandeis, for example, students founded a local chapter of the organization Jewish Voice for Peace, which, among other things, advocates for targeted divestment from companies that profit off the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. This group, as a Jewish organization, sought affiliation with Brandeis Hillel, but was denied on the basis of its political views.
In November 2012, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, an affiliated group of Harvard Hillel, was prevented from holding one of its events in the Hillel building. This decision was not due to the event's content, which was Jewish in nature, relevant to the Hillel community, and had previously been approved by Hillel staff. Rather, it was due to the fact that the event was co-sponsored with the Palestine Solidarity Committee, a Harvard student group that supports the International Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
At Binghamton University, a Hillel student leader was asked to resign because, as a leader in a separate, non-Hillel-affiliated group, he had brought a pro-BDS speaker to campus. Thus, these policies have been used not only to restrict the politics of the groups that can work with or be included in Hillel, but also to restrict Hillel students' activities outside of Hillel.
More recently at Harvard — in November 2013 — an event featuring Avraham Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset, was banned from Hillel because it was co- sponsored by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC). This event was also co-sponsored by Harvard Students for Israel, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, and Harvard J Street U. Even though Harvard Students for Israel — an explicitly political, pro-Israel organization and a Hillel affiliate — co-sponsored the event, it could not be held in Hillel due to PSC's involvement.
At universities across the country, these rules are excluding people from the Hillel community, shutting down open discourse on Israel within Hillel, and discouraging dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian groups on campus.
Are campus Hillels required to follow Hillel International's standards?
The Hillel International website states that "local Hillels are encouraged to convene their stakeholders to review these standards and create their own Israel guidelines that are consistent with this document and reflect the local environment." When Swarthmore Hillel students voted to create more inclusive policies, Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut threatened them with disaffiliation if they did not abide by Hillel International's "guidelines." However, no concrete steps have been taken at this time, and Swarthmore Hillel is currently in dialogue with both Hillel International and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia to determine the course of their continued relationship. Since this time, Vassar Jewish Union (VJU) has declared itself an Open Hillel, and no threats have been made to disaffiliate VJU from Hillel International. However, it remains to be seen how Hillel International will respond to local Hillels hosting various kinds of events that fall outside the redlines drawn by the current Standards of Partnership. Swarthmore Hillel, Vassar Jewish Union, and the Open Hillel campaign all hope to work with Hillel International to remove or reform the current policies rather than disaffiliating from Hillel International.
Hillel International does not enforce policies about any other subject — Shabbat, holidays, kashrut, Torah, egalitarianism, or anything else — on local Hillels. We believe that local Hillels should be able to develop their own policies on Israel, just as they do for every other subject. We also believe that as more local Hillels declare themselves to be Open Hillels, Hillel International will come to realize that they cannot continue to enforce these policies without alienating a sizeable portion of Jewish college students.
Who runs Open Hillel? Who are you affiliated with? Who funds you? How do you make decisions?
Open Hillel is a grassroots movement run entirely by current students and recent college grads. The campaign was initially founded by students involved in the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (a Hillel-affiliated group not affiliated with any national organization), but is now an independent movement. We are not affiliated with any organization, and at this time, we have never received funding from any source.
The Open Hillel Organizing Committee, consisting of about 50 students from dozens of schools across America and Canada, discusses and votes on all major decisions, and collaboratively writes all statements released by the campaign. Any current university student or recent grad who is invested in Hillel's future and supports the principles of the Open Hillel campaign is welcome to join the organizing council. An eight-member subset of the organizing council, the Open Hillel Steering Committee, meets for weekly conference calls and is responsible for day-to-day decision-making and functioning of the Open Hillel campaign. Any member of the organizing council who can commit to spending at least one term (fall semester, spring semester, or summer) on the Steering Committee is welcome to join. Steering Committee positions and responsibilites are based on members' skills and interests.
When possible, all decisions (both within the Steering Committee and on the Organizing Committee) are made by consensus. When consensus is not possible, a proposal must receive a 2/3 supermajority in support in order to be put into action.
If you want to contact us, learn more, or join the Open Hillel campaign, you can use our contact form or email us at openhillel [at] gmail.com.
Do you take any positions on Israel/Palestine?
No. We don't take any positions on Israel/Palestine. We only advocate for more open discourse on Israel within campus Jewish communities. Views on the left tend to be disproportionately excluded from the conversation, but we welcome anyone who wants to help open the debate to the entire spectrum of opinion. Read more in Our Mission and Vision.
If events are held in the Hillel building, doesn't that imply that Hillel supports the political views expressed in the event or by the event's sponsors?
The most common argument we have heard against the Open Hillel campaign is that Hillel cannot hold events in its building without implying that it supports the political views expressed in the event or by the event's sponsors. However, Hillel, as a pluralistic community, commonly contains affiliated groups with directly contradictory political views. For example, many Hillels contain both an Orthodox minyan, which advocates against same-sex marriage, and an LGBTQ Jewish group, which advocates for same-sex marriage. Both these groups could hold events in Hillel without it implying that Hillel necessarily supports either of these political stances. Similarly, we believe that groups with a diverse set of views on Israel should be able to hold events in Hillel without this implying that Hillel endorses the views expressed by one particular group or event. In such a situation, Hillel is simply expressing its support of the values of pluralism and free discourse.
If, however, this continues to be a serious concern to some people, we would support policies and/or statements making it explicitly clear that Hillel does not necessarily endorse the political views expressed by of any of its affiliated groups, events, or event co-sponsors.
Doesn't Hillel, as a private organization, have the right to restrict the speech it permits under its auspices?
Another argument we've heard over and over is "Hillel is a private institution, so it has a right to put limits on what can be said under its auspices." This is true — Hillel isn't the government, so it doesn't have a legal obligation to permit any kind of speech. But the Open Hillel campaign is not about free speech — it's about what kind of Hillel community we want to build. As people who are invested in Hillel as a pluralistic Jewish community, we believe that Hillel should nurture Jewish life in all its forms. We want to see Hillel be a place for vibrant discussion and diversity of opinion, not a place where inclusion is based on a political litmus test. We believe that the current guidelines harm Hillel by cutting it off from a significant portion of Jewish students and broader campus community, and we want to see Hillel succeed. Yes, Hillel would be within its legal rights to be a political organization where only certain views are acceptable — but that's not what we want to see in our community.