Scott Goldstein responds to questions
in light of recent controversies
at two American Hillel chapters.
Hillel International’s policies for campus events are stifling the potential for positive dialogue about the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, some critics say.
Hillel, the main organization serving Jewish students on university and college campuses, is active on more than 600 campuses worldwide. The local branch, Hillel Ottawa, serves the approximately 1,500 Jewish students at the University of Ottawa, Carleton University and Algonquin College.
Recently, Hillel chapters at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Swathmore College near Philadelphia became the centre of a debate when Harvard Hillel changed details about how it would host Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, and Jewish students at Swathmore declared their Hillel to be the first “Open Hillel” and that it would not abide by Hillel International’s guidelines on what kind of speakers and events they could host.
The Harvard event was originally co-sponsored with Harvard’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee, an organization that also supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Collaborating with individuals or organizations that support the BDS movement run counter to Hillel International’s guidelines.
According to Hillel International’s official guidelines, a range of political opinions about Israel is welcomed in order to facilitate dialogue and students’ personal growth in a safe and supportive environment.
“Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner.”
The key to the debate, however, lies within Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, which some critics say can be interpreted as much too broad in order to facilitate constructive dialogue about the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.
While the organization encourages its campus chapters to engage with all other groups on campus, “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” and supports BDS.
Peter Beinart, a liberal Jewish American political pundit and author of The Crisis of Zionism, ignited the debate about Hillel’s policies when he wrote “The American Jewish Cocoon,” for the September 26, 2013 edition of The New York Review of Books, a strong critique about how insulated and unaware American Jewry is to the realities of Palestinians and life in the West Bank.
Among Beinart’s criticisms was that Hillel’s “standards make it almost impossible for Jewish campus organizations to invite a Palestinian speaker.
“Guidelines like Hillel’s – which codify the de facto restrictions that exist in many establishment American Jewish groups – make the organized American Jewish community a closed intellectual space, isolated from the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli control,” Beinart wrote.
“And the result is that American Jewish leaders, even those who harbour no animosity toward Palestinians, know little about the reality of their lives,” he added.
Hillel International’s guidelines do not prevent campus chapters from maintaining an inclusive atmosphere with lively dialogue, said Scott Goldstein, executive director of Hillel Ottawa.
“I think the guidelines are broad, and I think the broadness of the guidelines … give us an ability to make our own decisions when it comes to various elements of partnership and inclusivity on campus,” Goldstein said.
The war of words, he explained, is encouraging Hillel chapters to review their campus activity guidelines to ensure they are following the international organization’s standards for what events and speakers can be hosted on campus, under the Hillel banner.
“Just because we may not want to host an event with a group on campus that calls for Israel not to exist, it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t welcome them at any of our other events,” Goldstein said.
“It doesn’t mean that we would not speak with them in a private manner; we just wouldn’t host them under the Hillel banner,” he added. “We’re still open to having discussions with individuals who disagree [with our policies].”
While Harvard Hillel actually did host Burg in November, the event had to be in two parts as a private dinner and then a public talk at different locations in order to meet the requirements, an aspect noted as awkward by one of Harvard Hillel organizers.
Steve McDonald, spokesperson for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CJIA), noted that CIJA policy for event partnership and speakers is similar to Hillel’s and said CIJA respects the organization’s policy choices.
“We think that Hillel has every right to determine its policies and to select which programs work best for its own mandate and the speakers that it hosts accordingly,” McDonald said.
While every Hillel chapter is unique, Goldstein reiterates that the support for Israel is a unifying cause for all campus chapters and is a pillar of what the organization stands for.
“Being part of Hillel means that we do believe in the right for Israel to exist as a democratic state in the Middle East and therefore we do not support anyone who is trying to seek a future without Israel as a democratic state.”