Swarthmore Hillel’s Disappointing Decision

Much has already been written about the Swarthmore Hillel incident, and now that national attention has died down, most people will forget about it for the time being. However there remain some troubling aspects to what happened that aren’t going away, and still need to be addressed by Swarthmore Hillel.

First, Swarthmore uses the existence of a Swarthmore Hillel to convince prospective Jewish students, and their parents, to come to Swarthmore. During my “ride the tide” year there was an opportunity to bake challah with the members of the group. Seeing the prominence and importance of a Jewish student group on campus was a big factor in my decision to come here. Hillel serves as a useful recruiting tool to both prospective Jewish students and new Jewish students looking for friends on an unfamiliar campus. If the school and the group are so intent on using the brand of Hillel as a means of recruiting, it is not ridiculous to expect Hillel to follow the rules of its national institution. The national Hillel may not be providing the Swarthmore branch much in ways of funding but it lends its name to the group, which is as powerful as any fund. One shouldn’t be surprised then, when the national branch expects Swarthmore to follow a set of guidelines.

Second, there is no shortage of groups willing to bring in anti-Israeli speakers. Recently, the school brought in Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, who both have very negative views on the state of Israel.  Both speakers were met with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and no public criticism. There is also no lack of anti-Israel and pro-Palestine rhetoric used on campus. If one is pro-Israel at Swarthmore, one tends to avoid all discussions on Israel. You get outnumbered and outshouted pretty quickly. There is also not even a lack of anti-Israel demonstrations on campus. Last year there was a large wall built in front of Parrish, a building most of us pass through daily, to simulate the experience of Palestinians crossing the border into Israel. Hillel met this highly charged and aggressive protest with silence.

Since I have been here there have been no high profile demonstrations, speakers (although after the schools behavior over Robert Zoellick, I am not surprised), or responses that are even remotely pro-Israel. This is where the Swarthmore Hillel’s decision disappoints me the most. One would think that the only Jewish group on campus would be enthusiastic to show the only Jewish state in a positive light to the student body. One would hope that the group would jump at the chance to show the other side of the argument.

A defense that I have heard is that this resolution does not prohibit the group from bringing in pro-Israel speakers. This is true. However, given the disturbing lack of pro-Israeli speakers brought in before the resolution, I’m skeptical the group has any desire to portray Israel in any positive manner. Furthermore, Hillel’s decision was made independently of any actual speaker invite. It seems that Hillel is desperate to make it clear that they are in no way pro-Israel. This resolution is more of an indication that the group has some ax to grind rather than to promote any notion of open dialogue. If there isn’t a legitimate desire to cohost an event, then why pass the resolution?

The idea that this is to promote “open” dialogue is laughable. There wasn’t an open dialogue before the resolution and after this resolution it will be even more biased. Israel is the world’s only Jewish state and instead of proudly showing its achievements, Swarthmore’s Jewish student group is only interested on jumping on the already crowded, anti-Israel bandwagon. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything different.



  1. I guess that any pro-Israel Jew who wants a place to feel safe is not welcome at Swarthmore. I support free speech but private organizations have a need and right to have rules and police their members and establishments.

  2. Nat, there are some things you should do before publishing an article like this. One is have some basic background on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You write, “Last year there was a large wall built in front of Parrish to simulate the experience of Palestinians crossing the border into Israel.” So, borders divide states, and Palestinians do not have a state. This means that the basic protections of civil rights that Americans and Israelis enjoy (security of person, freedom of speech, assembly, etc.) are not guaranteed to Palestinians. Did you know that it is illegal for a group of more than 10 Palestinians to hold a peaceful political demonstration in the West Bank?
    You can learn about some of the difficulties this creates here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/magazine/is-this-where-the-third-intifada-will-start.html?_r=0

    What the ‘border’ you describe actually simulates is the check point system that divides many Palestinian communities, which is a major impediment to getting to schools, hospitals, jobs and families for many Palestinians. You can learn more about the checkpoint system, which also frequently involves invasive searches and other indignities, here: http://electronicintifada.net/content/photos-palestinian-workers-everyday-nightmare-israeli-checkpoints/12597.

    Second, I think you should consider the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in more than a “pro-Israel” v. “anti-Israel” dichotomy. Many Israelis are deeply concerned about the moral, political and human cost of militarily occupying the West Bank and crippling Gaza through one of the world’s most severe sanctions regimes. Are these Israelis “anti-Israel?” Many of them serve in the Knesset, the IDF, and every other Israeli public institution. Likewise, many American Jews are deeply committed to preserving the moral and political viability of Israel as a democratic state, and believe that strong opposition to many Israeli policies is necessary in this regard. Are these Americans “anti-Israel,” simply because they share a different vision of Israel than you or I may?

    Thirdly, Noam Chomsky’s speech was not about Israel, and you did not attend Norman Finklestein’s lecture. At the lecture, I did not see you, but I did see a number of difficult questions and strong critiques of Finklestein’s views. You’re a smart guy, and can do better as a journalist than to make unsubstantiated claims.

  3. If you are concerned about the lack of pro-Israel speakers on campus, then I would like to encourage you to try to fill that gap! Invite someone yourself 😀

    • Also fyi, the checkpoint simulation previously appeared at Swarthmore when I was a freshman in Spring 2010. The simulation sparked a fairly large amount of debate, and several members of Hillel spoke out openly against it, if I’m remembering correctly. Each year’s group is going to have a different make-up of students with different political beliefs, as is only natural.

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