Understanding Hillel’s mission

For the past few months, Hillel International and many local Hillel Foundations have come under fire for its policy on Israel.

January 27, 2014 21:23
3 minute read.

The campus of Rutgers University, one of many places Hillel maintains a chapter.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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For the past few months, Hillel International and many local Hillel Foundations have come under fire for its policy regarding partnerships with other organizations and co-sponsorships of programs on Israel.

The policy states: 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; or
• Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior toward campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.

In December, students at the Swarthmore College Hillel passed a policy stating that they would allow and sponsor any and all organizations and people be they “Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.”

Hillel International’s president and CEO Eric Fingerhut responded: “Let me be very clear – ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”

Since then, a variety of academics, community members, publications, talk radio shows, podcasts and outside organizations have published and blogged about this policy and their perception that it conflicts with Hillel’s mission to serve as the Jewish pluralistic organization on campus. These critics assert that the policy is intended to curry favor with donors, and claim that it violates the free speech rights of those speakers who are excluded from Hillel by this policy. They claim that Hillel must repeal or rework its policy in order to provide, in their view, a truly open environment for conversations about Israel.

The fundamental problem with our critics’ position is that they misunderstand Hillel’s calling. Hillel’s long-established mission and vision is this: “We envision a world where every student is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel.”

Hillel is fully committed to creating an environment for debating or criticizing Israel’s actions and policies. We welcome discussion about settlements, the Palestinian community, or the establishment of a two-state solution. We welcome criticism of Israel’s policies and actions. But, at the end of the day, we are committed to helping students build an enduring commitment to Israel. That is our mission.

We believe that by inspiring students to develop a positive connection and commitment to Israel, we help our students to strengthen their Jewish identity.

Some may disagree with our mission. That is their right.

But they cannot, and should not, expect Hillel to change a fundamental part of its purpose because they disagree with it.

This issue is not about donors.

Those who support Hillel do so fully understanding its mission.

Nor is this issue about free speech. We support our critics’ right to speak freely about their views on Israel and on Hillel.

But the First Amendment does not require us to open our doors to or sponsor organizations or individuals who delegitimize Israel and who fail to recognize Israel’s right to exist. To do that would directly conflict with our mission – our purpose for being.

Organizational management teaches us that policies are created to support the mission and vision of the organization. Hillel’s policy on Israel programming is fully consistent with its mission and vision. To change the policy, as our critics suggest, would alter Hillel’s fundamental mission – something that our critics should not be asking us to do.

Andy Gitelson is executive director of the Oregon Hillel Foundation at the University of Oregon; Sharon Rudnick is its board chair.

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