By: Lori Lowenthal Marcus
There’s been some attention paid lately to a largely unsuccessful effort to portray the Hillel on campus model as a “closed” environment, one that paints Hillel as an inflexible enforcer of unreasonable allegiance to the Jewish State. This effort calls itself “Open Hillel.”
The reason the Open Hillel effort has garnered some notoriety recently is that two Jewish campus groups affiliated with Hillel International voted to reject the Hillel International guidelines, declaring themselves Open Hillels.
Those guidelines include a lot of positive, supportive language for all kinds of ways of expressing one’s Jewishness.They also state that Hillels 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.In other words, Hillel students are permitted to say and do whatever they want, they just can’t provide a Hillel platform to Israel haters.
Hillel International responded to the groups who declared themselves Open Hillels like the good uncle it is, lauding the students for expressing their views and for being passionate.
The bottom line message, however, is that if a Hillel-affiliated campus group violates the Israel guidelines by, for example, offering a platform within Hillel to a proponent of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sactions Movement, that group will lose its affiliation to Hillel, along with the right to use the Hillel name, and to avail itself of Hillel resources.
The second step has not yet happened, even on the two campuses, Swarthmore College and Vassar College, which declared themselves Open Hillels.
But along now comes a student-founded and run group calling itself “Safe Hillel,” which takes a different approach to the situation.
The founder of Safe Hillel, Raphael Fils, is a Boston University sophomore from California. Fils told The Jewish Press that he and several of his friends joined together to take a stand in support of Hillel as a “safe place” for pro-Israel students, after seeing that those who were agitating to take Hillel in the opposite direction began to receive media attention.
“Hillel should not have to change its mission in order to accommodate those who don’t agree with it,” Fils said. “Hillel is the one place students are supposed to feel entirely comfortable in their support of Israel. If that makes some people uncomfortable, there are plenty of other places to go just to hear attacks on Israel,” he continued.
The mission of Safe Hillel is for Hillel to be a safe place where Israel supporters are able to express that view openly, and where Jews of every Jewish denomination are able to practice their Judaism freely.
“Why do students feel the need to ruin Hillel?” Fils said many of his friends were asking.
“Those are the people who are trying to make a lot of noise, but the majority of Hillel students don’t feel it is right to appease the opponents of Israel who want to transform the Jewish campus organization into a battle zone.
“Open Hillel is not really ‘open,’ it’s only being used to accommodate people on the left, those who are harshly critical of Israel’s every move. It is the people on the so-called ‘right’ who are being marginalized,”Fils continued. He also said that he despises those terms anyway, and considers himself someone in the center.
“How has it happened that people are trying to turn Hillel into a place that is more accommodating to those who want to bash Israel, rather than those who just want to learn more about, and to support, Israel?”
Fils explained that part of what is happening is that the majority of students are being silenced by the activists. He also said there are places where the Hillel leadership respond to, and sometimes identify with the bullies, rather than trying to discern what the majority wants.
Safe Hillel will not only have a website and a Facebook page, but it will also have an anonymous tipline which will be set up so that students can report incidents that make them uncomfortable at their own campus Hillels, where a minority of students are pushing to provide platforms for speakers or partnerships which are anti-Israel. All of these tools will be active by mid-March.
The information from the tipline would be provided to Hillel professionals, and the professionals would decide whether action needs to be taken or not, and if so, what kind.
“Right now there are students on campuses who are afraid to speak and who are not feeling supported,” Fils explained. “We want to keep Hillel safe, it is the last safe place on campus for pro-Israel students, and we don’t want that taken away.”
Originally published in The Jewish Press