Exploring Hillel’s New Political Advocacy

by Ahmed Ahmed

Pro-Israel fervor at Hillel puts the group in conflict with the departments of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work.

The emergence of Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) has caused tension to arise between the Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine students at the college. Two organizations are at the forefront of this tension, with Hillel and SJP finding themselves at opposite sides of the spectrum. SJP seeks to raise awareness for what it refers to as the “Israeli system of Apartheid and discrimination against the indigenous Palestinian population.” Its main objective is the promotion of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, a Palestinian Civil Society organization which seeks to force Israel into changes by introducing a tactic of economic and political isolation.

“The BDS movement is very similar to the campaigns that ended apartheid in South Africa,” said President of SJP Nerdeen Mohsen. “As Americans it is our duty to stand with BDS.” The BDS movement seeks to garner support on university campuses by holding rallies and events promoting the ideas to those who are uninformed of the conditions in Palestine.

Nerdeen says SJP was approached by Hillel when the chapter was founded in May 2013 to have a collaborative effort in promoting unity between the two groups. SJP declined their offer. “We felt they were very disingenuous with their attempt,” said Mohsen. “Having an event with Hillel frames the situation as if Israel and Palestine are two equal sides that are fighting and need to come to peace, when that is far from the case. Palestine is not at war with Israel. Palestine is under occupation.”

Hillel’s involvement in defending the Pro-Israel narrative, to the extent that they involve themselves in a controversial issue, signals a digression from Hillel’s stated purpose on campus. According to their college website Hillel’s role is “serving the entire campus community with engaging programs and activities promoting Jewish values…Hillel provides a comfortable place for college students to express Jewish identity and to explore Judaism.”

Hillel’s CSI official Facebook page mission statement says “Hillel seeks to inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to meaningful Jewish life and community. As members of the Multi Faith Center at the College of Staten Island, we welcome the entire campus community and strive to be valuable partners in CSI’s vibrant, diverse student experience.”

No official description from Hillel’s various media pages indicated a Pro-Israel stance or a Pro-Israel lobbying effort. This has changed with a petition called SaveHillel which was promoted by Hillel’s official Facebook page.

“We believe that campus Hillel’s should remain a safe space for pro-Israel students on campus… Often bullied and intimidated by anti-Israel campaigns and propaganda, pro-Israel students need a place to call home- Hillel,” the petition stated. “As concerned students we ask that Hillel maintain the National Hillel Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities and continue to politically serve the pro-Israel community.”

Hillel’s shift towards political advocacy puts the organization into conflict with those who have differing opinions on Israel.
On March 4 a joint event between Hillel and Chi Alpha invited David Walker, Northeast Coordinator of the organization Christians United for Israel, to give a lecture on the importance of fostering a Pro-Israel narrative on College campuses.

A new group called OpenHillel seeks to counter the political nature of the former, as the Pro-Israel and political advocacy of Hillel begins change within the national organization.

“Hillel International’s current standards for partnership are counterproductive,” said Hillel. “They prevent campus Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians as almost all Palestinian campus groups support the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel… and although the Hillel International policies are called ‘guidelines,’ Hillel International has threatened to disaffiliate schools that do not abide by them.”

When The Banner approached President of Hillel, Mitchell Harris, for clarification the request was denied. “The Banner has been bias,” said Mitchell. “They have taken things out of context.”

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