Jewish students at Swarthmore College have become the first in the nation to break with the global student association Hillel and agree to open their doors to groups and speakers who do not support Israel.
The Swarthmore student board unanimously voted to renounce Hillel International's restrictions, which bar chapters from sponsoring events, hosting speakers, or partnering with groups that oppose Israel's right to exist or support a movement for universities to end investments in Israel because of its policies toward the Palestinians.
Students at the liberal Quaker college say they wanted to start a dialogue on Israel-Palestinian issues by holding joint events or inviting speakers who may have differing opinions about Israel.
"We felt like we needed to stand up for what we believe and the values we've always held," said Joshua Wolfsun, a board member of the 100-student group.
Wolfsun said the entire board supported the resolution, though only seven of the 13 members were present for the vote Sunday.
The issue of whether Jewish student groups on U.S. campuses should be engaged with groups and speakers critical of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians has been building since 2010, when Hillel International issued its new policy.
The move then was largely a response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which supports university divestment and has been gaining support on American campuses.
Last spring, students at Harvard University formed a movement called "Open Hillel," which challenges the partnership guidelines from Hillel International, the largest student Jewish group, with about 550 chapters worldwide.
Swarthmore's Hillel is in a unique position because it does not accept any money from Hillel International. It is supported by an endowment and funds from Swarthmore's student activities budget.
Its resolution states, in part: "All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist."
Hillel International president Eric D. Fingerhut is expected to meet next semester with the Swarthmore students.
In a letter to the group, Fingerhut wrote: "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."
Fingerhut said that while debate on the many issues facing Israel was welcome, "Hillel International does draw a line."
That line includes not partnering or hosting speakers and groups that 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 Israel; exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior at campus events; or foster an atmosphere of incivility.
David Eden, a Hillel International spokesman, said the organization has hosted "robust discussions" with people with different viewpoints.
But "Hillel has boundaries, and those boundaries stop at anyone that advocates for the destruction of the state of Israel and they stop at hate speech," he said.
As an example, he said a pro-Palestinian campus group, Students for Justice in Palestine, has plastered eviction notices on dorm rooms of Jewish students on various college campuses "as a symbolic thing. . . . We find that unacceptable."
Some members of Jewish student groups have sought to oppose the Hillel policy, and nearly 1,000 individuals have signed onto "Open Hillel," which seeks to increase campus debate.
Swarthmore Hillel has no events or gatherings planned yet to flout the international policy.
But its leaders said the move was prompted by two recent developments - a decision by Harvard Hillel last month to cancel a speech by former Israeli Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg because the event was cosponsored by a student group that supports BDS, and Hillel International's recent announcement that it was partnering with the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to promote pro-Israel views on U.S. campuses.
Collaborating with AIPAC "didn't seem to be the way to build the diverse political community that we wanted," said Wolfsun.
Last year, he noted, Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine held a simulated checkpoint with volunteers to show what Palestinians must go through in the West Bank.
Ben Bernard-Herman, a member of SPJP at Swarthmore, said he welcomed the change and that it would make it easier to ask questions and discuss the "conflict with Israel being a democracy and a Jewish state."
"More students will feel their opinions will be valued," he said.
Some see the break as a generational divide.
Emily Unger, the Harvard graduate who cofounded Open Hillel, said students of her generation have only known Israel as "being very powerful . . . and being an occupying power in Palestinian territories," while she understood that older generations who witnessed Israel's difficult beginnings might feel the need for a vigorous defense.
But she said Jewish values support having an open debate even with people you strongly disagree with.
Eden, the international group's spokesman, agreed.
"It's very good and proper for every generation to question what has happened in the past and what happens in the future," he said. "But the debate has to be done in a civil manner and with groups that do not promote the end of a Jewish state."