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Swarthmore group breaks from Hillel

In a dispute over its right to host an Israeli-Palestinian program, Swarthmore College's Hillel has broken with the global Jewish-student organization and changed its name.

In a dispute over its right to host an Israeli-Palestinian program, Swarthmore College's Hillel has broken with the global Jewish-student organization and changed its name.

The schism is symptomatic of increasing tensions between local chapters and Hillel, which has attempted to stop them from hosting events that involve speakers or groups deemed to be anti-Israel.

Speakers who appeared Tuesday and Wednesday at the Delaware County school included Ira Grupper, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin, and Dorothy Zellner, veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed in 1960 during the civil rights movement who are now involved in Palestinian solidarity activities.

In a letter sent last week, Tracy A. Turoff, a Hillel vice president and attorney, warned Swarthmore students that hosting any program in which "the speakers present or proselytize their known anti-Israel" agenda would clearly violate Hillel International's Standards of Partnership. Turoff added that it "could be reason for Hillel International to seek to protect its guidelines, name, and reputation."

Rather than back down, Swarthmore student leaders voted 7-3 to leave the international organization and change their name to Swarthmore Kehilah, which means "community" in Hebrew, said Joshua Wolfsun, a student spokesman.

Hillel International objects to campus groups hosting any organizations that advocate using boycotts against settlement goods to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank.

This week's program at Swarthmore was part of a two-month-long series. Other speakers included Palestinian nonviolent activist Ali Abu Awwad, executive director of Women of the Wall Lesley Sachs, and Lee Gordon, a cofounder of the Israeli Jewish-Arab education center Yad B'Yad (Hand in Hand).

It wasn't the students' first run-in with the parent organization. In December 2013, the Swarthmore students become the first in the nation to break with Hillel International and agree to open their doors to groups and speakers who do not support Israel, incurring a warning from the organization's president, Eric Fingerhut. "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," he wrote in a letter.

Turoff referred to those run-ins when she said in a statement that "on several occasions, Hillel International communicated our foundational values as part of our standards of partnership to the students and administration at Swarthmore College."

Nearly 1,000 individuals have signed on to "Open Hillel," a grassroots movement that seeks to make campus debates more inclusive.

Open Hillel organizers said nearly 100 rabbis, professors, and other Jewish leaders had a signed a letter of support for Swarthmore students.

"Hillel International is wasting valuable resources that could be used to engage Jewish students instead of pushing them away," said Emily Unger, an Open Hillel spokeswoman. "Hillel's mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. We urge Hillel International to return to its mission."

She said the warnings against Swarthmore demonstrated a recurring trend in which Hillel International "chooses to appease a small number of right-wing donors rather than engage Jewish students."