Students Divided over Hillel’s Event Sponsorship Decision

Sarah Conner, Staff Writer

Earlier this week, Rabbi Shimon Brand, director of Oberlin Hillel, allegedly pulled out from co-sponsoring an event about the Freedom Summer veterans, a group of Jewish veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. The exact reason for Brand’s decision to decline sponsorship of this event is unclear. Some involved in Hillel claim the organization never agreed to sponsor the event due to a lack of funds. However, others believe that Hillel initially agreed to sponsor the event and pulled out after learning about the veterans’ criticism of Israel and support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

“I had spoken with [Rabbi Brand] a few months ago about bringing the event, and I was very clear about what it was about,” said College junior Jeremy Swack, who helped to organize the event. “I said they are three Freedom Summer veterans, and they have done Israel/Palestine events, and I have made it explicitly clear that they would talk about BDS, but it was not the focal point. It actually only came up once when someone asked a question. So, I met with him a week before, and he had already agreed to co-sponsor it. When I met with him, he said, ‘We have no money, there is no money in the budget, I am really sorry about this,’ even though he had already made a commitment to at least give some.”

The speakers coming to campus were part of a larger tour called the Open Hillel campaign, which aims to eliminate the national standards of Hillel International, the umbrella organization for all campus Hillels. Five years ago, the organization created a national set of standards for Hillels that included a paragraph that stated Hillel cannot sponsor or co-sponsor an event that is too critical of Israel. The guidelines specifically state that Hillel speakers cannot support BDS.

“When the money was requested, at that point in the semester, there was no money left to be allocated to the event,” said Jewish Life Coordinator Samia Mansour, OC ’10. “This happened last week. There was an initial conversation in February about the potential to sponsor the event, but there was not a lot of follow-up afterwards. Last week when the event was to occur, the money was no longer available. This was not a conversation with Oberlin Hillel, and this was not a conversation with students at all. The group never agreed to sponsor the event, and they never agreed to pull out money from the event.”

The event was not focused on BDS, but rather was centered on three activists who belonged to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee doing voter registration in the South in the 1960s. During the event, the speakers focused on their activism and how it was influenced by their Jewishness, which led to their involvement in the Israel/Palestine debate. BDS was mentioned once during the talk.

Swack maintained that he takes pride in Oberlin’s progressive legacy, and feels that allowing speakers like these on campus helps further it. He feels that even though many people may disagree with what the speakers have to say, they are still of great value to the campus.

Mansour maintained that Hillel is a welcoming, politically open space.

“The way that we’ve been structured in the past is that Hillel is not a political space; Hillel is the umbrella organization for Jewish life,” Mansour said. “In past years what we’ve done is used the space for religious programming and bring in speakers to talk about modern Jewish social issues, and those are the things that Hillel has focused on because the issue [of BDS] is so polarizing and we want the space to be open to all Jews. Also, there are a number of political groups that deal with Israel/Palestine, so there are outlets for all students in regards to the issue, so we can keep Hillel neutral.”

College first-year and Hillel treasurer Eli Hovland agrees that Hillel is a neutral space.

“Oberlin Hillel has never been involved in shutting down BDS voices,” he said. “I do not think we have the capability to even do that if we wanted to. We have a very specific range of programming that we offer, and part of why we do that is we want to offer a space that is as inclusive as possible. If there are people on campus that are passionate about issues, then that’s a good thing.”