Some pro-Palestinian encampments want their schools to cut ties with Hillel, Chabad
A crowd watches rapper Kosha Dillz perform during the “We Will Dance Again” event presented by MIT Hillel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 16, 2024. Hillels have come under fire from some campus encampments, which have demanded schools cut ties with them.
Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

By Andrew Lapin
May 23, 2024

(JTA) — Pro-Palestinian encampment protesters at dozens of universities have called for their administrations to divest from Israel. 

But on two campuses, activists are asking their schools to split from organizations closer to home that they say are complicit in Israeli crimes. 

At Drexel University in Philadelphia and the University of California, Santa Cruz, pro-Palestinian protesters have demanded their universities cut ties with, or “terminate” the presence of, the schools’ Hillel chapters. The Drexel protesters also demand that the university “Immediately terminate Drexel Chabad,” an outpost of the Hasidic outreach movement.

The protesters, including some Jewish students, argue that Hillel’s Zionist stance and the fact that its umbrella organization has received funding from the Israeli government make it complicit in what they deem Israel’s “genocide” in the Gaza Strip.

“Hillel receives millions from organizations financed by the Israeli apartheid state whose existence is reliant on Palestinian death,” Jews Against White Supremacy UCSC, an anti-Zionist student collective that supports the Santa Cruz encampment, wrote on Instagram earlier this month

Meanwhile, the Drexel Palestine Coalition urged its school to “immediately terminate Drexel’s chapter of Hillel,” describing it as “a global zionist campus organization, whose primary purpose, funding and operations are to facilitate birthright trips to Occupied Palestine.”

The demands have led to bipartisan condemnation, with major Jewish groups citing them as evidence of the encampment movement’s antisemitism. “Calling for a ‘complete boycott’ of and to ‘cut ties’ with Hillel — the center of Jewish life on most campuses… is antisemitic. And ridiculous,” Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, tweeted above a list of the UCSC group’s demands. 

The demands are also resurfacing longstanding intra-Jewish tensions over Hillel’s positions on Israel, and how they impact anti-Zionist Jewish students. Even as many pro-Palestinian students have vented their anger with Israel at Hillel, some Jews say they’ve been wanting to talk about — and change — the group’s campus presence for years.

“What we have happening now is a set of conversations about what Hillels should and shouldn’t be on campus,” Lex Rofeberg, a Jewish educator and host of the Judaism UnBound podcast, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rofeberg, who used to be an active member of IfNotNow, which harshly criticizes Israel, has been pushing to change Hillel’s attitude toward Zionism for years. 

According to its guidelines, Hillel will not partner with organizations or speakers who deny Israel’s right to exist, support the boycott movement against Israel or “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.”

As an undergraduate student at Brown University in the early 2010s, Rofeberg served as a student representative on Hillel International’s board. During that time he was also active with Open Hillel, a progressive Jewish coalition that rejected Hillel‘s policy of refusing to work with anti-Zionist student groups. (Today, Open Hillel has become Judaism On Our Own Terms, an explicitly anti-Zionist Jewish group that since Oct. 7 has joined protests against New York-area Hillels.)

Rofeberg is no longer involved with the group, but after UCSC’s demands came out, he argued in a widely shared thread on X that Hillel had painted itself into “an impossible and unsustainable contradiction” by insisting that it is a space for all Jewish students, while excluding those who don’t meet its definition of Zionism. 

“Hillel identifies itself as a ‘pro-Israel’ organization. At the same time, it claims a mantle of being there for all Jewish students,” Rofeberg told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “And when you try to do both of those things, and many of your students are saying that they identify as something else, you’re going to hit a lot of obstacles.” 

On X, he added that people “publicly criticizing Hillel” should “accompany that with a proactive call for other forms of Jewish student life.”

Hillel stands by its Israel policies, which call the country “a core element of Jewish life.” Its defenders point to its role as, often, the main address for campus Jewish practice. In her condemnation of the UCSC demands, Spitalnick wrote that Hillel is “where students attend Shabbat & holidays, do social justice & interfaith work, and come together as a Jewish community.” 

The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Bay Area described Hillel as a “safe haven,” and said calls to cut it off can hurt Jewish students. “It denies them of resources, community, freedom of expression and undermines diversity and inclusion,” the group said in a statement

This is not the first time pro-Palestinian activists have targeted Hillel: In 2021 a coalition of groups at Rutgers University said Hillel had a “history of falsely conflating Palestinian advocacy with antisemitism.” Months later, Zahra Billoo, who leads the San Francisco office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called on attendees at a conference to oppose “polite Zionists,” and listed “the Hillel chapters on our campuses.” 

Weeks before Oct. 7, a Rice University LGBTQ group cut ties with its campus Hillel, citing its support for Israel. After the attacks, a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst was arrested for punching a Jewish student at a Hillel-led vigil for Israel. And in February the student union at the University of British Columbia briefly considered voting on a ballot measure that would have booted its own Hillel from campus. Last week, an undergraduate at the University of Delaware was arrested and charged with a hate crime for vandalizing Holocaust memorial signs put up by that school’s Hillel.

Drexel’s encampment sprouted up over the weekend and has prompted a quick condemnation from the school’s president, who ordered the campus shut down Monday before partially reopening Tuesday. He also specifically referenced the Hillel and Chabad demands as “unacceptably targeting… two Jewish campus organizations” in a campus-wide memo. 

And while UCSC’s encampment has been around for weeks, it’s gained renewed attention amid a strike by graduate student workers objecting to the UC system’s treatment of pro-Palestinian protesters. Both encampments have also been the sites of extremist language, including chalk at UCSC calling for “Death to Israelis” and “Glory to Abu Obeida,” the spokesperson for Hamas. A sign at Drexel read, “Resistance is Justified.”

Adam Lehman, Hillel International’s president and CEO, told JTA that targeting Hillel was “deeply antisemitic.” Lawmakers from both parties have also picked up the thread, with California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna calling the demand “wrong and discriminatory” and tweeting that the group “serves as a hub for Jewish students at colleges across America, celebrating culture & tradition.” 

California Republican Rep. Kevin Kiley, meanwhile, brought up the UCSC demand during a recent grilling of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. “Do you condemn those demands to cut ties with Hillel at universities?” he asked Cardona during a May 8 Congressional hearing. Cardona declined to offer a yes-or-no response after multiple follow-ups.

Becka Ross, executive director of Santa Cruz Hillel, also called the demand antisemitic but said she wasn’t worried about its being heeded. Ross told JTA the UCSC chancellor has assured her “that the university will not cut ties with Hillel.”

The director of Hillel at Drexel University, Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, told JTA in a statement that the demands “are antisemitic by any measure and fly in the face of our university’s values.” Like most Hillels, Drexel’s operates independent of the university while maintaining a close relationship to it; in 2013 the school was closely involved in developing plans for its new 13,000-square-foot building

The directors of Chabad Serving Drexel University, meanwhile, said they weren’t fazed by the call to “immediately terminate” them.

“We don’t take them seriously,” Moussia Goldstein, the Chabad center’s co-director, told JTA. “It’s so transparent how these things are antisemitic in nature.” Her husband, Rabbi Chaim Goldstein, called the demand “laughable” and “literally the joke of the town.” They are both encouraged by Drexel’s quick condemnation of the encampment, as well as by what they said is its relatively minimal presence in a corner of campus. 

Both Goldsteins are university chaplains and recently hosted Drexel’s dean of students for Shabbat dinner, though their Chabad house, like all others, operates independent of the school. In its demands, the Drexel encampment cited its opposition to Chabad hosting a former Israel Defense Forces soldier. The Goldsteins said the group had missed an additional bit of context: The speaker was a survivor of the Oct. 7 Nova music festival massacre.

But the Chabad directors said the encampment did get one thing right: It linked their operations directly to Israel.

“It’s becoming more and more clear, from their own words, how ‘Jews’ and ‘Israel’ are synonymous,” Moussia Goldstein said. “They’re correct, actually.”

Leave a Reply