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June 12, 2019 5:14 pm

Adelphi University Looks to Bring Hillel on Campus, Raising Concerns From Israel Boycotters

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Adelphi University. Photo: Screenshot / Adelphi University.

Adelphi University in New York is looking to open a formal chapter of the Jewish group Hillel in order to support and attract Jewish students, though critics who back Israel boycotts have expressed concern over the move, The College Fix reported.

Hillel, which maintains chapters on hundreds of university campuses nationwide, aims to provide a welcoming place for Jewish students to explore and connect with their religious and communal identities during their formative college years.

As a Zionist organization, Hillel also supports Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. While it commits to welcoming a diversity of perspectives on Israel, according to its guidelines it “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that deny the Jewish state’s right to exist or support the anti-Zionist boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which regards all Israeli territory as Palestinian.

While Hillel is listed among other faith-based clubs on Adelphi’s Student Services webpage, the group is not yet officially recognized by Hillel, The Fix reported.

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“The interest was expressed from the university to Hillel to see about the possibility of affiliation,” Jeff Kessler, dean of student affairs at Adelphi, told The Fix last month. “A number of our students have been interested in this actually over a number of years, and we have current students who are interested, particularly in the Jewish Student Union organization.”

Among these students is Lauren Klein, the secretary of Adelphi’s unofficial Hillel, who said a recognized chapter could bolster the diversity of Jewish life. “There is only one other Jewish group, Chabad, on campus and they are Orthodox, while Hillel is more Conservative,” she told The Fix.

Ben Feldman, a member of Chabad, likewise said he “would be excited” to have another Jewish organization on campus that could work together with Chabad. “Hillel can make a big difference” in creating a “unified Jewish community, instead of as separate isolated groups,” Feldman said.

Yet others questioned how the group’s presence would affect the campus conversation on Israel.

Margaret Gray, a political science professor at Adelphi and a support of BDS, said Hillel’s Israel guidelines “prevent students within Hillel from sponsoring certain events under the Hillel name.”

“This could include a debate about Israeli settlements if one of the speakers supported BDS — even if this were a perfectly reasonable academic debate,” she told The Fix in an email.

Gray said she regarded BDS “in the same spirit as the divestment campaign from South Africa during apartheid,” but added that she was “not questioning Hillel’s political positions, nor Hillel’s right to hold such positions.”

“I am concerned about a student organization that prevents dialogue, debate, and varied perspectives,” she told The Fix. “This is not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with Hillel’s stances; rather it is a matter of open dialogue and speech on campus.”

Robert Siegfried, a math and computer science professor at Adelphi, dismissed claims that Hillel was in any way “controversial,” calling it “a cultural, religious, and understandably a pro-Zionist organization.”

“In that regard, it looks to encourage students who are interested in doing so in celebrating Jewish holidays and the Jewish faith,” Siegfried told The Fix.

A poll of 54 student passers-by carried out by The Fix found that while nearly 56 percent did not have an opinion on Hillel’s arrival, 37 percent supported it and some 7 percent opposed it.

Kessler said concerns about Hillel were raised by “some faculty and administration, not students,” and said the university would open an online community forum to discuss the club’s potential opening this fall.

“We realized that … we need to involve those people who have an interest or have an opinion about it on the faculty, staff and students’ side,” Kessler told The Fix.

He indicated that the university, which is still in talks with Hillel, was not “trying to make a decision too rapidly that isn’t right for our community here,” but added that Hillel should not be held to a different standard than other groups.

“Hillel International is clearly a pro-Israel organization” and there is nothing wrong with that, Kessler said.

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