Hillel Leaders Seek To Open Discourse as Policy Bars Speaker

A perennial issue faced by Harvard Hillel reemerged in anticipation of the November 11 visit of Avraham Burg, a prominent Israeli author, politician, and activist. Burg, whose trip was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee and a number of Hillel-affiliated organizations, was restricted from speaking at Hillel due to policies of Hillel International that prohibit college affiliates from partnering with organizations that hold views on Israel that it deems to be in conflict with its mission.

Now, in response to these issues, the Harvard Hillel Steering Committee plans to unveil new event co-sponsorship policies.

In the past, Hillel-affiliated organizations have encountered obstacles when attempting to co-sponsor events with the Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee, as its platform advocates for the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israela campaign commonly known as BDS. Hillel International, the umbrella organization for Jewish life on college campuses, restricts affiliated college Hillels from hosting any organization promoting BDS.

For this month’s event, Harvard Hillel groups scheduled the co-sponsored talk to take place in the Quincy House Junior Common Room instead of at Hillel in deference to Hillel International’s policies, according to Harvard Hillel Undergraduate President David F. Sackstein ’14.

“[It] was agreed upon in advance that this wouldn't occur at Hillel, in compliance with these organizations' interpretation of Harvard Hillel's policy,” he said.

The national policy is designed to affirm Hillel International’s support for “perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” according to the organization’s website. Despite the umbrella organization’s rule, members of Hillel-affiliated groups said they have been able to collaborate constructively on these sensitive issues with the PSC.

At Harvard, the Hillel International policy has come under significant criticism in recent years, as many students perceive the policy as a hindrance to constructive discourse on campus, said Sara Kantor ’14, former Hillel president and current Harvard Students for Israel co-president. Kantor is also a Crimson arts columnist.

Echoing this sentiment, Sandra Y.L. Korn ’14, who serves as a board member on three Hillel-affiliated groups, said she believes this policy runs contrary to the goals of all groups involved.

“I think the idea that pro-Palestinian voices are not allowed to speak at the Hillel is a naked attack on free speech,” said Korn, who is also a Crimson editorial columnist.“[The policies] don’t reflect what most students at Harvard believe.”

In efforts to address these concerns, the Hillel Steering Committee created the Co-sponsorship Advisory Committee last year, which was tasked with developing a new policy that “promotes free speech to the best of [its] ability,” Sackstein said.

These new guidelines, while attempting to promote more free speech and streamline event co-sponsorship in the future, will still comply with Hillel International’s guidelines, Sackstein said.

“We can't as an organization appear to support BDS, but we're open to dialogue, we're open to free speech,” Sackstein said. “We honestly feel that if we can't have these important conversations here at Harvard, we can't have them anywhere.”

Although new policies have been in the works for the course of the past year, this is the first time Harvard Hillel leadership has spoken publicly about their plans due to the sensitivity of the policy.

Despite many varying views on the issue, Sackstein said he believes that the new policy will be beneficial for all parties involved.

“We think it's something that both sides—people who are more traditionally supportive of Israel and people who are really hoping to have somewhat more open conversationscould get on board with,” he said. “We’ve been slowly trying to move towards something that embodies the real needs and desires of the entire community.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Nov. 27, 2013

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sara Kantor ’14 is a Crimson editorial columnist. In fact, she is a Crimson arts columnist.

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