March 5 2014 12:00 AM

As controversy entangles Hillel chapters, discussions of Israel- Palestine issues at MSU must happen elsewhere

The opportunity for students to assemble and speak freely among their faculty and peers is a time-honored tradition in university settings.

However, several Jewish student groups across the country say this right is being repressed, calling into question the openness and acceptance of Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the country.

The controversy began at Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania where the campus Hillel chapter rebelled against national leadership over the issue of allowing speakers to advocate on behalf of Palestinians. This caused Swarthmore’s Hillel to distance itself from leadership; the group proclaimed itself to be the nation’s first “Open Hillel.”

“All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post- Zionist, or non-Zionist,” the group declared.

The president of the national Hillel organization issued a statement in response, saying that allowing anti-Zionist speakers violates the group’s underlying principles.

Officially, Hillel refuses to support events that propagate an anti-Israel message, including any denial of Israel’s right to exist, or any efforts to delegitimize or undermine the Middle Eastern country. With more than 1,200 signatures in support of Swarthmore and growing support at universities nationwide, the debate is far from resolved.

Will these opposing sides find themselves under the same roof in East Lansing?

Cindy Hughey, executive director of MSU Hillel, said that while the group is an open, accepting humanistic organization, it would not endorse any event with speakers who questioned the right of Israel to exist.

“Any actual request to use Hillel resources would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” Hughey said. “However, as the leading Jewish student campus organization, it would be contrary to our basic mission to allow the use of Hillel resources to support anti-Zionist speakers.”

Instead of prompting protest, Hughey said MSU Hillel works to build community and inspire social action among the more than 3,500 Jewish students on East Lansing’s campus.

Outside of Hillel, numerous residential college groups on campus have taken up the debate, including James Madison College and the Residential College of Arts and Humanities. It is within these colleges where Nisreen Eadah, an international relations student, was able to inform others on the plight of Palestinians.

“Having been to the area twice and witnessing and experiencing this lack of freedom and harassment makes a person wonder how these policies can exist in a world today where treating inhumanity is a priority for the most influential countries within the international arena,” Eadah said, recalling her trips to Palestine.

She added that once students begin to learn more about the lives of Palestinians, they can’t help getting immersed in the stories and struggles of those living in Gaza or the West Bank. During her time as an MSU student, Eadah noted the lack of activity among Palestinian students, a widely apparent gulf when contrasted with the activity of other ethnic groups on campus.

While she understands Hillel’s motivations, she said ignoring the issue isn’t going to bring about any solutions.

“MSU Hillel should not foster an environment that ignores the natives and how they are treated by Israeli government and forces, who were displaced in order for Israel to exist. Doing so perpetuates blind biases in the ‘peace process’ and promotes an ignorant way of thinking in order to feel comfortable with celebrations of Israel,” she concluded.

So where can individuals looking to hear from all sides of the story meet?

Aside from classroom conversations and restricted topics among religious organizations, Dakota Riehl, a student involved with the Campus Interfaith Council, said her group offers an open forum for discussion on topics deemed too controversial for other groups to address openly.

“These discussions create a safe space for questioning and prompt attendants to seek similarities rather than maintain differences,” Riehl said. “Though a solution may be far at hand, discussions such as these remind people of the human element of violence.”