Students call on Hillel for action
This article has been updated.
A group of students is calling on the Brandeis Hillel chapter to denounce its parent organization’s endorsement of Kenneth Marcus, President Donald Trump’s nominee for assistant secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education.
In a petition that began circulating among the Brandeis community on Friday, the students are urging Brandeis Hillel to speak out against Marcus’ nomination and Hillel International’s endorsement, citing Marcus’ outspoken views on Title IX, a statute that prevents sex- or gender-based discrimination at educational programs that receive federal funding. Hillel International, which is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, works to engage students in religious and cultural programming.
Marcus, who is pro-Israel, has long been a vocal opponent of the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which seeks to cut off international support for Israel. He is the founder and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.
“In our experience, [Marcus] has been a supporter of Hillel’s pluralistic, inclusive values and a leader in fighting discrimination in an analytical and impartial manner,” Hillel International said in a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Yet Marcus has also voiced his criticism of Obama-era Title IX guidelines that discourage colleges from allowing those accused of assault to directly cross-examine their accuser and from pushing sexual assault survivors to resolution through face-to-face mediation. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded these guidelines in September 2017, citing concerns that they interfered with the accused’s right to due process.
“We are outraged that Hillel International prioritizes opposing BDS over protecting survivors of sexual violence,” the petition reads.
In an interview with the Justice, Sivan Ben-Hayun ’19, Alona Weimer ’18 and Leah Susman ’18, three of the students leading the petition, explained that they were angered after reading about the endorsement last week. Though the three are all involved in Brandeis Hillel in various capacities, they do not sit on the student board. They and others met on Thursday to discuss how to proceed, and the petition began circulation on Friday.
“On the one hand, it’s pretty enraging to feel that an institution that has been really supportive — and we’re all part of Hillel, we’ve all found a place in Hillel — isn’t standing with survivors,” Ben-Hayun explained. “And on the other hand, … we really feel that this is something that Brandeis Hillel can and should do. We don’t feel that this is an ask beyond their capabilities.”
In an email sent to Hillel campus directors from Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut — a copy of which was provided to the Justice by Brandeis Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Seth Winberg — Fingerhut wrote that his letter to the Senate voicing his support for Marcus should not serve “as an indication of Hillel’s position on the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus.” Rather, the statement was in support of Marcus’ work “combatting anti-Semitism on college campuses.”
“Let me be clear — Hillel is a strong advocate for victims of sexual assault and harassment on campus, and we are working hard to combat this challenge both in the academic and Jewish communities,” he wrote.
“Hillel generally refrains from taking positions on political matters because we are the home for all Jewish students, no matter their political, religious or policy views,” Fingerhut wrote. “My support of Ken Marcus was not intended to change that approach in any way, nor will that approach change. … I regret that my effort to affirm Ken’s strong work in this area has become intertwined with this political debate.”
Fingerhut wrote that he would be meeting with the Executive Committee of the Hillel Board of Directors on Friday to consider ways to update and clarify the organization’s procedures and policies, which will include consulting with Hillel professionals and student leaders.
The students leading the petition are hoping that Brandeis Hillel will lead the charge in denouncing the endorsement, setting an example for other chapters. Weimer explained that they hope to see a “ripple effect” span out onto other campuses. She added that Hillel’s relationship with Marcus and the Department of Education is important, given that the organization is present on hundreds of Title IX-affected college campuses across the country.
The protest’s student leadership has not yet heard anything from the University’s chapter about the campaign, though they will deliver the petition to Brandeis Hillel later this week. However, the three students have not heard any negative feedback on the petition as of press time.
“Most of the students that I’ve talked to are pretty alarmed by this and are really just as angry as I am … because we all know that sexual violence is something that can — and does — affect so many students at Brandeis,” Susman said.
If the University’s Hillel chapter does not denounce the Marcus endorsement, students’ relationships with Brandeis Hillel could suffer, she explained.
“Brandeis students have already started to feel uncomfortable engaging with Hillel at Brandeis. I think it has already affected the relationship and sense of trust that students feel for Brandeis Hillel, and I really don’t think that students are going to be able to feel as comfortable as they once were going into Brandeis Hillel,” Susman said.
“It’s a real disappointment, because I would hate for this to affect the relationship between Jewish students at Brandeis and Hillel, but I don’t know if Hillel can continue to be the Jewish home that it wants to be for Brandeis students without taking a stance against the nomination of Marcus,” she added.
The students declined to give the exact number of petition signatories as of press time, as they said the number will be higher when the petition is presented to Brandeis Hillel. However, the petition includes the option for signees to self-identify as sexual assault survivors, and Weimer said that approximately one-fourth of the signees had identified as survivors as of press time.
The students also want to emphasize that the issue extends beyond the University’s Jewish community, Ben-Hayun explained.
“One thing that we felt was very important was to highlight that this is not just a Jewish issue, and that any student is welcome to join these efforts, because Title IX affects every single student on every single college campus,” she said. Weimer added that the signatories extend beyond the immediate Brandeis community; the petition has garnered signatures from alumni in addition to students.
Additionally, engagement with this issue can take on various shapes and forms, whether that be signing the petition, contacting Hillel directly, or choosing another avenue, Weimer said. The students want to make sure that the community “knows that there is something that they can do, that they have avenues of making their voices heard, both to Brandeis Hillel and to Hillel International, and that has many ways it can look,” she said.
A previous version of this article omitted a statement from Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, which was sent to Hillel campus directors and provided to the Justice by Brandeis Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Seth Winberg. This article has been updated to include quotes of Fingerhut’s statement.