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September 7, 2014 10:53 am

Can Hillel and ‘Open Hillel’ Smooth Out Their Differences on Israel Guidelines? (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Alina Dain Sharon / JNS.org

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Eric Fingerhut, Hillel's president and CEO. Photo: Shahar Azran for Hillel.

JNS.orgWhen Harvard Hillel refused to host a planned 2012 event titled “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation,” organized by the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, frustrated students wrote an open letter to the Hillel community criticizing the decision.

That letter has since led to the founding of “Open Hillel,” a broader movement calling on Hillel International—the Jewish campus umbrella represented on more than 550 colleges and universities—to allow the expression of more diverse points of view, including those critical of Israel.

The notion that Hillel is not inclusive is one that Hillel International’s president and CEO, Eric Fingerhut, wants to dispel. On Sept. 9, Fingerhut will be meeting with Open Hillel student representatives in Boston.

“All Jewish students are welcome at Hillel, regardless of their point of view, regardless of whether they agree with Hillel’s point of view about Israel,” Fingerhut told JNS.org in an exclusive interview ahead of the meeting, which was initiated by Hillel International.

“We are a pro-Israel organization,” he said. “It is part of our mission to encourage students to build an enduring commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic homeland. That is what we are, [and] that leaves within it a broad range to debate Israel’s policies, and where Israel might be right or wrong on particular issues.”

Lex Rofes, a Brown University alum and a member of Open Hillel’s student committee who helped organize the meeting with Fingerhut, told JNS.org that at many campuses, students who sought “to create Jewish programming that was meaningful to them” have been told that they could not implement their plans, either because the programming itself included content or speakers overly critical of Israel, or because they wanted to co-sponsor the event with a group that supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Hillel’s official Israel guidelines state that it will not “partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel.”

In December 2013, the Hillel student board at Swarthmore College voted to reject Hillel’s Israel guidelines and align itself with the Open Hillel movement. In response, Fingerhut wrote a public letter in which he stated that Hillel “expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines. No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise.”

This past February, the Jewish Union at Vassar College in New York took a similar position, eliciting a statement by Fingerhut that, “We agree that Hillel should and will always provide students with an open and pluralistic forum where they can explore issues and opinions related to their Jewish identity. We thank the Vassar students for their commitment to this value and accept their invitation for further conversation.” But Fingerhut reiterated that Hillel would not “give a platform to groups or individuals to attack the Jewish people, Jewish values or the Jewish state’s right to exist.”

“Our expectation is that all Hillel affiliates will continue to uphold these standards for partners and co-sponsors,” he said.

In April, a group of current and former Jewish student leaders at Connecticut-based Wesleyan University announced that the Hillel-affiliated Wesleyan Jewish Community was also rejecting the umbrella group’s Israel guidelines.

Rofes believes Fingerhut’s responses to Open Hillel’s concerns, particularly to the incidents at Swarthmore and Vassar, have been a “mixture.”

“I thought that the initial blog post [Fingerhut] posted [on Swarthmore] wasn’t necessarily the kind of tone I would have loved, but I understand their disagreement with Swarthmore’s decision and that’s their right,” he said.

Fingerhut’s wording on Vassar was more to Rofes’s liking, and he added that “in other regards [Hillel has] responded positively to us.”

Hillel’s responses to the Swarthmore and Vassar decisions were the same, Fingerhut said.

“Hillel’s guidelines are what they are, and all Hillels are expected to work within those guidelines,” he told JNS.org.

Hillel International also sent representatives to both campuses to address the concerns.

“We try to work with students to accommodate as much as they want to do as possible within the guidelines,” Fingerhut said.

For the upcoming meeting, Open Hillel student representatives are not preparing to raise any specific concerns, but simply want to listen to Hillel International’s strategy on Israel for the coming year, including the potential establishment of a student cabinet, which Rofes sees as a sign of Hillel’s growing commitment to student empowerment.

“We got an email that Hillel is interested in meeting, [and] we of course were happy to go and do that,” Rofes said. “We’re just looking to sort of check in” and discuss ways to “find some common ground and work together,” he added.

Fingerhut’s goal for the meeting is to listen to the students and reassure them of how welcome they are at Hillel.

“There’s nothing involved in Hillel’s Israel guidelines that in any way excludes any student based on any opinion they might have,” Fingerhut said, differentiating between students’ ability to express a diversity of views on Israel within Hillel’s tent, but not to partner with anti-Israel organizations on a Hillel-sponsored activity.

Another voice speaking out on the issue is Safe Hillel, a campus movement created in response to Open Hillel with the goal—much like Hillel itself—to dispel misconceptions about Hillel’s lack of inclusiveness.

“Hillel is an open and welcoming organization with a mission statement, and they stand for their mission statement like any other organization should and does,” Daniel Mael, a junior at Brandeis University and one of Safe Hillel’s founders, told JNS.org.

Hillel is not stifling student opinions, but simply saying is that it “will not sponsor hate groups, and anti-Semitic and anti-Israel speakers,” said Mael.

Rofes, however, said Open Hillel just wants “a conversation where people can counter one another, and can grow from one another and understand each other’s perspectives.”

To that end, Open Hillel is holding a conference from Oct. 11-13 at Harvard University that will include a variety of speakers—among them well-known BDS activist Judith Butler.

“We would love Hillel International to send some folks to the conference, and we actually invited them a while back,” Rofes said.

According to Mael, Fingerhut’s willingness to meet with Open Hillel students and proactively hear their concerns is in line with Hillel’s overall philosophy and “disproves the entire thesis of Open Hillel as a farce.”

“Many of the Open Hillel people have a problem with the existence of the Jewish state of Israel, and they harbor intense hatred towards the Jewish state,” and therefore Hillel International “is doing what it can to maintain the pro-Israel integrity of its organization,” Mael said.

Ultimately, the issue of whether or not students feel welcome at Hillel is different than a notion of needing to agree on every issue, Fingerhut said.

“We’re never going to agree on everything,” he said. “That’s not possible when you represent all Jewish students on campus.”

For those who want to be involved with programs and groups that are not sanctioned by Hillel’s guidelines, “there are many [other] outlets on a campus” for that, Fingerhut added.

“Campuses are the most open places in society,” he said.

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  • As if there are not enough enemies of the Jewish people, our Jewish students have to join them. You will NEVER see the anti-Israel forces express anything positive about Israel or negative about the Arabs.

  • JOHN TRAIN

    I’m not Jewish so I don’t know if my voice should be counted in this discussion.

    However, these BDS people and the pro-Palestinian people say many things to me that convince me that they support the destruction of the state of Israel.

    I have met many well-meaning, idealistic, starry eyed Jews who want to save the world and live in peace. My message is for them: they want you dead. It doesn’t matter how much you support them and their views, they want you dead.

    Jews, that I have met, if they are liberal tend to be naïve. They believe in symmetry. They believe that good works will beget reciprocal good works. Any practitioner in the Middle East will tell you that this is a sign that is recognized as weakness… in the Middle East if you recognize weakness you move in for the kill.

    It is unconscionable for these liberal Jews to promote the suicide of Israel. Remember, put goal of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinian Authority ISIS and all those groups that support them is to kill all the Jews anywhere in the world. It is not territory. it is hate.

  • Markus E Brajtman

    It seems to me as though those Jewish students who are against Israel, and support BDS against Israel, either have no Jewish up bringing, whose parents have never educated them about being Jewish, about the necessity for our beloved Jewish state of Israel to exist without question.
    Do they belong to any synagogue? Obviously not.
    Are they being brainwashed by their Jew hating professors? That seems more like the problem.
    They will, hopefully never, learn why we as Jews must support Israeli fully and without question. If Jews have to run for their lives, as so many in France have learned and are doing.
    They will soon support Israel.
    Do they support Hamas, Hezballa, and the likes of Tutu?
    Or are they in a “growing up” stage and when they grow up, will support Israel.?
    Are they against Israel for defending itself against Islamic terrorism, like Israel had to do a short while ago, in Gaza?
    Thank HASHEM that there are millions of Jews who are real Jews, who support Israel.
    They know what Israel means to every Jew.
    G-D Bless Israel and the IDF

  • Robby

    Eric Fingerhut and Daniel Mael are 100% right. There should be no room in Hillel for programs that demonize and delegitimize Israel. The “Open” Hillel students at Vassar are particularly malicious as they are well-aware of the fact that their campus is a hotbed of anti-Semitism…anti-Semitism that they themselves encourage.

  • Bob

    Back in 1970, the Hillel leadership on my campus proposed to sponsor a draft-card burning to protest the war in Vietnam. The plan was that Hillel members would receive a piece of cardboard to throw into the flame while non-members would be invited to actually burn their draft card.

    When I protested this clearly deceptive idea, I was called a Nazi by the Hillel rabbi.

    Note that I didn’t speak up against doing this, just against doing it in a way that would get non-members in legal trouble.

    The leftist firnge that controlled Hillel in those days has now been replaced by a less left-wing generation. Open Hillel is simply that old far-Left wing trying to reclaim control of the organization.

  • steven L

    For a simple man like me, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance is a bunch of ANTISEMITES. They believe that being at Harvard or other schools of “higher education” confers intellectual respectability. But it is a very thin veneer. They deserve to be persecuted for the next 10 thousand years. They want to impose their self-destruction on other Jews who disagree with them.

  • Ben Gruder

    Open Hillel: Superego run amok. As if any Muslim association would host a pro-Zionist event. Reminds me of an old USSR-era joke:

    American to Russian Communist – “We’re free in American. Anyone can go up to the steps of the US Capitol and say ‘The President is a bum!’.

    The Russian Communist says – “Ah, In the USSR, we to can mount the steps of the Kremlin and shout ‘The American President is a bum!’

  • This reminds me of something Noam Chomsky said when commenting on the most recent Gaza Palestine conflict. He said, “100 percent of the casualties and the destruction and the devastation and so on could have been avoided if Israel had lived up to the ceasefire agreement […] from November 2012, instead of violating it […] and then escalating the violation […], in order to block the unity government and to persist in […] the policies of taking over what they want in the West Bank […] separating it from Gaza, and keeping Gaza on what they’ve called a “diet,” Dov Weissglas’s famous comment. The man who negotiated the so-called withdrawal in 2005 pointed out that the purpose of the withdrawal is to end the discussion of any political settlement and to block any possibility of a Palestinian state, and [..] the Gazans will be kept on a diet, meaning just enough calories allowed so they don’t all die—because that wouldn’t look good for Israel’s fading reputation—but nothing more than that. And with its vaunted technical capacity, […] Israeli experts calculated precisely how many calories would be needed to keep the Gazans on their diet, under siege, blocked from export, blocked from import. Fishermen can’t go out to fish. The naval vessels drive them back to shore. […] probably over a third and maybe more, of Gaza’s arable land is barred from entry to Palestinians. It’s called a “barrier.” That’s the norm. That’s the diet. They want to keep them on that, meanwhile separated from the West Bank, and continue the ongoing project of […] taking over the parts of the West Bank.”
    You’re not a self-hating Jew, racist or an anti-Semite by disagreeing with Israeli policy, just a person of morals, compassion and with a conscience.

  • Abbushuki

    Open Hillel is the product of Liberal Judaism where everything Jewish is up to the individual. That says there is something about the traditions out there that if you but discover it you may decide its wrong. By the way you’re on your own to discover Jewish tradition. Within the womb of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party opponents of Israel abound. Naturally youth discover alternative narratives they’ve been encouraged to encounter. Ignorent of Jewish knowledge or passion, the passion of young Arabs is assuring and believable compared with their milktoast Judaism.
    Besides, Jewish youth numbers are dropping fast. Demand a census from Hillel. Rarely does any Jew on campus have more than one Jewish sibling. Their families focussed on lifestyle first. Arabs have larger families with many re interpersonal contact and community attachment. It’s experienced as more ‘genuine’. Hillel, get used to the fact that liberal Judaism no longer produces another generation of Jews who support the Jewish People.

  • pinchas baram

    lex rofes, another treife yid from brown university spouting b.s. on behalf of open hillel. caveat to all: he and others like him will do their damnest to manipulate Fingerhut and/or to slam him in the media as a narrow-minded neanderthal, blah blah blah.

  • Linda Rivera

    END THE MUSLIM OCCUPATION OF THE JEWISH HOLY LAND

    No more dangerous no-go Muslim areas!
    END THE HOSTILE MUSLIM OCCUPATION OF BRITAIN AND EUROPE

  • Dr. L

    Just because the Hillel organization welcomes Jewish students with a wide range of viewpoints, that doesn’t mean that individual Hillel houses need to be required to sponsor events that represent each and every viewpoint held by a Jewish student member.

    The young people who are on campus are there to learn–that is why we call them students. And the staff of Hillel houses all over America are held responsible (by those who fund them) for providing education and guidance to many Jewish students. Hillel directors and their staffs who are hired under the auspices of the general Hillel guidelines should be respected as professionals who know more about this (and many other) topic than their student charges.

    Hillel’s policies exist for a reason: Just as a Math club would not sponsor an event held by an organization that claimed that 2+2=5, it is absurd to expect any Hillel to sponsor an event that is anti-Israel.

  • zvi

    Fingerhut, hold on to your guns. No partnership with Israel hating organizations!!

  • Hillel sudents know next to nothing about Israel. Soon we will have many more anti semitic campus with Hillel helping it along.

  • Stuart Katz

    Thank you Hillel for having the Batzem to stand up to “progressive” groups who are both anti-Israel, and anti-Jewish.

    I will send a check in the morning, I support those organizations that support Israel, that is my litmus test.

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