Hillel President Eric Fingerhut Assails ‘Organized, Global Effort to Delegitimize Israel’ on Campus (INTERVIEW)
2014 is likely to be remembered as an annus horribilis for pro-Israel activists on university campuses across the United States.
According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, there were more than 75 anti-Israel events held on campuses during the fall alone. Altogether, the ADL said, campus protests against Israel surged by 114 percent compared with 2013. Much of the vitriol was directed at Israel’s war on Hamas terrorists in Gaza over the summer, with the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that targets Israel alone actively being promoted to students as the best vehicle to express their loathing of the Jewish state.
“This academic year we have seen an alarming uptick in anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitic behavior on campuses across the country, primarily fueled by student and faculty BDS activists,” Tammi Benjamin of the AMCHA Initiative, an advocacy group combating anti-Semitism on campus, told The Algemeiner. “What’s different now are the activists’ open calls for the elimination of the Jewish state, and their attempts to delegitimize and bully into silence anyone who stands up for Israel. As a result, Jewish students who identify with the Jewish state are facing an unprecedented wave of harassment and hostility.”
At the center of this fray is Eric Fingerhut, the jovial and softly-spoken President and CEO of the student Hillel organization, which has a presence at more than 550 campuses around the country. In a December 22nd letter to supporters of the organization, Fingerhut noted that “we faced the most organized campaign to demonize Israel and attack pro-Israel students we have ever seen,” before detailing Hillel’s response. That effort involved assembling information and talking points for student activists, conducting training sessions for campus professionals, and partnering with an array of pro-Israel organizations, such as the Israel on Campus Coalition and AIPAC, to counter the demonizing narrative about Israel being pushed by the BDS camp.
“There is an organized, funded global effort to delegitimize Israel, and one of its main focuses is the college campus,” Fingerhut told The Algemeiner this week. “They’ve gone to colleges because they’ve found a sympathetic ear from too many faculty members as well as political activists – I always say that you get ten bucks for every dollar you spend on campus when you attack Israel.”
The scale of the challenge has not left Fingerhut jaded, however. “It would be a mistake to judge 2014 in isolation,” Fingerhut said. “We have relationships with faculty and student leaders, and we are in a position to lead the fight.”
Part of the problem, according to Fingerhut, is that many Jewish students face a dilemma: they want to be involved in “progressive” causes, yet they are also reluctant to fall in with the crowd by abandoning their support for Israel. “Not every progressive movement is anti-Israel, but this is a trend that has been observed on various campuses. The idea that a Jewish student wanting to be involved in a progressive movement will be ostracized for pro-Israel views is something that we cannot allow to happen.”
Asked about which campuses are the most hostile to Jewish students, Fingerhut didn’t want to “name names,” but he did point to “smaller liberal arts colleges” as a distinct problem. “The disciplines most heavily represented there tend to be most receptive to the anti-Israel message,” he said. Even then, though, generalizations are hard to make; liberal arts institutions in New England are more amenable to BDS propaganda than are their equivalents in the south, Fingerhut observed.
The campus obsession with Israel involves, said Fingerhut, “an unhealthy dose of anti-Semitism.” A related factor is that the most urgent human rights causes in the world today – for example, the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East, or the entrapment of migrant workers in Arab Gulf countries into master-slave relationships with their employers – often do not have a “well-funded external force” to shape and guide them, as the Palestinian solidarity campaign does.
As 2015 beckons, Fingerhut does see some cause for optimism. Having spent much of 2014 mired in the controversy over the “Open Hillel” movement – formed by radical Jewish activists who disdain Hillel’s official policy of not hosting BDS activists and other anti-Semitic groups in debates about Israel – Fingerhut was heartened by a recent op-ed written by Holly Bicerano, a former Open Hillel activist, in which she decried the group’s founders as liars.
“Many Open Hillel leaders have no problem with advocating exclusion and alienation within Open Hillel, even as they preach the virtue of inclusiveness to the Jewish community,” Bicerano wrote. “While demanding that the pro-Israel community tolerate pro-BDS groups that they find offensive, many Open Hillel leaders are intolerant of pro-Israel voices that they dislike.”
“I am pleased to see the real agenda of those organizing Open Hillel being exposed,” said Fingerhut. “I feel badly for the other students who didn’t share their agenda, but merely supported open dialogue, being misled by the Open Hillel leadership.”
There are no guarantees that 2015 will be an improvement on this year, and there is every reason to fear that the situation will get worse. Nonetheless, Fingerhut recognizes both the nature of the campus war over Israel, and the crying need to equip students with the knowledge and the confidence to strike back. As Fingerhut argues, anti-Israel sentiment on campus is hardly new. Now, however, it directly impacts the welfare of Jewish students, many of whom have faced harassment and even violence from groups like “Students for Justice in Palestine.” Curbing those excesses, and compelling university authorities to take action against anti-Semitic agitation, is certain to be the most formidable test that Hillel faces going forward.