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Hillel And Its Donors Repress Real Conversation About Israel
Sat, 12/14/2013 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Jacob Plitman
Jacob Plitman

J Street U student leaders across the country have all had “the conversation.” It’s the moment when your Hillel director calls you into her office and tells you like it is: “If I support the work you’re doing around Israel, we could lose a major funder. It’s either you or $50,000 that will benefit all your peers.”

At Hillels around the United States, some donors constrict the bounds of legitimate discourse on Israel and do a disservice to all of us who work to build the next generation of Jewish life. Hillel staff, caught between serving their students and keeping the lights on and the doors open, are vulnerable to some donors who seek to impose their political ideology over the interests and needs of students. There’s a lot at stake here. Not just for J Street U, but for all of us.

Hillel is dedicated to being a place where “students are challenged to explore, experience, and create vibrant Jewish lives.” But that mission requires a genuine conversation that deals with the most pressing issues for Israel and the Jewish community. This is not just important to progressive Jews, but essential to the very intellectual health of our community as a whole and its relationship with Israel. If we cannot create the space for rigorous discussion and engagement on campus, we will graduate a new generation unable to deal with the complexities and challenges facing American Jewish life. When money challenges these commitments, the Hillel mission suffers.

One striking example of these recent dynamics is the controversy at Swarthmore College. This week, Swarthmore Hillel’s student board adopted a resolution declaring it an “Open Hillel” rejecting Hillel’s Israel Guidelines. In response, the new president of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, wrote a sharply worded letter making it clear that no Hillel can collaborate with those groups that do not comply. Since their inception in 2010, the Hillel guidelines were always framed as guidance. In his response to the Swarthmore students, which was posted publicly on the Hillel website, Fingerhut made it clear that they are now regulations to be enforced under the threat of expulsion from Hillel International.

So why did this happen at Swarthmore and why did the president of Hillel International see it appropriate to warn of expulsion from the Hillel community? Unlike most Hillels, Swarthmore Hillel has no full time on-site staff and, more importantly, it is funded independently through a university endowment. In other words, there are few to no private donors restricting the political priorities of Jewish students on campus.

But Swarthmore is the exception. On many other campuses, Hillel donors dictate the terms of Israel engagement in ways that often exclude progressive students. For many students like myself, being pro-Israel requires embracing a serious and intellectually rigorous conversation about the most important issues affecting the Middle East and our community. It requires working as Americans -- for the sake of our family, friends, and partners in the region -- to help end the occupation and bring about a two-state solution. But as some conservative donors demand a tighter conversation and enforce their political values, we risk losing that generation of young progressive Jews who won’t settle for tired hasbara and an Israel right-or-wrong approach. 

A recent Pew survey of American Jews found that 70 percent of my peers under age 30 believe in the prospects of a two-state solution, while 50 percent believe that settlements undermine Israel’s security. Those numbers are significantly higher than our older counterparts. Simply put, young Jews want an end to the occupation through two-states, a commitment not as widely shared by some older donors.

As an organization, J Street U talks to everyone, even those with whom we deeply disagree. And in all those conversations, we make it very clear who we are: a pro-Israel organization dedicated to Israel’s security, two-states and a future state of Palestine. We talk to all but we act with those who share our values.

I am proud that the vast majority of our 50 J Street U groups across the country are affiliated with their campus Hillels. Still, our Hillel related events are often held to a different standard than those sponsored by more conservative groups. We are required to provide a “counter balance” or “context” when we invite the former Israeli soldiers of Breaking the Silence or when we screen movies like the Gatekeepers featuring Israeli security experts. We often hear from Hillel staff that these measures are in reaction to donors. And yet, speakers who call for prolonged occupation or demean Israel’s democratic character are rarely challenged or required to provide “context” or be “balanced.”

If we are invested in a Jewish future that includes young progressive Jews, then we have to be willing to ask our Hillels and their donors to allow space for all the students they claim to serve. It is well past time for our communal donors to stop imposing their political goals on young people, and let us develop our own. To be sure, there are countless donors to Hillel and our communal institutions who do not seek to impose their political commitments on students. Instead, they are invested in the mission to create the next generation of Jewish life with those who will be our future leaders. These generous donors are a model for giving in the Jewish community that empowers students and other young people to build the broad-based pro-Israel community that is necessary for Israel’s future and a two-state solution. Because, at the end of the day, our future -- and the future of the pro-Israel community -- very much depend on it.

Jacob Plitman is the President of the J Street U National Student Board, and a senior at UNC Chapel Hill studying Peace, War and Defense. He tweets at @jacobplitman.

Eric Fingerhut, Hillel, J Street U, Swarthmore College

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If 70% believed in Santa Claus, or in Jesus, what does that mean? It means you are ignorant, you are students and must learn. Arabs have been killing Jews in Israel for over 100 years. The problem with the two State solution is not Israel it is the Arabs. They want ONE STATE, a Judenrein Palestine, and tell me the last time that a Hillel sponsored a lecturer who said that? So sponsor debates, not one sided presentations of those who would kill me and my family. Yes, it is personal. Death is personal.
You live very comfortably in America, I live in Tzfat. Arabs live, work and go to college in Tzfat, name one Arab city where Jews can live as citizens. When the Arabs want peace there will be peace. If you want to hear a proArab presentation, go to an Arab group for that. See if they will sponsor a pro Israel speaker, alone or in debate.

Dear Jacob;First join the IDF for a hitch,come back, earn a living in the real world ,and only then right a new piece.

Typical Jewish establishment response ... not worthwhile my spending any more time on replying.
Oh, and another thing: The word is spelled "write".

You mean some Jews use their money in a way of blycotting or better, encouraging certain policies?
And not against Jewish communities in Judea & Samaria?
No wonder some Jewish youngsters need a college education.


This is a well-written and much needed piece. International Hillel's narrowness and line-in-the-sandism is severely damaging to the Jewish community, writ large, and to spirit of openness, progress and peace that should characterize our communal discourse. Thank you for speaking out. In solidarity with Swarthmore Hillel, with J Street U, with JVP, with progressive Jews, with non-progressive Jews who are willing to be open-minded, and with non-Jews who care about the future of Palestinians and Israelis alike,

Tel Aviv
Former Hillel President, Middlebury College
Former J Street U President

Thanks you Jacob,, for your passion for justice. The heart of the matter is that Hillel is committed to blindly support a government in Israel that is bringing that nation over a cliff. Yesterday a Knesset committee approved legislation making it mandatory that a only a "two thirds" majority of that body can approve any division of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Post reports Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On saying “the vote reveals the true face of the Netanyahu government, which is committed to an ideology of the complete Land of Israel and wants to sabotage any future peace treaty.” It will take your generation to demand that Israel remains a majority Jewish democracy, and stops their insane march towards apartheid.

With friends like this, who needs enemies? There seems to be a total lack of understanding that every time Israel has made any overtures to the Palestinians to offer them "land for peace", they have been rejected. They have given back the Sinai, given back wonderful farms and equipment in Gaza (all of which were distroyed by Hamas), and offered them most of the west bank. Israel didn't offer back the Old City of Jerusalem, and why should they? We were not even allowed, under Muslim rule, to pray at the Western Wall. We have certainly allowed Muslims to pray at the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque. There is no reason to think they would offer us this same courtesy if Eastern Jerusalem went back under their control.

I realize that things might be different here if we did the same. Fight a war, win it, win the land and then give it back? Should we return California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, etc. to Mexico? The United States didn't even have an historical attachment to these lands. At least the Jews have that connection, and the land was mostly abandoned by the "Palestinians" until the Jews started to return to Israel in the late 1800s.

I feel so sorry for these spoiled little brats who, luckily for them, have not experienced the hatred of Jews and the need to protect their Jewish brethren in the homeland of the Jews. Why, even here in the US, my family wasn't allowed to live in certain communities or join certain golf clubs because we were Jewish. This isn't from 100 years ago. This was 50 years ago in Westchester County, NY! Grow up! You are dreaming of an ideal world, but people just don't allow that to happen. Certainly not in the Middle East.

I don't see how an anti-settlement position is being stifled if say, Jeff Halper, isn't funded to speak. Seems like a pretty weak argument if it's important for events to be held to just to look more Leftist, rather than effectively express anti-settlement policies in the context of supporting a 2-state solution.

What a very interesting article. Jacob claims that he is for "rigorous discussion and engagement on campus" then complains when controversial speakers are required to be presented along with a “counter balance” or “context”, that would provide rigourous discussion and engagement. Jacob, are you really looking for discourse and discussion, or are you trying to push a left-wing agenda?
The good news, Jacob, it that next year you will graduate. You can become a donor and support Hillel and have the same voice as anyone in determining the future of Hillel. Or, you can support Jewish Voice for Peace, or both, if you like.
As a donor and former participant of Hillel, for me, the current students at Hillel are not the most important stakeholder group. The most important are the high school seniors and their parents who are looking at colleges and wanting a supportive Jewish community. When you see a Hillel house, it means there is a Jewish place that will not support or promote racism, violence, or anti-semitism.
The purpose of Hillel is not to support or legitimize the views of all Jewish students.
There are anti-Zionist Jews.
There are Jews for Jesus.
There are racist Jews who want the forced expulsion of all Arabs from Israel.
There are Jews who support the views of the terrorist Boruch Goldstein.
Although all Jews are welcome to attend Hillel events, Hillel resources and facilities must not be used to promote or legitimize violent, racist, or antisemitic organizations.
Swarthmore Hillel is not claiming Hillel guidelines are interpreted in too restrictive a way, they reject the guidelines altogether. As far as I am concerned, by rejecting Hillel's guidelines they have resigned from the Hillel umbrella. They should become the Swarthmore Jewish Student Union, and not deceive prospective students that there is actually a Hillel house at Swarthmore.

AMEN! The key is Hillel guidelines require a balance, not antiIsrael propaganda. There are many other places for that. You want Noam Chomsky? Fine, let Alan Dershowitz debate him. Hillel should noy be converted into an anti Israel organization.

Jacob, as a J-Street U National Student Board member you are eloquent, and you know-doubt have the strong background to lead these nuanced conversations on campus. Unfortunately, many of your fellow leaders, on boards of J-Street U around the country don’t have that background. Some would bring in a representative of the Palestinian Authority, bring him on stage to preach about the dream of one binational state, of returning to their homes, without context or discussion, because they lack the knowledge to do so. A coalition of board members is often diverse, some Israel die-hards to want to push hard for two-states and ending the occupation, for some it’s the liberal issue-du-jour, and for others there may not be distinguishable in any form from SJP board members. J-Street U claims to stand for the two-state solution, and many do excellent work in that regard, but top to bottom, across the country, the many who fall far from that stance risk tainting the brand, and it’s unclear what’s being done for quality control.