Hillel president shuns J Street conference due to attendance of Saeb Erekat

“My desire to attend the conference was based on my wish to speak at a student-only session directly with the students."

By JTA
March 10, 2015 11:50
4 minute read.
Saeb Erekat

Saeb Erekat. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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Eric Fingerhut, the president of Hillel International, is withdrawing from speaking at J Street’s annual conference because of the presence of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

“My desire to attend the conference was based on my wish to speak at a student-only session directly with the students who will be in attendance, to thank those who have joined in the fight against BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] and anti-Semitism on college campuses, and to urge everyone to take up this crucial cause,” Fingerhut said on Monday.

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J Street U, the group’s campus affiliate, has been active in opposing BDS, and the national group has a policy of opposing the practice.

“However, after reviewing the full list of speakers, I now realize that any benefit that might come from this opportunity would be overshadowed by concerns regarding my participation among other speakers who have made highly inflammatory statements against the Jewish state.”

Asked by JTA what speaker at the March 21 to March 24 conference triggered the pullout, Hillel’s chief administrative officer David Eden named Erekat, noting his inflammatory statements in the past.

In recent months, Erekat has compared Israel Islamic State, the terrorist group battling a US-led alliance. Eden also noted that the State Department has condemned such statements.

“There is no difference between the terrorism practiced by the group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Israel’s terrorism,” Erekat was quoted as saying by Palestinian news website Ma’an in January.



While the State Department has rebuked Erekat for some of his statements, it still deals with him as the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Israeli negotiators for years have accepted him as an interlocutor, even while complaining that he periodically makes outlandish claims about Israeli actions.

Eden said Erekat’s presence at the J Street conference nonetheless did not meet Hillel’s standards.

“Eric is the head of Hillel International,” he said. “We hold our organization to a rigorous standard for the types of events he will participate in.

That’s something the entire Hillel community expects, not just our students, but our board.”

Eden said Fingerhut, when he gave J Street permission to list him as a speaker on March 6, was not aware that Erekat was speaking. A J Street official said Erekat was first listed as a speaker on March 3. The official did not have comment on Fingerhut’s withdrawal.

J Street anticipates 3,000 activists to attend its conference, among them 1,000 students.

J Street U said that its board was “deeply frustrated” by Fingerhut’s decision to cancel his appearance, asserting that he knew who would appear when he initially agreed to participate.

The group explained that engagement with the types of speakers at the conference, not all of whose views are endorsed by J Street, is required in order to reach a two-state solution.

Such a commitment to dialogue has brought figures such as Vice President Joe Biden, former prime minister Ehud Olmert and “leaders of every leading Israeli and American political party to our conference,” J Street U stated. “Mr. Fingerhut has demonstrated that he does not share these ideals.”

Fingerhut, J Street U asserted, had bowed to the demands of “donors and activists on the far Right” with his absence, which is both “a loss for [him] and a shame for Hillel International.”

The Zionist Organization of America, a frequent critic of J Street, praised Fingerhut for his decision, calling it “reasonable and even praiseworthy.”

“Honest open discourse can be productive, but lending cachet to a serial liar-inciter like Erekat, by attending the forum to which he was invited, would be counterproductive,” Jeff Daube, the ZOA’s Israel office director, told The Jerusalem Post.

J Street, he asserted, has “no business” providing Erekat, who in addition to comparing Israel to Islamic State, “fabricate[ d] an Israeli massacre of 500 in Jenin [in 2002] when none took place,” with a platform, Daub asserted.

“If J Street is truly interested in promoting understanding, let it promote someone who understands the meaning of truth,” he said.

During a meeting of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee last fall, Fingerhut debated nationalist activists and MKs over who should be welcomed in the organization’s “big tent.”

Fingerhut, who took over as chief of Hillel in 2013, took issue with accusations that he had allowed cooperation with groups that worked to “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel,” stating that he enforced Hillel’s guidelines rigorously.

Aviva Slomich, the director of the campus department of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), who was also present at the meeting, decried Hillel’s willingness to work with J Street U, asserting that its chapters “describe themselves as Pro-Israeli, yet host anti-Israel speakers and hold events that inaccurately describe the situation in Israel.”

J Street U “plays a critical role in efforts to oppose BDS resolutions on campuses across the country,” a spokeswoman said at the time.

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