The debate over how inclusive organized American Jewry should be of organizations diverging from the mainstream made its way to the Knesset on Monday, with Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut facing off against activist Natan Nestel over who should be welcomed in the organization’s “big tent.”
Nestel, the erstwhile chairman of Israeli Students Organization in North America, screened a film before the Knesset Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee containing allegations that Hillel, which has branches on more than 500 North American campuses, had allowed local chapters to co-sponsor events with organizations that run afoul of its national guidelines.
While Hillel does not allow chapters to work with “organizations, groups, or speakers that delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel,” Nestel asserted that the reality on the ground is quite different from the behavior advocated in the international Jewish organization’s rules.
Fingerhut, who took over as chief of Hillel in 2013, took issue with Nestel’s accusations, calling the examples presented in the film “old information” taken out of context. He also accused the activist of not coming to him directly to discuss his concerns.
“I enforce them rigorously,” he said of Hillel’s guidelines, adding that he had “received criticism mostly from those who believe our guidelines are too strict.”
Asked by MK Ayelet Shaked about appearances of the group Breaking the Silence on campus, Fingerhut replied that only one incident involving the group had occurred during his tenure, during which a student had asked to bring in a member of the group studying at an American university to speak at her local chapter. Hillel flew in a representative of the Jewish Agency who had served in the IDF to speak with the students both before and after the representative of Breaking the Silence, he said.
Such an approach shows students that “we are not afraid of their questions,” he said.
The Hillel head will “personally investigate every situation” in which Hillel’s guidelines are violated that comes to his attention, he promised.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Fingerhut mentioned the nascent Open Hillel movement, which seeks to abolish many of the organization’s partnership guidelines.
While Hillel is an open organization in many ways, he said, “every tent [must] have some pillars and the pillars hold up the tent and we have to know where those are.”
Given the high degree of distancing between young American Jews and their identity, Jewish organizations must act more assertively on campuses, MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) admonished Fingerhut, who agreed that “we do have to have a more aggressive approach.”
“Over the course of the last year we created a division of Israel engagement and education, called Hinenu,” whose head is tasked with “providing Hillel’s professionals with the “tools needed to respond aggressively.”
“I implore the Hillel leadership to be aggressive and pro-active in pro-Israel activity and events because a passive or ‘balanced’ approach in the campus environment means that Israel loses and we will lose students to the anti-Israel side,” Lipman told the Post.
“Americans like to provide balance, fairness. When it comes to Israel, we can’t be balanced and fair, because then we lose. The effort to delegitimize Israel is so strong that there has to be a massive proactive effort to simply keep students as supporters of Israel.”
Both Nestel and 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, the campus arm of the Israel-lobbying J Street group.
Slomich complained that "J Street describes 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. Our participation in these working coalitions that include campus Hillels and AIPAC affiliates, among others, has allowed those who fight such efforts to engage larger and more diverse audiences about why BDS is the wrong approach to advancing a two-state solution,” J Street spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum told the Post in an email after the meeting.
“J Street U is the fastest growing pro-Israel student movement on American campuses today – and for good reason. Our work broadens and invigorates the cause of pro-Israel advocacy on campus and beyond by giving young leaders a way to rigorously engage with Israel and the challenges to its prospects for peace and security, and to advocate for Israel in a way that is consonant with their Jewish and democratic values.”
Rosenblum also expressed support for bringing representatives of Breaking the Silence to campuses, calling its members “distinguished Israeli combat veterans” who “figure prominently into the political conversation in Israel about the effects of occupation.”
In response to such concerns, Lipman stated that he does not believe it was fair to ban J Street and that “Hillel just has to be proactive in debunking what they say when it is false and damaging to Israel, and be proactive in general even before J Street comes.”
“I did not see any evidence of a connection between Hillel and anti-Israel organizations,” he concluded. “I trust the leadership to deal competently with the individual cases of anti-Israel events which arise.”
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