How Hillel shifted from pluralist Jewish space to arm of Israel lobby

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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Hillel logo

Hillel logo

In mid-November, Eric Fingerhut, the head of Hillel, and Jonathan Kessler, an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) official, declared their intention to work “together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.”  The announcement, made in the pages of the Jewish Week, was a strong affirmation of Hillel’s intention to act as an arm of the Israel lobby on campus.

The column elicited backlash from Open Hillel, a group of Jewish student activists dismayed by Hillel’s forward march towards becoming an organization that only has one line on Israel: that the state’s conduct is right all the time, and that no criticism can be broached.  But while the partnership was new, it only confirmed what has become clearer over the past decade: that Hillel, the main address for Jewish students in college, has become a space with little room for Jewish students who dissent from the party line.

It wasn’t always this way.  As John Judis documented this week in a deeply reported piece for The New Republic, Hillel used to live up to its promise of being an organization that “welcomes students of all backgrounds.”  Judis traces the long history of Hillel, which was created in 1923 to provide a religious space for Jewish students and a refuge from the scourges of anti-Semitism.  Yet Hillel did not have one strict line on Israel.  As Judis reports, “in 1944, when agitation in the United States for a Jewish state in Palestine was heating up, Harvard’s Hillel chapter announced that it would be ‘neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist.’”  While Hillel joined the larger Jewish American community in strongly supporting Israel after the 1967 war, they left local chapters free to pursue their own politics.

Judis points out that the onset of the violent Second Intifada changed Hillel.  College campuses started to be spaces where pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups clashed.  And so Hillel, with generous donations from the Schusterman Foundation, which funded AIPAC and other Jewish groups, began to position itself as a pro-Israel campus group.  In 2002, Hillel published its “statement of principles on Israel,” a predecessor to its current guidelines, which Open Hillel has taken aim at. “Hillel is committed to Israel’s right to exist and flourish as a Jewish State within secure and recognized boundaries,” the principles stated.  “Hillel staff should assist all Jewish students in promoting an array of Israel activities and opinions, consistent with the above policy.”

In 2003, an expanded, albeit similar, version of the “statement of principles on Israel” were published.  “An integral part of [Hillel’s] activity relates to Israel, which today is often the target of attacks on college campuses,” it read.

The “statement of principles” was an explicit affirmation of Hillel’s transformation over the years into a space where students critical of Israel had little place. And this transformation had consequences.  In 2004, a controversy erupted when Hillel ousted a Jewish student from her position as president of the University of Richmond’s Hillel chapter.  Jillian Redford’s crime was sending an e-mail to the Israeli Embassy in Washington that complained about the “radical zionist propaganda” she was receiving from the embassy.

The shutting down of voices critical of Israel–be they Zionist, non-Zionist or anti-Zionist critics–in Hillel spaces has only accelerated since then.  In December 2012, a Binghamton University student was ousted from a Hillel-affiliated group because he hosted a talk with Iyad Burnat, who supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and is the brother of Emad Burnat, the creator of the documentary “5 Broken Cameras.” Harvard’s Hillel did not allow former Israeli Knesset speaker Avraham Burg to speak under its roof for an open event because the talk was co-sponsored by Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee (though it did host Burg for a closed dinner event).

Now, the dispute between the Open Hillel movement and Hillel International is growing as a result of Swarthmore Hillel’s December declaration that it would welcome a wide array of Jewish voices, including anti-Zionist ones.  But Fingerhut, Hillel’s President, is sticking to the party line: “ ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”

Thanks to Abraham Greenhouse for crucial help with this story.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University's Near East Studies and Journalism programs. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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