Eric Fingerhut packs a lot into one speaking engagement.
On January 8, Fingerhut, the head of Hillel International and a former U.S. Congressman, told an audience at a Long Island synagogue that Jewish Voice for Peace is “frustrating,” the Open Hillel movement has no legs, Christians United for Israel is an “amazing” organization and progressive causes are becoming “infected” with anti-Israel sentiment. And those remarks were made in the 30 minute question and answer session. His prepared remarks, peppered with Hebrew phrases and delivered in a blue suit and tie, covered more ground.
Fingerhut spoke to an audience of over 100 people at Temple Sinai in Roslyn, Long Island, a well-off suburban area in New York with a high Jewish population. Billed as an opportunity to learn how Hillel was combatting anti-Semitic, anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses, Fingerhut told the audience that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has become popular in some academic circles, but that Hillel and other groups are fighting back hard. His audience included concerned parents of Jewish college students, pro-Israel activists and a smattering of young people.
Fingerhut took over Hillel, the big-pocketed, leading Jewish campus organization, in the summer of 2013. His tenure has been marked by a continuing controversy over free speech, the movement to “open” up Hillel and a growing BDS movement.
In 2012, a small group of Harvard Jewish students started Open Hillel to try and change Hillel’s guidelines on who can and cannot speak under the group’s roof. The guidelines bar those who advocate for BDS and those who are not in favor of a “Jewish and democratic” state. The movement made a splash when, four months into Fingerhut’s tenure, Swarthmore College’s Hillel declared itself “open” to any viewpoint—Zionist, anti-Zionist, pro-BDS, anti-BDS and everything in between.
But Fingerhut has taken pains to dismiss Open Hillel as small and unrepresentative, and he took that rhetorical path during his speech at Temple Sinai. He did not mention Open Hillel in his prepared remarks, and only addressed the movement when a questioner affiliated with the Zionist Organization of America asked him about it.
He said the Swarthmore students who declared an “Open Hillel” were “instigated by Jewish Voices for Peace” (JVP)–which he characterized as an “anti-Zionist” group. (It’s unclear where Fingerhut got that from. JVP is not an explicitly anti-Zionist organization. None of the press reports at the time said JVP was involved. And Swarthmore’s Joshua Wolfsun, who helped organize the Open Hillel effort, told me “JVP was not linked to Swarthmore Hillel’s process of opening in any way.”)
“If you had asked me this question six months ago, I might have told you that I didn’t know whether this movement would have legs or not. I think I can now tell you with very strong assurance that it does not, and that Hillel has been able to assert its policies on Israel forcefully,” said Fingerhut.
He also said that anti-Zionists like JVP were always the most “frustrating” political opponents to deal with, since they’re Jewish.
The man clearly has his finger on the Israel pulse, paying close attention to developments on college campuses. He sounded a confident note on the Jewish establishment’s ability to combat BDS and Palestine solidarity activism, which he said has created a “political firestorm.”
“The good news is that the bad news has been a wake-up call. If I told you we were ready for this last year, I’d be lying to you. We weren’t,” he said. Earlier in his remarks, he asserted that the majority of college campuses are not hotbeds of pro-Palestinian sentiment and that Hillel and pro-Israel activism is growing.
Fingerhut also went into details about how, exactly, Hillel counters Palestine solidarity activism. He referenced last year’s “blood bucket” incident in his home state, when the president of the student senate at Ohio University dumped blood on her head to raise awareness about Palestinian deaths in Gaza. The incident caused an uproar on campus. Fingerhut was on the case. He told the audience that he talked to the university’s president about a professor who backed the student and was said to have filmed the “blood bucket” challenge, telling the president he should speak out about the professor. “What I asked you to say is that you’re the president of an educational institution, and this isn’t the way we want our educators to behave,” he said, talking about his conversation with the president.
During the Q and A, a young, Jewish Vassar student talked about how she was upset that members of the environmental club on campus, which she is president of, backed boycotting Israeli products. In response, Fingerhut said Vassar is an example of a campus where pro-Palestinian sentiment is rife. (Vassar’s Students for Justice in Palestine sparked a furor last year when, in response to a trip to Israel and Palestine by professors there, they picketed a class because, they said, the trip would break the BDS call.)
“The good news is that the Vassar administration knows. They understand that there is an issue that has to be dealt with. And without, because we’re completely on the record tonight, so without saying everything that are part of the conversation, there are steps being taken to build the kind of support for, first of all for Jewish life, and also appropriate balance on the academic front that is desperately needed at Vassar,” said Fingerhut.
The Hillel head then used the Vassar example to talk about what he sees as a large problem: how progressive causes of all types are being linked with Palestine solidarity activism.
“Your movement is deeply embedded in the cause of social justice and human rights in this country,” said Fingerhut, referencing Reform Judaism’s progressive politics. “And yet, unfortunately, on many college campuses, those progressive causes have become identified, it has become assumed that one of the tenets is to take an anti-Israel position…This is a problem that is across the progressive movement…We have a lot of work to do on this one.”