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

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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.

Alex Kane
About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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17 Responses

  1. seafoid
    January 9, 2014, 12:34 pm

    This is so sad. Hillel may not make it but it’s their own fault. The Jewish prison.

    • January 9, 2014, 7:33 pm

      Kind of scary how matter of factly that guy speaks to Jewish students as if it is their mission to further the interests of Israel

  2. Fritz
    January 9, 2014, 1:11 pm

    3:40 is most interesting. Firestone about BDS: “They are really bad guys”. Who demonizes whom?

    • annie
      January 9, 2014, 1:27 pm

      i thought the best line was when he used an analogy comparing his ideological adversaries to ‘vampires’. we’ve covered this video before.

      • bilal a
        bilal a
        January 10, 2014, 2:03 am

        Nice closing discussion of vampires as bad guys, then adding : of course we are not talking about all Muslims.

        vampires are undead, have infected blood; Kind of fits in with the zombie theme of the pro Israeli Z sci fi thriller.

      • piotr
        January 10, 2014, 6:15 pm

        I truly wonder what Firestone had in mind. There is actually an entire genre or two of vampire novels, cartoons and movies in which vampires can be outright adorable. Although I did not observe it as much, you can even find a positive depiction of a zombie. And by the way, demons routinely are presented as nice characters and angels as questionable at best.

        So now demonizing opponents is more challenging than before, given that a demon is not ipso facto a negative character. Or a barbarian (stand with the civilized man! is it really such a good slogan?). Or a Chamberlain.

  3. Fritz
    January 9, 2014, 2:00 pm

    Thanks Annie, due to my lack in American English I didn’t catch that phrase which is on 4:40. Unbelievable. May be, he had seen Jarmusch’s new movie. Firestone presents nothing else than a sophisticated and intellectual hate speech.

    • seafoid
      January 10, 2014, 8:14 am

      He comes across as a Jewish version of the guys who took over the NRA and turned it into a far right crusade back in the 1960s.That may be ok for guns but is a massive tragedy for a decent religion.

  4. Kathleen
    January 9, 2014, 2:39 pm

    When has Hillel not been an arm of the Israel lobby on college campuses and in cities and towns? Really this is nothing new just more emphasis, more money headed Hillel’s way. When have Hillel houses not supported the apartheid government of Israel? This is nothing new just more obvious. more public statements.

    • Rusty Pipes
      Rusty Pipes
      January 9, 2014, 5:58 pm

      The Judis article in the New Republic is really worth a read. A few points that Judis makes clarifies why the AIPAC partnership at this time is a significant step. International Hillel, in 1967, may not have bound local chapters by its Zionist stand; even so, local Hillels have always had to balance the demands of its various funding organizations and individual donors — some of whom would cut off funding if Hillel sponsored programs they forbade. So, local Hillels have always had some Zionist programs in the mix of what they offered.

      In 2002, Hillel joined the Israel on Campus Coalition, which brought together over 30 Zionist organizations to coordinate pro-Israel strategy on American campuses, usually implemented through local Hillels. In 2004, Jewish students who wanted more open debate about Israel formed the Union of Progressive Judaism, which allied with JStreet after its founding in 2009, reformed as chapters of JStreet U.

      By allying with AIPAC, Hillel is indicating that, in the struggle between the Liberal Zionists of JStreet and the Hardline Zionists, AIPAC has won out in campus messaging:

      Fingerhut’s decision to ally with AIPAC on campus sent a clear message to J Street and other groups that have opposed AIPAC’s lock-step support for Israel’s stands on the occupation and negotiations with Iran. Fingerhut has put Hillel nationally and on campus on the side of AIPAC. That’s still another dramatic change in Hillel—not just away from its original apolitical stance, but even from its earlier less dogmatic support of Israel.

      Hillel is, of course, a private organization and can adopt whatever rules it wants. But how Hillel conducts itself has a great deal of influence on how American Jews debate their country’s policy toward Israel. Hillel’s virtue was being an organization for all Jews, Republican or Democrat, Zionist or anti-Zionist, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, or secular. Under Firestone and now Fingerhut, it is becoming a politically factionalized organization that reinforces growing divisions among American Jews over American policy toward Israel.

  5. Citizen
    January 9, 2014, 2:41 pm

    If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
    If I am only for myself, what am I?
    If not now, when?

    So who’s acting in the spirit of Rabbi Hillel?
    Not hard to see, eh?
    Have some coffee, talk amongst yourselves, bubby.

  6. Kathleen
    January 9, 2014, 2:46 pm

    Firestone simply promoting ethnocentric attitudes and apartheid. Hopefully these young students to not buy into these twisted values

    • seafoid
      January 10, 2014, 5:52 am

      When he says “that doesn’t help the interests of peace” , does he ever think how important it is to have a Palestininian state? And what it will mean now that “Isreal” has killed it?

      I feel sorry for the kids. When your identity is tied up with supporting the people who destroy olive groves you need a different set of values . There is no getting away from that hypocrisy.

  7. Sycamores
    January 9, 2014, 4:55 pm

    not one mention of the Palestinians under occupation by israeli Jews i did hear something about ‘evil jihadist vamps’ and remember you can’t kill these creatures of the night with holy water or the crucifix.

    hillel international has become an embarassment to anyone with a conscience.

  8. DICKERSON3870
    January 9, 2014, 5:05 pm

    RE: “The onset of the violent Second Intifada changed Hillel.” ~ Kane

    SPEAKING OF THE SECOND INTIFADA AND ITS ONSET OF VIOLENCE, SEE: “The Dogs of War: The Next Intifada”, By Uri Avnery, Counterpunch, 9/03/11

    [EXCERPT] . . . The second (“al-Aqsa”) intifada started after the breakdown of the 2000 Camp David conference and Ariel Sharon’s deliberately provocative “visit” to the Temple Mount. The Palestinians held non-violent mass demonstrations. The army responded with selective killings. A sharpshooter accompanied by an officer would take position in the path of the protest, and the officer would point out selected targets – protesters who looked like “ringleaders”. They were killed.
    This was highly effective. Soon the non-violent demonstrations ceased and were replaced by very violent (“terrorist”) actions. With those the army was back on familiar ground. . .


  9. annie
    January 9, 2014, 9:44 pm

    if someone makes a movie of this i think rick moranis should play wayne firestone, hillel president in the film above.

    am i right? after all, he’s the keymaster.

  10. seafoid
    January 10, 2014, 2:42 am

    All of the major jewish orgs are now settler insanity driven. I hope it works out for them. Betting the house on black is a sign of confidence and red never comes up for the Arabs.

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