Another marker of change in the Mainstream media: Foreign Policy has run an article decrying the strongarm tactics of the Israel lobby and the orthodoxy of the campus organization Hillel International in support of Israel. An anonymous Jewish official tells the publication he’s afraid of being fired if he says the wrong things about Israel.
The article, by Batya Ungar-Sargon, is titled, “How the Israel Lobby captured Hillel: Hillel International used to be a welcoming campus organization for Jews of all persuasions. Not anymore.” Its argument is that rich donors have transformed Hillel into a strenuously pro-Israel organization that is dedicated to fighting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). The young Jews of the Open Hillel movement (who we’ve tracked) are the heroes of the article.
Here is some of the donor critique reported by Ungar-Sargon. Donors have made being pro-Israel the “new circumcision,” says the man who is afraid of being fired; it is the marker for what it is to be Jewish.
“When an organization becomes larger, they become increasingly dependent on large donations from a small group of donors,” explained a former local Hillel director who requested anonymity for fear of recriminations. “In the Jewish community, the big donors have unnuanced views on Israel, and they have come to see college campuses as a war zone and they have to protect Israel.”
And the donors don’t have to explicitly threaten to pull funding for their politics to influence programming. “Whether they use their sway explicitly or not, in my experience, it amounts to the same thing,” he said.
The effect is a chilling of debate and discourse, the former director said. There is now a “right way” to think about Israel. “Everyone involved worried that if they say anything contrary to that view, they will lose donors. I always worried that I would be fired over something to do with Israel.” Being pro-Israel is the new circumcision, he said, “the definition of if you’re a real Jew.”…
This is highly reminiscent of Rabbi Steve Gutow’s argument in the Forward that donors were forcing a strict pro-Israel line at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; and he is very pro-Israel himself. But donors had an outsize power:
We cannot allow money to make the community’s decisions. Wealthy people often have the wisdom to make money but not necessarily to decide about war and peace, how much to spend on education, how best to deal with immigration or prisons. In our community, there is this strange hegemony of big donors demanding control of decisions.
“When you see what just transpired with Fingerhut [the head of Hillel Int’l, Eric Fingerhut, refused to appear at the liberal Zionist group J Street], you realize the degree to which these donors have influence on the policy and behavior of the organization,” said Gladstone… Many others with knowledge of Hillel’s inner workings agreed…“[Students] didn’t sign up to fight the BDS war[,” Gladstone said.] But, he went on, “there’s clearly a class of donors who very much think that should be the role and that should be the business.”
And she writes that Hillel didn’t start out being a Zionist organization, but it’s become more and more orthodox in the last 30 years.
According to numerous sources, Hillel has changed — both since its founding in 1923 and, especially, in the last 15 years or so — from a religious and cultural organization in which a variety of opinions were tolerated, to a wing of a hard-line pro-Israel lobby that tolerates limited dissent
“BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic,” [Hillel spokesperson Matthew] Berger wrote [to Ungar-Sargon]. “Hillel will not be a platform for individuals or organizations to advance their campaign against Jewish people and the existence of the Jewish State.” Berger insisted that Hillel is not a political organization and does not exist to further a political view.
But others disagree. “The assertion that everyone is welcome in Hillel is factually true. However, students who actively promote a pronounced ‘deviant’ point of view learn early on that they’re not really welcome,” said the source very familiar with Hillel. “The nature of the discourse at Hillel and the speakers who are brought all represent one point of view.
The significance of this article is twofold. First, non-Zionism and even anti-Zionism are being embraced by mainstream journals as legitimate strains in Jewish thinking. Because that’s true, for one thing, but also because of Israel’s unregenerate behavior. The Jewish consensus is ending. Ungar-Sargon generally writes for Tablet, a Zionist publication.
And second, notice the prominent denunciation of the “Israel lobby,” which is controlled by rich donors. This is an argument that used to be in the margins. Walt and Mearsheimer were branded as anti-Semites for merely broaching the issue; and of course I have written about it continually. So has MJ Rosenberg. Now the Israel lobby is being discussed as a matter of fact at a centrist site; none of the forerunners will get any credit, of course, but big deal. One reason for the opening is that Fingerhut and Hillel are now thoroughly aligned with the Republican Party. Democrats are liberal Zionists. The politicization of the issue thanks to Netanyahu and the Iran Deal is already paying dividends, and will lead to open debate in the end. Can’t wait for 2016.
P.S. how long before the role of wealth in the Jewish community becomes problematized as a Jewish concern? Yes I know wealth is a giant problem generally in our society; Bernie Sanders’s brilliant speech on the unjust structure of our economy the other day has been the highlight of the campaign season for me. But Jews have a particular concern with this question given the prominence of wealth in our community. As Kafka complained to his father about the Prague Jewish community, he was turned off by “the outstretched hand pointing to ‘the sons of the millionaire Fuchs,’ who attended the synagogue with their father on the High Holy Days. How one could do anything better with that material than get rid of it as fast as possible, I could not understand.”