New Hillel and AIPAC Partnership: Open Hillel Responds

photo: iowa.hillel.org

photo: iowa.hillel.org

This just in: Eric Fingerhut, the President of Hillel and Jonathan Kessler, the Leadership Development Director of AIPAC, have just announced in the Jewish Week that Hillel and AIPAC will be formally “working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.”

What this means essentially is that Hillel, an organization that is meant to serve as an umbrella for the diverse Jewish student communities on college campuses nation wide, is now formally aligning itself with a lobbying group’s specific definition of what it means to be “pro-Israel.”

By way of response, I encourage you to read this statement (below) by Open Hillel, a grassroots student-run campaign that works to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels. I’ve long been a huge fan of OH and was not surprised to read that they had drafted an articulate and thoughtful response to Fingerhut and Kessler.

And if you agree with them that this new Hillel-AIPAC partnership will “stifle discussion and debate on issues concerning Israel, and undermine Hillel’s commitment to creating an inclusive community,” please click here and let Hillel know.

Statement of Opposition to AIPAC and Hillel’s New Partnership

Hillel has consistently demonstrated an admirable commitment to religious pluralism, welcoming students who span the full spectrum of Jewish religious practices and beliefs and encouraging students to connect with Judaism in ways that are meaningful to them. We are worried that this pluralistic spirit, so beneficial to Hillel and the Jewish community, is lacking in the political arena. In particular, we are deeply troubled by Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler’s recent declaration that Hillel and AIPAC “are working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.” We fear that this new partnership will alienate Jewish students whose views do not align with those of AIPAC, stifle discussion and debate on issues concerning Israel, and undermine Hillel’s commitment to creating an inclusive community.

AIPAC’s policy positions are highly controversial among Jewish college students and the American Jewish community at large. Thus, if Hillel operates with AIPAC’s definition of “pro-Israel” as the benchmark for what is and is not acceptable within the Jewish community on campus, it will alienate many Jewish students. For instance, Point 6 of AIPAC’s 2012 Action Plan calls for “the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.” However, since Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital, many students who support a two-state solution believe that Jerusalem should be divided or shared. Indeed, 82% of American Jews support a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of Israel by the surrounding countries. Similarly, AIPAC’s national council voted down (by a large majority) a measure calling on Israel to dismantle “illegal settlement outposts” – the small minority of settlements that are illegal under Israeli law. However, nearly three times as many U.S. Jews believe that settlement construction hurts Israel’s security as do believe that it helps. Hillel is an umbrella organization serving all Jewish students, as its vision and mission statements express. AIPAC supporters can and must have a voice in Hillel. But that voice is just one voice; it is not and cannot be THE voice.

In their article, Fingerhut and Kessler describe the AIPAC-Hillel partnership as strategically necessary to combat “anti-Israel” activity on campus. However, in order for Jewish students to truly engage with Israel in a thoughtful manner, we should have the opportunity to hear a wide range of perspectives on Israel-Palestine — including voices that speak to Israel’s shortcomings and criticize its policies. For instance, in pointing to “anti-Israel organizing” at Stanford University, we assume that Fingerhut and Kessler refer to a national conference held at Stanford by Students for Justice in Palestine. SJP raises important questions about the Occupation and human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories. Many Jewish students (and American Jews in general) from across the political spectrum care deeply about these issues; indeed, many American Jews oppose and protest the Occupation. While some seek to write off conferences and events like these as malevolent and silence their efforts, we believe that Hillel, the campus center for all Jewish students, should provide a space for discussion and debate so that students can better understand the complexity of the situation in Israel-Palestine. As one Jewish student at Stanford explained last spring, when the Jewish community refuses to talk about controversial issues, it creates an image of unity but actually divides the community and alienates students who hold ‘dissident’ views or who simply are looking for honest and open discussion.

We also are saddened that AIPAC, in Fingerhut and Kessler’s piece, implied that the success of Hillel at Stanford’s Shabbat Across Differences somehow justifies this new AIPAC-Hillel partnership. Part of what made that Shabbat event so wonderful was that it was not run by AIPAC or any other one Israel-advocacy group. Students of all different political persuasions, as well as Hillel staff, worked together to create that Shabbat — and we believe that that is a model for other schools to follow. The picture that the article painted, of Hillel needing AIPAC to rally more students on campus in support of their form of pro-Israel advocacy, was not the reality and it should not be in the future.

AIPAC deserves a place within Hillel, as one of many voices on Israel-Palestine. However, given AIPAC’s specific and narrow policy agenda, it should not define what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Even more fundamentally, no political advocacy organization should set the boundaries of what is encouraged, acceptable, and forbidden within the Jewish community on campus; and we worry that this partnership means that AIPAC will be asked to do so. Just as, at Shabbat dinner, students of all denominations come together, share their experiences, and learn from one another; Hillel should encourage students with different political views to come together and discuss relevant issues for the sake of dialogue and mutual understanding. Ultimately, a strong community is one that acknowledges and embraces its own diversity.


12 Comments on “New Hillel and AIPAC Partnership: Open Hillel Responds”

  1. Elaine Waxman says:

    This is so concerning and frustrating that I hardly know what to say. An organization that is designed to engage young Jewish adults should not be aligning itself with very specific, and often troubling, political advocacy on the issues of the Israeli occupation. Thanks for sharing — I wrote immediately, as you suggested, and hope others with kids on college campuses will do the same.

  2. Benyomin ach Boozie says:

    My dear friend, kindly support your accusation that AIPAC is “a lobbying group’s specific definition of what it means to be “pro-Israel.””

    • Ben,

      It’s not an accusation. As a lobbying organization that actively advocates for Israel, AIPAC’s own platform and actions spell out its definition of “pro-Israel” very clearly on a regular basis. Often, by the way, its positions are counter to the opinions of the majority of American Jews and official US administration policy.

      The Open Hillel statement I included in my post lists two such examples: AIPAC’s advocacy that Jerusalem remain “Israel’s undivided capital” and its refusal to pass a resolution that calls on Israel to dismantle illegal settlement outposts.I can add two more: AIPAC actively lobbied for military strikes on Syria and called on the US to end all aid to the Palestinian Authority after the PA sought recognition in the UN.

      Now you may certainly support all of AIPAC’s positions on these specific issues, but that is not the point here. The point is that there are many, many American Jews who do not. And that is why is it so prejudicial for Hillel, an organization committed to providing a wide tent for the diverse Jewish student community, to enter into a formal partnership with AIPAC to train students how to be “pro-Israel.” That is to say, “pro-Israel” the way AIPAC understands the term.

  3. Brad sez this says:

    Sounds like Hillel is on the correct tract. JVPers aren’t included because they are against Israel existing. Maybe, there is a Wahabist or Hezbollah movement on campus that would be a better fit for JVPers?

    • Ron Edwards says:

      If there were a Wahhabist movement on campus, it would most likely be staunchly in favor of current Israeli interests and policies, just as Saudi policy has almost always been. The two nations have been solidly abetting one another since the first term of the Clinton administration, and even before then, never clashed even indirectly. The leaders of each know full well that U.S. money and political support are their single major asset.

      And “Hezbollah” has lost its power as a scare term. Despite immense effort by Saudi funders, a few Maronite Catholic elites, and dedicated supporters of Israel in the U.S. State Department, the Hisb has long been acknowledged as a rational political player in the Lebanese scene and even gained the status as a wing of the Lebanese government, and therefore is no longer enjoined to disarm by the terms of the Ta’if Agreeement. Just as “Hamas! Hamas!” and “Irannnn!” have been less and less effective to goose Americans into flustered reaction, so too will this one. What if there were a Hezbollah student group on campus, anyway? Would they be firebombing synagogues (a claim never supported by a jot of evidence) or helping to build them (as in Beirut, re: the synagogue which took an Israeli shell in 2006)?

  4. Jordy says:

    One can’t expect Hillel to suffer anti Israel students,it’s not reasonable…those students can join the other factions that work to further the Palestinian views..while in the rabbis world the Jews agree with him, in the rest of Jewish world, most really are in Israel’s corner

    • Ron Edwards says:

      Where to start.

      1. Is Hillel then to be called a “faction,” with an explicit external political goal? If so, then its claim to supporting the _diversity_ of Jewish life _on campus_ should be abandoned, and its support by university administrations, which relies on that claim, discontinued.

      2. You dichotomize two worlds, one in which “the Jews” think one thing, and another in which “the Jews” think another thing. Diversity of opinion among Jewish people, of various ethnicities, nationalities, and cultures, is a documented fact. If we’re talking about opinion, then there is no “the Jews” and no reason to compete over it.

      3. Reason is a dangerous thing to invoke when thinking people are involved. Are you claiming that to be Jewish is automatically to promote the interests of Israel, or more accurately, political Zionism? That claim fails the test of reason on multiple fronts, which is why its advocates have always relied on fear instead, recently amplified to the point of absurdity.

      4. Pro vs. anti Israel – that phrasing is also broken at multiple points. For one, what is actually Israel, in terms of borders? Draw them for me please. For another, to what extent is “pro” defined by money and diplomatic support? For another, to what extent is criticizing specific policies permitted such that one can still be “pro”?

      5. Please provide credible documentation for your claim that “most people in the Jewish world” (your phrasing not mine) support the political goals you imply. Also explain why, if this is the case, younger Jewish Americans apparently do not, and why they don’t count in that number. And also why when polled, Jewish Americans tilt against the harder line supported by AIPAC and Hillel International.

    • Edward says:

      Old story. Depends on what you mean by “anti-Israel.” Is Avrum Burg, former Knesset speaker, excluded by Harvard Hillel, anti-Israel? Is someone who believes a way should be found to share Yerushalayim? Whole political parties in Israel are open to that.

  5. […] New Hillel and AIPAC Partnership: Open Hillel Responds (rabbibrant.com) […]

  6. George cosmos says:

    As an outsider with no dog in this fight…I can not for the life of me understand how Jews and especially rabbis can turn their backs on Israel…and actually fight for the ones who would wipe Israel out if they could…..?…

    • Edward says:

      The question is what will destroy Israel? If you think increasing authoritarianism, philistinism, chauvinism and theocracy within are a grave danger then you will favor open, honest discussion of those things.

  7. Laura Younai says:

    How dare AIPAC want to educate the ignorant. They should just let the self hating JStreeters and the pro-Palestinians lies become the Jewish kids reality.


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