J Street U Students Plot Rebellion Against Jewish Right-wing’s Big Money

The liberal lobby’s campus activists launch a campaign against donors’ 'stranglehold' over communal groups, and Hillel is first in line.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
J Street U president Benjy Cannon addresses hundreds of students in front of Hillel International headquarters in Washington.
J Street U president Benjy Cannon addresses hundreds of students in front of Hillel International headquarters in Washington.Credit: Gili Getz
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

In recent years, the proverbial elephant in the Jewish living room has been the growing sway of conservative right wing donors over the attitudes, policies and activities of American Jewish organizations, from the mighty AIPAC in Washington to the tiniest Federations and Jewish Community Centers throughout America. Money talks, as the saying goes, and Jewish officials increasingly seem to be jumping to attention.

But now, in a move that might be described as nave and perhaps even quixotic, the refreshingly bright eyed and bushy tailed minions of J Street U, the student body of the left-wing Jewish lobby, intend to speak truth to the growing power of money over Jewish life. And while casino magnate and Netanyahu benefactor Sheldon Adelson was everyone’s favorite villain at the J Street conference on Sunday, repeatedly garnering boos whenever his name was mentioned in the general plenum and in the students’ meetings, the target of J Street U’s first skirmish is Eric Fingerhut, the President and CEO of Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in America - or rather, Fingerhut’s donors. They are, as J Street U Director Sarah Turbow told Haaretz, “a microcosm” of “right wing donors that have a stranglehold over American Jewish institutions.”

Fingerhut became public enemy number one of J Street students after he abruptly pulled out of his planned address at the conference, in which he intended to thank the campus activists for their contribution to the battle against BDS on campuses throughout the U.S. But in a statement issued March 9, Fingerhut said he decided to renege on his promise to speak because of “other speakers who have made highly inflammatory statements against the Jewish state”. A senior Hillel official later told JTA that the culprit was Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief Palestinian negotiator, who recently compared Israel to ISIS, also known as the Islamic State. 

But instead of highlighting J Street’s isolation, as might have been the case a few short years ago, Fingerhut’s was actually at odds with the growing grassroots acceptance of J Street by Hillel branches at some of America’s major colleges, 40 of which agreed to co-sponsor the J Street Conference. Seeking to quell the storm, Fingerhut sent a letter to J Street U leaders on Sunday in which apologized for “hurting” the students. “I admire your dedication to Israel, to the Jewish people, and to Jewish life on campus,” Fingerhut wrote.

 “The last few weeks have taught me that we still have work to do at the national level to ensure that all students feel fully welcome at Hillel,” Fingerhut added. “We also clearly have work to do in the Jewish community at large to be one people that respects, honors and celebrates its diversity rather than fearing it.”

But the students had no intention of making do with Fingerhut’s apology, nor did they believe for a second that his cancellation had anything to do with Erekat or other “inflammatory speakers.” So what happened?” as J Street U’s hipsterish President Benjy Cannon asked a packed and excited crowd of 1100 students at Washington’s Convention Center. “It’s not hard to imagine: Wealthy donors and other stakeholders called him up and were so outraged that Eric would speak at a J Street Conference that he was forced to withdraw. Apparently, they were terrified of our politics.”

And why is that important? “These donors, the very same types who stop Hillel engaging with us, are putting Israel, Palestine and their prospects for peace in even graver danger.” Cannon said that despite the Jewish community’s strong objections to settlements, its communal organs refuse to criticize the Israeli government, usually for fear of angering their right-wing benefactors. “And what does the administration learn from that? That the American Jewish community does not object to settlements.”

J Street U’s Northwest representative, Gabriel Erbs, who studies at Oregon’s Portland State University, told the crowd about his hometown precedent that will hopefully guide the group’s campaign against big Jewish money in the future. Noting that despite its image, Portland has its fair share of right wing donors, Erbs recounted the students’ contacts with the President of the local Jewish Federation Marc Blattner in which they sought clarifications about transfer of Federation contributions beyond the Green Line. They did not make do with Blattner’s oral pledge that the funds were only going to beneficiaries in pre-1967 Israel and challenged him to make a formal declaration to that effect, which he did the following day, on the Federation’s website.

“United Israel Appeal (UIA) does not fund nor build any buildings beyond the Green Line. The Green Line is the 1967 borders along with anything inside the City of Jerusalem. No core Federation dollars go beyond the Green Line.”

Turbow says this is the demand now being made by J Street U to Fingerhut: to allow them to meet with Hillel’s donors and confront them directly with their case, not only against Hillel’s ambivalent attitude towards J Street but against the body’s “agnostic” attitudes towards Middle East peace and a 2-state solution. But J Street U, she adds, is more interested in talking about occupation in the West Bank than about pluralism in the American Jewish community.

The students’ newly militant tone is a function of their growing confidence as their numbers continue to swell throughout colleges and universities in the U.S. Getting back from the conference to their campuses, they will be facing the new reality created by the aftershocks to Benjamin Netanyahu’s shock reelection and his controversial statements on Palestinian statehood and Israeli Arabs. J Street U can probably look forward to reinforcements coming in from the center, but will also have to look out for troop losses to its anti-Zionist left, including the international BDS boycott movement and Students for Justice in Palestine, which may be growing just as fast as J Street U.

And they will need all the help they can get, as they enter into their main assault against what they describe as the Jewish community’s silence and helplessness against the influence exerted by wealthy conservative donors. Win or lose, going up against the high and mighty of their parents’ generation seems like just the kind of romantic, idealistic anti-establishment rebellion that Jewish students should be engaging in.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: