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Hillel International Threatened to Cut Ties With Israeli Government Over Database of U.S. Jewish Students

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Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.
Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett. His ministry has backtracked over plans to establish a database of U.S. Jewish setCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, threatened to end its partnership with the Israeli government if it didn’t immediately drop its plan to create a database of all Jewish students in the United States. This ultimatum forced the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to suspend the project late Sunday night, just hours after the database was first revealed by Haaretz.

For the past year, Hillel International has been a key partner in a $66-million, Israeli government-sponsored initiative to strengthen the religious identity of Jewish students on U.S. college and university campuses.

For every dollar Hillel raises for the project, the Israeli government contributes matching funding. Hillel, which prides itself on being a pluralistic Jewish organization, has branches on 550 colleges and universities around the world, primarily in the United States.

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry has described this campus initiative as its “flagship project.” The other two partners are Chabad and Olami, organizations that are active in Orthodox outreach work.

Asked to comment on the ultimatum presented to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, Alon Friedman – the head of Hillel’s operations in Israel – said, “Let’s just say we explained to them in no uncertain terms why this project could not come to fruition and, to our delight, they understood and backed off.”

However, sources close to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry said “there was never any threat,” adding, “We have a wonderful partnership with all three of our providers.”

Because of their partnership with the Israeli government, Hillel officials feared they would be pressured into handing over their membership lists for the purpose of creating the database.

The Jewish campus organization only became aware of the ministry project following a query from Haaretz.

The proposed database was meant to help the Israeli government reach out to Jewish students in the United States and try to engage them more effectively.

As reported Sunday, the project was supposed to have been run through Mosaic United, a company set up by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry several years ago. Its declared mission is to strengthen the religious identity and connection to Israel of young Jews abroad. The Diaspora Affairs Ministry is headed by Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Orthodox and settler-aligned party Habayit Hayehudi.

Mosaic United intended to outsource the project to an Israeli company that specializes in creating databases and data-mining. It recently published a tender inviting bids. The tender, which has since been removed from the company website, noted that 350,000 Jewish students attend colleges and universities in the United States, 85 percent of whom have little or no connection to Israel and Judaism. This large, unaffiliated group was meant to be the project’s target audience.

Although Hillel announced that Mosaic United has agreed to cancel the project, Mosaic United insisted the project had merely been “frozen.” Asked to explain this discrepancy, sources involved in the project said it would indeed move ahead, but only after the tender had been rewritten in a way that eliminated any controversy.

“There is no doubt that an electronic platform is required in this day and age to reach a young audience,” the sources said. “We just have to figure out a better way of formulating this.”

Jewish student organizations expressed deep concerns over the possibility that their members could potentially find their names on lists created by the Israeli government.

“It smacks of something KGB-like,” said Yosef Tarshish, chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students – an organization that represents Jewish students in 35 countries around the world.

“Broadly speaking, if they’re trying to engage unaffiliated Jewish students, it doesn’t seem that putting their names on an Israeli government list is going to achieve anything positive,” he said.

Open Hillel, a movement of Jewish students out to promote open discourse about Israel on college campuses, issued a statement noting that “Mosaic United’s database confirms what students have been saying for nearly a year – that this project is aimed at surveillance and indoctrination. Hillel must cut ties with Mosaic and answer to students, rather than to Naftali Bennett and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.”

Professor David Biale, a leader of the newly formed Jewish Studies Activists Network, said Mosaic United could not have chosen a worse time for such an initiative. "With the heightened scrutiny of social media for succumbing to manipulation by Russian hackers during the U.S. election, the initiative, no matter how well-meaning, looks like another form of manipulation,” said Biale, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Davis. "Instead of micro-targeting Jewish students, how about investing in intellectually stimulating programming to engage them?"

Mosaic United had initially envisioned a multistage project that would include building a database that included the names of all 350,000 Jewish students in the United States; breaking students down into subgroups according to criteria that would be determined in consultation with the Israeli government; identifying and creating content relevant to Jewish students, including both interactive material (links to articles, photos, video and audio clips) and information about Jewish and Israel-related events taking place on campuses; distributing content customized to the needs and interests of each student – based on his or her profile – over social media and other channels; and formulating criteria for measuring success.

“The goal is to bring a student not active today in activities connected to Judaism/Israel (roughly 85 percent) to participate in online and local campus activities numerous times and continuously,” the tender had stated.

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