Progressive Jewish Students to Protest Hillel Partnership With Israeli Minister Naftali Bennett

Students from the Open Hillel movement will rally in D.C. urging Hillel to end its financial partnership with Israel's Diaspora Affairs minister, citing his 'disregard for democratic values.'

Naftali Bennett, January 16, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Open Hillel, a movement of Jewish students out to promote open discourse about Israel on college campuses, will hold a rally Thursday urging Hillel International to end its financial partnership with Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.

The rally will be held outside Hillel International headquarters in Washington D.C. 

“As the U.S. prepares to inaugurate a president who has demonstrated a profound disregard for civil liberties and civil rights, Open Hillel is urging Hillel International to renounce its partnering with Bennett, an Israeli cabinet member who has demonstrated a similar disregard for democratic values,” said Elana Metz, the national organizer of Open Hillel in a press statement. 

Hillel International is the largest Jewish campus life organization in the world.

Last August, the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs announced a new initiative aimed at strengthening Jewish identity of U.S. college campuses. To promote this effort, it teamed up with three organizations active on U.S. college campuses: Chabad, Olami and Hillel. Both Chabad and Olami, which has close ties to the international Aish HaTorah network, engage in what is known as “kiruv” work – actively seeking out unaffiliated young Jews and trying to turn them onto Orthodox Judaism. Hillel, on the other hand, is not affiliated with any particular stream of Judaism.

Under the agreement reached, the Israeli government will contribute $22 million to the joint initiative, and the partnering organizations will together invest double that sum - $44 million. A new organization called Mosaic United, based in Philadelphia, was set up to run the project.

“Hillel’s partnership with Bennett will undermine its stated commitments to pluralism and open discourse,” the Open Hillel statement said. “Bennett opposes the recognition of Reform and Conservative rabbis; opposes marriage equality in Israel; and opposes interfaith marriages and relationships." 

"As minister of education, Bennett banned a novel that portrayed a Jewish-Arab romance from Israeli schools [referring to the Education Ministry's decision not to include Dorit Rabinyan's 'Borderlife' on a recommended reading list for high-school students] on the grounds that it promoted ‘miscegenation.’ He has also barred human rights organizations and NGOs that challenge the occupation from Israeli schools. Bennett is now seeking to extend his influence to the Jewish Diaspora through Mosaic United,” the statement continued.

In response, Hillel spokesman Matthew Berger said: “Hillel International has enormous respect for diverse points of view and the right to argue within the Jewish tradition. We stand firmly behind our policies and programming decisions, including working with Mosaic United because it supports the mission of Hillel’s Drive to Excellence and can help further student engagement outcomes on campus. Hillel’s commitment to pluralistic programming that reaches every Jewish student is a cornerstone of every grant Hillel accepts, particularly the Mosaic United investment. There will be no political influence on Hillel’s work whatsoever.”

Last month, Haaretz reported that Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli justice minister and deputy foreign minister quit the advisory board of Mosaic United in protest at its Orthodox slant. “I did not feel I could bear responsibility, as a member of the advisory committee, for the outcome of this decision to team up with Orthodox groups that I consider to be very problematic, and I would even say, anti-Zionist,” he said. 

The new initiative has been sharply criticized by progressive Jewish leaders, who argue that the Israeli government should not be promoting Orthodox Judaism on college campuses. On its website, however, Mosaic United says that is  “not aligned with any particular branch of Judaism.”

The Mosaic United advisory board was not consulted about the decision to partner with Chabad and Olami.

Last month, it was announced that Bernie Marcus, the Jewish-American billionaire and Donald Trump supporter, had awarded a major grant of $38 million to Hillel International.