After Haaretz Report, Israeli Government Suspends Controversial Plan to Set Up Database of Jewish Students in U.S.

After Haaretz revealed the plan, Jewish student organization says it didn't believe the project was 'in the best interest of engaging American Jewish college students'

J Street U president Benjy Cannon addresses hundreds of students
File photo: J Steet U students protest in front of Hillel International headquarters in Washington, D.C. Gili Getz

Several hours after Haaretz published a story exposing a controversial Israeli government initiative to set up a database with the names of all Jewish students in the United States, the plan was put on hold.

Based upon a statement published by Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs came under pressure to withdraw it.

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The project was supposed to have been run through Mosaic United, a company set up by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs several years ago with the declared mission of strengthening the religious identity and connection to Israel of young Jews abroad.

In its statement, Hillel International said it had not been aware of the plan until it received an inquiry from Haaretz. “We immediately investigated and made clear to Mosaic United our objections to this initiative. We believe the initiative in this tender is not in the best interest of engaging American Jewish college students. Based on our objections, Mosaic United has agreed to take down the tender from its website and cancel this initiative. We appreciate Mosaic United’s swift response to our concerns.”

>>Exclusive: Hillel International threatened to cut ties with Israeli government over database of U.S. Jewish students

Mosaic United published its own statement several minutes later stating the following: “The written tender published fails to reflect the essence of the intended project and caused undue confusion. Therefore, Mosaic United is putting the tender on hold and any further discussion will be based on the directive of its steering committee.”

As initially reported, Mosaic United intended to outsource the project to an Israeli company that specializes in databases and data-mining. It recently published a tender inviting bids. The deadline for submitting bids was supposed to have been October 27.

“The idea is to set up a database of all Jewish students in the United States (some 350,000 students) and to map daily all the Jewish/Israel events taking place on campuses, along with a daily structural mapping of Jewish/Israeli online content from around the web," the tender for the project stated.

"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." 

According to the tender, the job of the company that won the contract would have been not only to create a database of names but also to divide up the Jewish students into sub-groups for micro-targeting purposes.

The company was supposed to have gathered material, both online and offline, that might be of interest or relevant to Jewish students – such as articles, photos and video clips, as well as information about Jewish or Israel-themed events taking place on their campuses. Each sub-group of students would have received a package of material, via social media and other channels, tailored to its specific needs, which would have been determined in consultation with Mosaic United.

The payment the company ultimately received was supposed to have been calculated largely on the basis of the results  – that is to say, the increase in the number of Jewish students attending Jewish and Israel-related events on campus and the number of students engaged online with material it distributes.

Members of Mosaic United’s advisory board had also been kept in the dark about the initiative, which was almost certain to have drawn criticism from liberal Jews in the United States.

Contacted by Haaretz on Sunday before the tender was taken down, former president of Hillel International and prominent Jewish educator Avraham Infeld said he intended to resign from the advisory board over the decision.

“I’m in total shock,” he said. “For some time now, I’ve been contemplating resigning because although I’m a member of the advisory board, nobody there has ever asked for my advice. I was asked to delay my resignation, but now that I have become aware of this new initiative, which no one ever consulted me about and was never discussed in any of our meetings, I can no longer see any reason to delay it.” 

Just over a year ago, Mosaic United partnered with three Jewish organizations in a $66 million initiative aimed as strengthening Jewish identity on U.S. college campuses: Chabad, Olami and Hillel International. Unlike Chabad and Olami, Hillel – the largest Jewish campus organization in the world – is not affiliated with any particular stream of Judaism. The company came under fire for teaming up with mainly Orthodox organizations when most Jewish students on U.S. college campuses are non-observant. At the time, Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli minister, resigned in protest from the advisory board of Mosaic United.

The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is headed by Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Orthodox, settler-aligned Habayit Hayehudi party.  Bennett also serves as Israel’s minister of education, and in that position as well, he has been criticized for using the power of his office to promote Orthodox Judaism over other streams.

Mosaic United CEO Amy Holtz stepped down from her position in March, after just a brief period on the job, without providing any explanation. Holtz had previously served as president of Jerusalem U, an organization involved in Jewish outreach and Israel advocacy. Since her resignation, Mosaic United – which the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs crowns its “flagship project” – has been operating without an organizational leader.