Hillel Faces Backlash After CEO Fingerhut Withdraws From J Street Conference

J Street leaders blame right-wing donors, point to polarization on Israel.

NEW YORK – When Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut informed J Street that he was withdrawing from speaking at its upcoming conference, a few days after accepting the organization’s invitation, he may not have anticipated the backlash he is now facing.

While it may initially appear that pulling out of a J Street’s student gathering taking place during its general conference, which opens on Saturday, would weaken the legitimacy of the left-wing group comfortable criticizing Israeli policy, in fact Fingerhut’s move may undermine Hillel’s credibility, said several people involved in Jewish student life.

And at a time when the number of Jewish students affiliating with Jewish and Israel-related campus groups is declining, they said, it may not be wise to alienate the 1,000 signed up to attend the J Street conference. The gathering, which will have 3,000 participants overall, is slated to take place in Washington, D.C., March 21st-24th.

At least 100 students involved with J Street U, the campus arm of the organization, have contacted Hillel leaders, expressing displeasure with Fingerhut’s turnaround, sources say. And as a result of his pulling out more campus Hillel directors decided to attend the conference than had signed on before, said a Hillel source. More than 40 Hillel professionals are registered to attend the J Street conference, said Sarah Turbow, J Street U’s director.

Fingerhut, in a statement issued March 9, cited “concerns regarding my participation amongst other speakers who have made highly inflammatory statements against the Jewish state” as the reason for his backing out of speaking. Asked which speakers were problematic, a senior Hillel official told JTA that it was Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief Palestinian negotiator, who recently compared Israel to ISIS, also known as the Islamic State.

J Street officials say that Erekat’s participation was public on its website three days before Fingerhut accepted their invitation, on Friday March 6. The following Monday, he withdrew.

Hillel officials refused to say anything on the record to Haaretz about the matter, but indicated that Fingerhut’s acceptance was an error, made prematurely by someone in his office.

J Street officials and others, however, say that it seems clear that Fingerhut bowed to pressure from donors when he made the decision to pull out.

“The circumstantial evidence adds up to a few phone calls on Monday morning that made him feel uncomfortable and led him to change his mind,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told Haaretz. “It happens with synagogues, JCCs and other institutions in the Jewish community. The power of a small number of the donors is significant.”

“It is just so sad to see that such a significant institution in the Jewish community is unable to get out from under the political restrictions of some of the donors,” Ben-Ami said. “It seems clear to me that the inclination from Eric and other folks is to engage. There’s a recognition of the importance of the voice of these students, but it simply doesn’t fit with the more narrow politics and approach of a very few large donors.”

Several people close to the matter indicated that pressure may have come from the Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Tulsa-based philanthropy which is a longtime major funder of Hillel and many other Jewish non-profit organizations. It is one of 10 such benefactors listed in Hillel’s 2014 annual report in the highest category, the “Founder’s Circle,” which indicates gifts of $250,000 or more during the 2013-14 academic year. Phone messages and emails sent to Lynn Schusterman and the foundation’s two top staff people were not returned Tuesday.

“There have to be some pretty heavy fingers on the other end of the scale for Eric to miss an opportunity like this when their [Hillel’s] office is three blocks away” from the conference, said J Street U’s Turbow. “Students who are deeply involved in J Street U, none of them really see this as a loss for them,” she said. They “see it as a loss for Hillel.”

The Hillel chapter at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania this week said it would drop the Hillel name a year and a half after declaring itself an “Open Hillel,” unwilling to abide by Hillel International’s campus Israel activities guidelines. They include several criteria that four American civil rights-era veterans, slated to speak at Swarthmore next week as part of a tour sponsored by Open Hillel, would apparently violate. In a March 16th letter, Hillel International threatened Swarthmore College with legal action if the Hillel-affiliated chapter on campus hosts speakers who violate its guidelines.

Hillel spokesman Joshua Silberberg told Haaretz that Swarthmore is the only chapter to disaffiliate over Israel-related issues, and that 48 campuses have expressed interest just this year in joining Hillel International, which currently has chapters on 519 campuses in North America.

In Hillel’s statement about withdrawing from the J Street conference, Fingerhut said that he intended to appear at a student-only session “to thank those who have joined in the fight against BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] and anti-Semitism on college campuses, and to urge everyone to take up this crucial cause.”

In addition to Erekat, featured J Street conference speakers include Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, several current and former Members of Knesset and Aluf Benn, Haaretz’s editor-in-chief.

About one-third of the roughly 3,000 attendees will be students coming from more than 100 different colleges, said J Street officials. J Street U currently has chapters on 60 campuses. And, while as recently as last year J Street U-aligned students struggled to gain acceptance within their campus Hillel, that is no longer the case, Turbow said.

“In a lot of ways inviting Eric Fingerhut was a major opportunity for Hillel International to reach the younger generation of progressive students,” said Benjy Cannon, a senior at the University of Maryland and president of J Street U’s national board. “Here is an organization dedicated to making sure those students are in a deep involvement with Israel even if it’s critical at times. Despite Hillel’s constant messaging that these are important people to engage, not coming to the conference, the actions speak to a fear of engaging them. The actions don’t live up to the words.”

Fingerhut’s withdrawal from J Street illustrates the fracturing of American Jewish opinion about Israel, said observers. Some say that when Hillel decides J Street is outside of the “big tent” Judaism the campus organization generally embraces, it is to Hillel’s detriment.

“Israel is the most divisive issue and that’s going to increase,” said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist and research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “The fracturing is the new normal,” he told Haaretz from Jerusalem, where the dual citizen had gone to vote in Tuesday’s election.

“There’s no question that this will alienate students from engaging with Hillel,” said Jeremy Brochlin, a 38-year employee of Hillel who was executive director of the chapter at the University of Pennsylvania for 23 years, until he retired in 2010. Since then he has served as interim Hillel director at several college campuses.

Brochlin was one of several current and former Hillel chapter directors to write Fingerhut letters about his decision to withdraw.

Brochlin wrote, in part, “It was shocking and sad to me that you would pull out of the J Street conference. I would hope that as a leader in the Jewish community you would affirm the pluralism of the community. I would hope that as President of Hillel you would take the opportunity to interact with and hear from thousands of students. I would hope that you would not UNDERMINE your own credibility with students and the credibility of Hillel directors throughout the country.”

Beth Cousens worked for Hillel International for five years, until 2011, running educational programs. Now an independent consultant, Cousens told Haaretz, “The real conversation should be about what’s happening in American Jewish life with factions around Israel. Very well meaning philanthropists are forcing organizations to take sides when they are trying to be educational organizations.”

“Now that we’ve created this atmosphere in Jewish life we’re losing the opportunity to create low-barrier, nuanced opportunities for conversation about Israel that students feel like they can walk into,” Cousens said. “We’ve created a situation where it seems like you have to choose sides. If you’re a student who doesn’t know what side you’re on you’ve lost the chance to enter the conversation.”

Twenty to 25 percent of New York University’s 20,000 undergraduate students are Jewish, said Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, director of NYU’s Hillel, The Bronfman Center. And it’s not always easy to run an organization where people across the broad spectrum of religious and political connections feel welcome. “I experience on a local level what he experiences on a national or international level,” Sarna told Haaretz. “These are the challenges of running a pluralistic organization at a time of deep polarization.”