Why Hundreds of J Street U Students Walked to Hillel

Jewish groups in the U.S. can't let right-wing donors constrain their ability to fight against the Israeli occupation.

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J Street U President Benjy Cannon speaks at the J Street conference, March 22, 2015.
J Street U President Benjy Cannon speaks at the J Street conference, March 22, 2015.Credit: Flickr / Moshe Zusman
Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon

Last Monday, 500 J Street U students walked from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to Hillel International’s headquarters in DC. Yes, we went to express our disappointment in Hillel’s leadership – which manifested in President Eric Fingerhut bowing to the demands of donors and outside groups, and missing the opportunity to speak to over 1,000 pro-Israel students at the J Street conference. But more importantly, we went to draw attention to the overwhelming and dangerous power of right-wing money in pro-Israel politics. This was not about inclusion – this was about the occupation.

The two are intimately connected. When Fingerhut first reneged on his commitment to speak to 1,100 students at the J Street Conference, his office cited the attendance of Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. Hillel has since walked back that claim, and vacillated between indicating that Fingerhut’s initial acceptance was a mistake made by someone in his office, and stating that his rejection of J Street was motivated by “Hillel stakeholders.”

In other words, Hillel and Fingerhut may have recognized the importance of speaking to our students, but their “stakeholders” disagreed.

We brought 500 students to Hillel’s door to show Fingerhut and the stakeholders the mistake they had made, and the passionate advocates for Israel’s future that they were ignoring. There, we asked for an on-the-record meeting with Hillel International’s board of directors. During that meeting, we will seek clarification on who prevented Fingerhut from attending the conference; what Hillel plans to do about it; and how we can be partners in fixing the broken communal dynamics that got us here in the first place.

We’re pleased that Fingerhut agreed to our request for this open meeting - and are waiting to hear back from Hillel International staff about when it will be scheduled. We want to see him and Hillel finally live up to their pledge to “bridge this divide” in the American Jewish community.

Why? J Street U is interested in pluralism, and we care about our relationship with Hillel. We have a stake in who is in the tent. But ultimately, our engagement with Hillel and other Jewish institutions stems from our mission to help end the occupation and secure a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. To do that, we’ll need the entire American Jewish community to take responsibility for their role in shaping Israel’s present and future. Fingerhut did not live up to that task.

If major right-wing stakeholders prevented Fingerhut from doing something as innocuous as speaking to 1,100 pro-Israel students, where else are they pulling their outsized influence?

Hillel is not alone in having its better judgment and guiding principles overridden by wealthy, right-wing benefactors.

Events like the Israel Summit, a major convention of pro-Israel philanthropists and advocacy organizations, have a clear right-wing slant. Right-wing donor politics underlie much of the controversy around the exclusion of Jews with progressive Israel politics from Jewish spaces. Sheldon Adelson - an advocate for a nuclear first strike on Iran and agnostic on Israel being a democracy, a man for whom AIPAC is too left-wing - is the major force behind Birthright Israel and many of American Jewry’s largest engagement projects. He and others like him underwrite many of the major institutions of our community.

We cannot afford to treat Adelson’s politics as representative of our communities, and shut out the reasonable voices calling for moderation, visionary leadership, and change. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s race-based fear-mongering, his belligerence towards the United States, and his policy of permanent occupation are further isolating Israel. And if we let powerful donors like Adelson constrain American Jewry’s ability to fight the occupation, we are leading it down the path to pariah status.

We are also endangering the future of the American Jewish community. Students made up a third of J Street’s conference attendees. We attract mass numbers of students because of our principled stance against the occupation, and actualization of our support for two states. If stakeholders prevent other institutions like Hillel from engaging with and listening to us, they will alienate a massive contingent of outspoken, progressive and pro-Israel young Jews. Given the constant concern over the dwindling young Jewish involvement, and the stakes for Israel’s future, why take that risk?

So as successive right-wing governments and their American Jewish backers and cheerleaders erode Israel’s democracy and standing in the world, American Jewish organizations face a choice:

They can be silent and let Israel slip down an ever darker path, and watch as young Jewish involvement dwindles. Or they can take a leadership role and demonstrate to their Israeli counterparts that they stand for peace and not occupation; security and not settlements.

We understand that taking leadership will bring pressure. If and when Jewish institutions make the right choice, they will come under intense scrutiny from their stakeholders. That’s why we walked to Hillel - to shine a bright light on organizational politics that prevent constructive and decisive action. We wanted to demonstrate that if and when organizations choose to face their donors, they will have thousands of pro-Israel students standing behind them.

Benjy Cannon is the National Student Board President of J Street U. He studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland, where he sits on the Hillel Board. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at benjycannon@gmail.com

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