The Jewish campus life organization Hillel came under fire in the Knesset on Monday from an unlikely direction: the Israeli right.
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MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) expressed deep concern that representatives of what she termed “post-Zionist groups” had been invited to addresses students at Hillel functions held on campuses around the United States, where they were influencing student opinion.
“I have heard testimonies that the BDS [Boycott, Divest, Sanction] movement and the New Israel Fund have infiltrated some campuses, and this is happening under the supervision of Hillel and with the funding of Hillel,” Shaked told a session of the Knesset Committee for Aliyah, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, which met to discuss growing anti-Israel sentiment on American college campuses. Participating in the session were Eric Fingerhut, the president of Hillel International, representative of the Israeli Hillel organization and students active in Israel advocacy groups.
The participants at the Knesset session were shown excerpts from a new documentary that accuses Hillel, the largest Jewish campus life organization in the world, of providing a platform to groups that it claims demonize and delegitimize Israel.
“You have organizations like J Street and the NIF [New Israel Fund] that bring representatives of groups that badmouth the Israel Defense Forces and the state of Israel to speak at Hillel-sponsored functions,” the Israeli-born filmmaker, Natan Nestel, told the committee. In particular, he noted that B’tselem and Breaking the Silence, two Israeli groups active in documenting and exposing human rights violations in the occupied territories, were often invited to present at Hillel events, where they had a “destructive influence” on Jewish students.
“Many kids who grow up in pro-Israel homes end up joining anti-Israel movements as a result of their influence,” he charged. As a graduate student at Berkeley, Nestel served as chairman of the Israeli Students’ Organization in North America. He has spent the past few years making this film.
According to Hillel guidelines, organizations that “delegitimize” and “demonize” Israel are banned from participating in functions it sponsors. Nestel claimed, however, that Hillel violates its own guidelines.
This attack from the right came as Hillel has been trying to ward off criticism from the left in recent months for banning critics of Israel from speaking at events it sponsors. Indeed, the rapid expansion of the Open Hillel movement on college campuses around the United States reflects this backlash. Hillel today serves 550 college campuses in North America.
Responding to the criticism, Fingerhut said: “If we’re being criticized from the right and left, we must be doing something right.” He dismissed Nestel’s film as “very biased and based on old information.”
When asked by Shaked how Hillel could have allowed a member of Breaking the Silence, a group founded and run by veteran IDF combatants, to speak at one of its functions, Fingerhut responded: “The person invited to speak was, to the best of my knowledge, an IDF veteran who served with distinction. He was invited to speak by a Jewish graduate student at an American university. We felt, and I feel personally, that to have told that student that we would not let her invite this IDF veteran to come speak because we didn’t like the organization he’s associated with would have been the wrong approach for building the enduring commitment to Israel that we seek.”
MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) urged the Hillel director to be less “even-handed” and more “aggressively pro-active on Israel’s side.”
Rebecca Caspi, director of the Israel office of the Jewish Federations of North America, noted that the number of anti-Israel incidents on American college campuses had increased “100 percent” this fall, as she praised the leaders of Hillel for promoting “a courageous discourse” about Israel.