A delegation of college students attending J Street’s annual conference held a demonstration this afternoon outside the headquarters of Hillel International, the largest organization devoted to Jewish life on university campuses, to protest the decision by Eric Fingerhut, Hillel International’s CEO and President, to decline attending the conference.
Fingerhut withdrew from participating in the J Street convention because of “concerns regarding [his] participation amongst other speakers who have made highly inflammatory statements against the Jewish state,” as he said in a statement on March 9. Among those controversial figures named by Hillel International include Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator who has compared Israel to ISIS.
More than 1,000 students are attending the conference; around 200 of them attended the protest. The students listened as leaders from J Street U, J Street’s campus arm, spoke on a megaphone about the “massive failure of Jewish communal leadership” that Fingerhut’s declined attendance symbolized. Benjy Cannon, the president of J Street U, alleged that “right-wing donors” are constraining student voices. Cannon has been published in Haaretz and The Forward.
Cannon concluded his speech by demanding that the Hillel International board of directors hold an on-the-record meeting with J Street U representatives to explain their decision not to attend the J Street conference.
Following the conclusion of the speech, students defaced the outside of the Hillel International building with Post-It Notes saying, “Dear Eric, you cancelled on _____,” with a student’s name filling in the blank. Students were then ushered back to the Washington Convention Center by J Street staffers so they could be on time for a speech by Dennis McDonough, the White House Chief of Staff.
As most J Street U students hustled back to the convention, a small delegation from Open Hillel, a movement dedicated to pressuring the world’s largest Jewish student organization to no longer be pro-Israel, posed for pictures. As they finished their photo op, they returned to the convention center, as the Post-It Notes began to unstick from the building and float away in the wind.
J Street U’s attempt to protest Hillel to change its policies about Israel-related speakers reflects a philosophy identified by Aiden Pink, assistant editor of The Tower, in The Anti-Zionism of J Street, which was published in the June 2014 issue of The Tower Magazine.
When Israel makes the “wrong decision,” American Jews have three choices. The first option is to accept the messiness of geopolitics, and give the people of Israel the benefit of the doubt that their government will find the right path in a tough neighborhood and a world of moral complexity. The second is to grow jaded and disillusioned with Israel, and because Israel is so wrapped up in American Jewish identity, many who do become jaded and disillusioned with Judaism itself.
But rather than hope for the best or wallow in loathing, some American Jews choose a third path, preferring to take actions into their own hands. Citing Hillel the Elder’s famous dictum, “If not now, when?” they want to repair our broken world by repairing Israel, spurring changes in Israeli policy by, for example, pressuring the United States government to pressure Israel by threatening its financial aid, or urging the White House not to veto one-sided, anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council.
The problem with this prescriptive approach, however, is that it forgets another part of Hillel’s saying: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” This group, in its wisdom, believes it knows what is best for Israel, and going beyond mere verbal criticism, actively works to mold Israel in its own image for its own emotional benefit. It is in this group that J Street finds itself.
[Photo: The Tower]