Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that David Eden lost his position at Hillel over the J Street conference controversy. This version has been corrected.
The vast majority of U.S. Jews support Israel, but they have long been very divided about how to show that support and what political decisions will best help the Jewish state. Those divisions — exacerbated by last week’s bruising election in Israel — were on display Monday in the streets of D.C., where hundreds of progressive students marched to protest a national Jewish leader who pulled out of a planned lecture.
Eric Fingerhut is president of Hillel, the world’s largest network of Jewish centers on college and university campuses. He had been slated to address J Street U, the student wing of J Street, a left-leaning pro-Israel advocacy group. J Street is holding its annual conference this week in Washington. Of the 3,000 people attending the conference, about 1,100 are students.
But on March 9, Fingerhut announced he wouldn’t address the conference because of speakers whom he found “problematic,” reported JTA news service. Hillel’s chief administrative officer, David Eden, cited as an example Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief Palestinian negotiator who had recently compared Israel to the Islamic State, or ISIS, JTA reported. The State Department and Israel deal with Erekat.
Eden has returned to his consulting practice and no longer works for Hillel. Hillel and Eden say his exit had nothing to do with the J Street controversy.
On March 12, a Hillel spokesman reportedly voiced other reasons why Fingerhut pulled out of the speech.
“Eric sought counsel from across the full breadth of the political spectrum of Hillel leadership and there was broad, broad consensus that now was not the time,” the spokesman told the JTA. The totality of the conference program was the problem, a spokesman said Monday.
There are some 550 Hillel centers on campuses in North America. About 30 Hillels were represented at the J Street conference.
On Sunday, Fingerhut wrote to the students in a letter that he had been unaware how deep the rift on campuses is.
“The last few weeks have taught me that we still have work to do at the national level to ensure that all students feel fully welcome at Hillel. I want you to know that I am committed to making that happen,” he wrote. “We also clearly have work to do in the Jewish community at large to be one people that respects, honors and celebrates its diversity rather than fearing it. This incident taught me just how deep the divide is. I don’t yet have all the answers to how we will bridge this divide, but as Hillel’s president, I am committed to working with you to find them and I have no doubt we will be successful.”
On Monday, more than 250 students marched about a third of a mile from the Washington Convention Center to the world headquarters of Hillel, where they put Post-It notes on Hillel doors and windows that said “you cancelled on” — and then their names. They also left a big box of letters demanding a meeting with Fingerhut. The letters expressed the complaint by Fingerhut critics that he is bowing to the demand of more conservative donors instead of engaging with the full range of student voices — including those on the more liberal end.
“Despite being an integral part of the Jewish and pro-Israel communities on campus, and despite our tireless work to ensure Israel’s future, you were still unwilling to publicly engage with us at our conference. Sadly, we must ask: who is Hillel meant to serve? A small group of donors, or the thousands of students who are the future of our communities?” read the letter the students left for Fingerhut.
They asked for a meeting between the J Street U leadership and Hillel’s leadership. Josh Silberberg, a Hillel spokesman, framed the back and forth over the speech as a family dispute.
“We see this as one speech at one time. Hillel works with members of J Street U across the country. Nearly all J Street U members are also active in Hillel. Hillel directors work with them all the time,” Silberberg said Monday.
The standoff over the J Street convention comes at a time of rising tensions on campuses about how to maintain open debate about Israel. Many students describe growing anti-Semitism while others are concerned that Hillel — long the main center of on-campus Jewish life — is turning to the right and policing Israel critics.
Benjy Cannon, national student board president of J Street U said his group’s main focus these days is “the issue of right-wing donor money interfering with student engagement on the progressive, pro-Israel side — right-wing donor control of Jewish issues.”
Fingerhut on Monday sent a note to Cannon saying his chief of staff would be reaching out to set up a meeting “as soon as possible.”
Of the overall dispute about the speech, Hillel spokesman Silberberg said, “We regretted the confusion and look forward to talking with the students and moving forward constructively.”
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