Eric Fingerhut, New Hillel Chief, Finds Himself in Firing Line on Israel

Some Jewish Students Challenge Pro-Zionist Rules

Zionist Rules: Eric Fingerhut took the reins at Hillel in the summer. Little did he know that controversy was about to erupt in the national Jewish student group over its pro-Israel guidelines.
hillel
Zionist Rules: Eric Fingerhut took the reins at Hillel in the summer. Little did he know that controversy was about to erupt in the national Jewish student group over its pro-Israel guidelines.

By Paul Berger

Published January 15, 2014, issue of January 17, 2014.
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He recalls sleeping in the Sinai desert as a youth in the summer of 1978, shortly before the land was returned to Egypt. And he recalls witnessing King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin addressing a joint session of Congress in 1994.

Though Hillel International is based in Washington, Fingerhut decided to stay in Columbus temporarily to avoid disrupting his children’s schooling. He and his wife, Amy Fingerhut, and their two sons, Sam and Charlie, ages 12 and 8, will move to Washington at the end of the current school year.

The guidelines that have caused such a ruckus were drawn up in 2010, long before Fingerhut arrived at Hillel.

Fingerhut has taken pains ever since to underline the difference between Hillel’s willingness to entertain and engage each students’ views on Israel, and the imperative to uphold the guidelines that prohibit campus chapters from hosting speakers or co-sponsoring events with those who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state or who support sanctions or boycotts of Israel.

It was precisely because of these guidelines that Swarthmore students decided last December that they would break from Hillel. Its board announced that it would welcome everyone, “be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist or non-Zionist.”

Fingerhut is still in negotiations with the student board of Swarthmore Hillel over what happens next. But in a public letter to the students, he made it clear that they could not continue to use the Hillel name if they contravened the guidelines.

Fingerhut, who comes to Hillel after stints as chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, says that all organizations lay down parameters for their work.

“I respectfully submit, there isn’t any organization that would say that anyone who comes in the door and proposes any speaker or any sponsored event” would allow someone to speak “regardless of who that partner is or what that speaker is,” he said.

Hillel’s supporters, including current and former directors and donors, several of whom spoke to the Forward on only condition of anonymity, stress that Hillel is an inclusive organization that wraps its arms around a broad swath of political views and religious beliefs.

They say the guidelines were developed over many months with input from professionals and students across the Hillel community.

Lynn Schusterman, a prominent donor to the group, reflected the views of many when she said in a statement to the Forward, ”I believe Hillel is committed to creating an inclusive space to welcome and serve all Jewish students, but it must not become a platform for sponsoring those who seek to delegitimize, demonize or boycott Israel.”

Some Hillel students disagree.


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