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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Last year, in February, a group of Harvard students created the idea for an Open Hillel movement, which was aimed directly at flouting Hillel’s guidelines. The students said that the guidelines stifle debate because they automatically prevent co-sponsorship and dialogue with groups that support boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, which includes most Palestinian organizations and some Jewish ones, such as Jewish Voice for Peace.

Hillel operates in one of the most febrile arenas, where passionate, intellectually curious college students are seeking not only to answer difficult questions, but also to find freewheeling debate.

Fingerhut accepts that such students’ views on Israel will be formed not just by their parents and their upbringing, but also by events in the Middle East over the six to 10 years before they enter college.

But Fingerhut, who served three terms in the Ohio State Senate in addition to his one term in Congress, said that the process of crafting guidelines, like legislation, is one of compromise. Legislators, he said, have to “make compromises in order to build support for what they want to do in the community they operate in.”

“That part of building consensus within the community is, frankly, part of the educational process, as much as mining in diverse points of view. If the definition of welcomeness is that every decision goes in exactly the way you like it, I think that’s not standard in any organization or family or community.”

As open and inclusive as Hillel is, at heart it is still the Zionist organization that was incubated by B’nai B’rith International over 70 years. But it is also no longer an organization tightly controlled by the center.

For decades, B’nai B’rith employed all Hillel employees. Then, 20 years ago, Hillel broke away. Its head at the time, Richard Joel, made each of the campus chapters independent, shifting power away from the center.

Hillel became like a franchise. The units signed affiliation agreements that laid out the framework for what each chapter could do under the Hillel name. They still relied on Hillel for programmatic support, training and grants, but campus chapters became semi-autonomous.

Today, those campus Hillels raise their own funds and are governed by local independent boards. Sometimes a university even pays toward a Hillel rabbi or Hillel director’s wage, like at Duke, Brown and Princeton.

Fingerhut says the setup is similar to his recent job as chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, a large, decentralized organization where he oversaw 14 public universities and 23 community colleges, each with its own individual needs that sometimes vied with the board’s common policies and goals.

Fingerhut said he embraces Hillel’s diversity: “I love the debate. I love the dialogue.”

If the past four months are anything to go by, there will be plenty of dialogue and debate for him in the future.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter, @pdberger


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