Only One Way To Change Hillel: Leave

Institution Is Beholden to Donors, Not Students

Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student.
Flickr: Hillel News and Views
Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student.

By Jay Michaelson

Published March 17, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.
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This just keeps happening.

Institution after institution cancels, boycotts, bans, and otherwise excludes speakers who don’t toe the right line on Israel. Hillel International is beginning to recognize that it cannot both engage all Jewish students and inculcate a politically defined love of the state of Israel — and is choosing the latter. The Ramaz School has vetoed a student political organization’s choice to hear what an anti-Israel speaker has to say — as if even listening to opposing views risks the corruption of the innocent.

Even the Jewish Museum has canceled an appearance by Judith Butler, one of the premier literary theorists of our time, though she was not set to speak on Israeli politics (on which she takes a stridently left-wing view) but on Franz Kafka. Apparently only Zionists know about modernism.

Predictably, and laudably, there has been outrage in progressive quarters: op-eds, blog posts, petitions. There is even a nascent Open Hillel movement that is laudably trying to defy Hillel International’s gag rules. But all of these efforts rest on a false premise: that Jewish organizations are accountable to their constituencies. They are not.

They are, ultimately, accountable to donors — particularly a small cadre of mega-donors who range in Israeli political conservatism from the outrageous (Sheldon Adelson) to the merely right-wing (Lynn Schusterman).

Frankly, my dear outraged college students, they don’t give a damn what you say: the arguments you marshal, the pleas you make, the petitions you sign. It matters what these donors, their foundations, and the federations they support say. Those are the people your Hillel directors’ bosses have to please. Because if they don’t please them, they lose their jobs.

Remember back in 2009, when the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco issued one of the first gag rules regarding Israel-Palestine? Why do you think they did that? Because they felt like it? No, because two major California-based foundations said that if one dime of their money went to support or endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, however indirectly — a film at a film festival, a speaker on a panel, anything — they would pull all their money. That’s why the policy was put in place, and that’s why it was mimicked around the country.

This is not to say, dear Hillel students, that you shouldn’t be outraged. On the contrary: you should be more outraged. The community institutions which pretend to involve your participation are a sham. Your Hillel “officers” are like student government: They can make petty decisions, but when the rubber hits the road, money talks and they walk.

So direct your outrage in a meaningful way: leave.


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