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.

(page 2 of 2)

The only way these institutions will listen to you is if they begin to fail at their core mission. Their donors will then have to choose between their support of that mission, and their desire to maintain a particular kind of political purity. There is no point in arguing with your Hillel director, or Eric Fingerhut, Hillel’s president and CEO, or the Jewish Museum’s staff. You are clearly right. But if they listen to you, they will lose their jobs.

In the case of Hillel specifically, the organization’s mission itself reflects that tension. Like the instructions given to HAL in the movie 2001, it demands two opposed actions: engage students and support Israel. As I first wrote about in these pages back in 2010, those sometimes align, and sometimes do not align. If the priority is engagement, then all Jews should be welcome not only to attend Hillel but to find a safe space for an open discussion of Jewish issues, including Israel.

If, however, the priority is support for Israel, defined in a very particular way, then, logically, not all Jews should be welcome, and not all issues should be discussed from all sides. There are parameters, limits, “guidelines.” This is the current policy.

The tension is implicit in many organizations, but it is right at the heart of the mission of Hillel. It’s fine for Hillel staff members to say “give us time — we’ll figure it out,” but you can’t make a circle square. To me, the next best thing would be to say “support for, and love of, Israel takes many forms. To some, this means opposing Israeli policies, even to the extent of a boycott. We do not agree, but we make space for these views to be heard, because they are part of the important conversation regarding what ‘support for Israel’ means.”

But Hillel can’t actually say that, because certain Hillel donors have made the same pledge as the San Francisco Federation’s: give a platform to the BDS folks, and I walk.

Now, maybe federations, Hillels, schools, and museums can try to reason with their donors. It’s usually a bad idea to try (and I say this as a former foundation professional) but if the disruption becomes severe enough, who knows. Maybe Jewish philanthropists will come around to Voltaire’s sentiment that even if we disagree with a view (as I disagree with BDS), we should defend its right to be discussed.

Or maybe they’d rather their institutions serve a much smaller, ideologically purer, population that shares certain political views. In which case, won’t you be glad you left?

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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