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“To favor a candidate because of a specific background would not further our goals of enhancing campus life and cultivating community,” said Davey Rosen, associate director of the University of Michigan Hillel.
Marni Blitz, associate director of the Princeton University Hillel, echoed Rosen. “We support all students whether they’re Jewish or not, and would give the same resources to all students no matter their beliefs,” she said.
To non-student outsiders, the hubbub may seem ludicrous considering the limited power and financing most student government bodies have. UCLA student government, however, is an exception when it comes to funding. Its budget of more than $90 million is the most, by far, of any student government in the country.
Moreover, some big players in real-world politics see a crucial need to get involved now in campus politics. At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s 2012 national conference for student activists, Jonathan Kessler, the Israel lobby’s leadership development director, bluntly described the organization’s campus goals to some 10,000 students.
“How are we going to beat back the anti-Israel divestment resolution at Berkeley?” Kessler asked, referring to a pro-BDS proposal that the UC campus’s student government had passed recently. “We’re going to make sure pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote. This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”
It is unclear to what extent AIPAC — where Oved has been working this summer as an intern — has gotten involved in campus elections. Kessler agreed to be interviewed, subject to the approval of AIPAC’s chief press spokesman. But the spokesman, Marshall Wittman, told the Forward, “We have no comment.”
Hillel International agrees with Kessler on the need to back pro-Israel candidates in campus elections. It also supports its UCLA affiliate.
“UCLA is a very well- publicized example of an American campus where the BDS movement has politicized the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” said David Eden, Hillel International’s chief administrative officer. “This is a unique response by UCLA Hillel, and a justified one.”
Eden stressed the growth of the BDS movement on campuses nationwide — 17 resolutions requesting divestment from Israel put before student governments in the past year alone, of which four passed — and anticipated a more proactive pushback against the “anti-Israel movement” by Hillels in the coming year.
But interviews with many Hillels at schools with active BDS movements found a hesitancy or stolid refusal to venture into student politics.
At University of California, San Diego, where the student government passed a BDS resolution in 2013, Michael Rabkin, executive director of the Hillel, said that despite the tense climate, “our approach has remained to develop strong student leaders and not get involved in student political campaigns.”
Similarly, at Arizona State University, where the student government passed a BDS resolution in 2012, executive director Debbie Yunker Kail said her Hillel had never endorsed or donated to a student campaign.
“Hillel tries to unify people, and it seems like getting involved in campus politics might be unnecessarily polarizing.”
Contact Yardain Amron at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @yardain