When I started college, I excitedly and optimistically began attending Hillel events. I had been raised in a proud, secular Jewish family with a rich intellectual and academic tradition. I was taught that to be Jewish was to read, learn voraciously, and question everything. When I graduated high school and went to Penn State, I hoped that Hillel would be a place where I could continue to grow as a Jew, where I would receive a rich Jewish education that would fulfill my insatiable hunger for Jewish knowledge, honoring the heritage I was taught.
But I quickly learned that when it came to Israel, deep engagement with Jewish history and culture was not the focus at my Hillel. Instead, Penn State Hillel’s Israel programming seemed to focus on Israel “advocacy.” There were events celebrating the State of Israel, or Israeli cultural festivals featuring hummus and falafel. I had hoped for deeper engagement, yet we hardly ever scratched below the surface of an oversimplified image of Israel.
Last week, I was once again disappointed by what seems like Hillel International placing Israel advocacy at the center of its mission. Hillel announced that it will officially acquire The David Project, an Israel advocacy organization whose mission states explicitly that it is geared toward the “pro-Israel community.”
Once beleagured by a “combative” reputation, The David Project has been quick to assure us that it has changed. “Our combative approach had not met the broader goal of ridding college campuses of anti-Israel sentiment,” the executive director wrote. “So we decided to change.” The organization claims to have abandoned its prior “combative approach” in favor of “relational advocacy.” But regardless of whether or not The David Project is advocating in a combative approach, it is an Israel advocacy group, and the merger further reinforces the idea that Jewish life on campus and Israel advocacy are synonymous.
What this means is that Jewish students like me, for whom religious life is not synonymous with Israel advocacy, are increasingly erased and alienated by this conflation, with no other alternative to turn to for truly pluralistic Jewish life on campus.
Although Hillel claims to serve the Jewish community on campus, in deed, Hillel seems to primarily serve the “pro-Israel” community — ignoring the reality that there are Jewish students on both sides of their red lines when it comes to Israel. Yet, in partnering with organizations like The David Project, Hillel continues to cater to the “pro-Israel community,” regardless of whether or not Jewish students are included. For example, campus Hillels increasingly offer “Birthright-style all-expenses-paid trips to Israel” designed primarily for non-Jewish campus leaders through. This relatively new approach to Israel advocacy is employed and lauded by both the Maccabee Task Force and The David Project.
The abandonment of the wider Jewish community in favor of the “pro-Israel community,” narrowly defined, is not surprising for those of us who have been paying attention. In 2015, Eric Fingerhut, Hillel president and CEO, notoriously withdrew from the J Street U conference under pressure from Hillel donors, snubbing over 1,000 J Street U students; yet only a few months prior, Mr. Fingerhut had no problem attending the conference for Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Even more recently, Hillel expelled a Jewish LGBTQ student group at Ohio State University for co-sponsoring a fundraiser for queer refugees alongside 14 other campus and community organizations, because the campus chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, had organized the event.
The more Jewish students and Jewish voices Hillel excludes, the less credibility it holds as the center for Jewish life on campus. Instead of transmitting Jewish values, engaging in Jewish learning, and building pluralistic Jewish community, it becomes Israel advocacy or bust.
We live in a time in which young Jews are forming our own communal spaces that do not force us to compromise our principles and ethics as Jews. Hillel International still has the potential to be such a space. But in order to become this, its leadership must make a choice: Hillel can either educate and include Jewish young adults in a way that values complex truths and intellectual freedom by rejecting partnerships with organizations like the David Project; or, it can risk sacrificing authentic, meaningful engagement with students who don’t agree with its party line.
The David project might not be the right wing bully it once was, but that doesn’t change the fact that Israel advocacy is distinct from engagement, and serving the Jewish community is distinct from serving the “pro-Israel community.”
Those who truly care about a bright and rich Jewish future must speak out now, and call on Hillel to recommit to fostering pluralistic Jewish life on campus that represents and includes all Jewish students.
Emily Strauss is a senior at the Pennsylvania State University. She is a frequent contributor to New Voices magazine and an organizer for Open Hillel.
Emily Strauss is a senior at Pennsylvania State University.