Hillel And Its Donors Repress Real Conversation About Israel


J Street U student leaders across the country have all had “the conversation.” It’s the moment when your Hillel director calls you into her office and tells you like it is: “If I support the work you’re doing around Israel, we could lose a major funder. It’s either you or $50,000 that will benefit all your peers.”

At Hillels around the United States, some donors constrict the bounds of legitimate discourse on Israel and do a disservice to all of us who work to build the next generation of Jewish life. Hillel staff, caught between serving their students and keeping the lights on and the doors open, are vulnerable to some donors who seek to impose their political ideology over the interests and needs of students. There’s a lot at stake here. Not just for J Street U, but for all of us.

Hillel is dedicated to being a place where “students are challenged to explore, experience, and create vibrant Jewish lives.” But that mission requires a genuine conversation that deals with the most pressing issues for Israel and the Jewish community. This is not just important to progressive Jews, but essential to the very intellectual health of our community as a whole and its relationship with Israel. If we cannot create the space for rigorous discussion and engagement on campus, we will graduate a new generation unable to deal with the complexities and challenges facing American Jewish life. When money challenges these commitments, the Hillel mission suffers.

One striking example of these recent dynamics is the controversy at Swarthmore College. This week, Swarthmore Hillel’s student board adopted a resolution declaring it an “Open Hillel” rejecting Hillel’s Israel Guidelines. In response, the new president of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, wrote a sharply worded letter making it clear that no Hillel can collaborate with those groups that do not comply. Since their inception in 2010, the Hillel guidelines were always framed as guidance. In his response to the Swarthmore students, which was posted publicly on the Hillel website, Fingerhut made it clear that they are now regulations to be enforced under the threat of expulsion from Hillel International.

So why did this happen at Swarthmore and why did the president of Hillel International see it appropriate to warn of expulsion from the Hillel community? Unlike most Hillels, Swarthmore Hillel has no full time on-site staff and, more importantly, it is funded independently through a university endowment. In other words, there are few to no private donors restricting the political priorities of Jewish students on campus.

But Swarthmore is the exception. On many other campuses, Hillel donors dictate the terms of Israel engagement in ways that often exclude progressive students. For many students like myself, being pro-Israel requires embracing a serious and intellectually rigorous conversation about the most important issues affecting the Middle East and our community. It requires working as Americans — for the sake of our family, friends, and partners in the region — to help end the occupation and bring about a two-state solution. But as some conservative donors demand a tighter conversation and enforce their political values, we risk losing that generation of young progressive Jews who won’t settle for tired hasbara and an Israel right-or-wrong approach. 

A recent Pew survey of American Jews found that 70 percent of my peers under age 30 believe in the prospects of a two-state solution, while 50 percent believe that settlements undermine Israel’s security. Those numbers are significantly higher than our older counterparts. Simply put, young Jews want an end to the occupation through two-states, a commitment not as widely shared by some older donors.

As an organization, J Street U talks to everyone, even those with whom we deeply disagree. And in all those conversations, we make it very clear who we are: a pro-Israel organization dedicated to Israel’s security, two-states and a future state of Palestine. We talk to all but we act with those who share our values.

I am proud that the vast majority of our 50 J Street U groups across the country are affiliated with their campus Hillels. Still, our Hillel related events are often held to a different standard than those sponsored by more conservative groups. We are required to provide a “counter balance” or “context” when we invite the former Israeli soldiers of Breaking the Silence or when we screen movies like the Gatekeepers featuring Israeli security experts. We often hear from Hillel staff that these measures are in reaction to donors. And yet, speakers who call for prolonged occupation or demean Israel’s democratic character are rarely challenged or required to provide “context” or be “balanced.”

If we are invested in a Jewish future that includes young progressive Jews, then we have to be willing to ask our Hillels and their donors to allow space for all the students they claim to serve. It is well past time for our communal donors to stop imposing their political goals on young people, and let us develop our own. To be sure, there are countless donors to Hillel and our communal institutions who do not seek to impose their political commitments on students. Instead, they are invested in the mission to create the next generation of Jewish life with those who will be our future leaders. These generous donors are a model for giving in the Jewish community that empowers students and other young people to build the broad-based pro-Israel community that is necessary for Israel’s future and a two-state solution. Because, at the end of the day, our future — and the future of the pro-Israel community — very much depend on it.

Jacob Plitman is the President of the J Street U National Student Board, and a senior at UNC Chapel Hill studying Peace, War and Defense. He tweets at @jacobplitman.