Reach­ing Out

The Meet­ing Was Po­lite, but It’s Not Clear That Ei­ther Side Got What It Wanted

Forward Magazine - - News - By Nathan Guttman Washington Con­tact Nathan Guttman at guttman@ for­

Hil­lel’s Eric Finger­hut fi­nally speaks to J Street U.

Hop­ing to “wipe the slate clean,” Hil­lel In­ter­na­tional’s pres­i­dent and CEO, Eric Finger­hut, stepped into the lion’s den for a face-to-face meet­ing with cam­pus lead­ers of the dovish lobby J Street.

Although he sounded all the right notes, Finger­hut of­fered lit­tle in the way of sub­stance to mend the rift be­tween Hil­lel, the na­tional Jewish cam­pus or­ga­ni­za­tion, and J Street U, the cam­pus arm of the lib­eral lobby.

“If I have done any­thing to cause per­sonal hurt or pain in this past year to any­one in this room, I ask that you for­give my trans­gres­sion,” Finger­hut told the stu­dent lead­ers gath­ered out­side Washington for their sum­mer con­fer­ence.

“I know that some­times you have also been sub­jected to un­fair crit­i­cism,” he later added. “That is wrong, too, and con­trary to Jewish prin­ci­ples.”

Re­la­tions be­tween the two groups have been fraught ever since Finger­hut pulled out of the J Street U’s con­fer­ence last March fol­low­ing pres­sure from Hil­lel donors. The Au­gust 17 meet­ing was an op­por­tu­nity to mend fences, and as such it reg­is­tered only par­tial suc­cess.

Ex­tend­ing a wel­com­ing hand to J Street U helped dis­arm much of the ten­sion built be­tween the group and Hil­lel over the past year. But at the end of the meet­ing, many of the dif­fer­ences sur­round­ing the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict re­mained as wide as ever.

Finger­hut’s last- minute de­ci­sion last March not to speak at the J Street con­fer­ence trig­gered protests from J Street’s stu­dent ac­tivists, who had ar­gued that Hil­lel’s chief caved in to pres­sure from con­ser­va­tive donors to the or­ga­ni­za­tion who do not view the left-lean­ing cam­pus group as a le­git­i­mate part­ner.

On the day of the meet­ing, Finger­hut sought to shield Hil­lel donors from the stu­dents’ crit­i­cism, telling the J Street U ac­tivists that “there is no­body re­spon­si­ble for any hurt that was caused in March be­sides me.”

Finger­hut went to great lengths to try and con­vince stu­dents that de­spite sus­pi­cion to­ward their or­ga­ni­za­tion in some corners of the Jewish com­mu­nity, they are an in­te­gral part of cam­pus Jewish life.

“Let me say this again — all stu­dents are in­vited and are welcome at Hil­lel,” Finger­hut said.

Try­ing to draw the bound­aries of Hil­lel’s com­mu­nal tent, Finger­hut said it “wel­comes and sup­ports pro-Is­rael groups and stu­dents who have dif­fer­ent opin­ions on the peace process” while mak­ing clear that or­ga­ni­za­tions that sup­port boy­cotting, di­vest­ing or sanc­tion­ing Is­rael can­not come un­der Hil­lel’s um­brella.

Each side en­tered the meet­ing, which ran slightly longer than an hour, with a diff er­ent set of goals. Finger­hut wanted to re­cruit J Street U ac­tivists into the bat­tle against BDS cam­paigns on cam­pus, while the stu­dents wished to hear a clear recog­ni­tion from Hil­lel’s top of­fi­cial that his or­ga­ni­za­tion is com­mit­ted to ad­vo­cat­ing for a two-state so­lu­tion to the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict.

It’s not clear that ei­ther side got what it wanted.

“I and stu­dents like me hon­estly don’t know what to do when we go back to school in a few weeks,” Zoe Gold­blum, a Stan­ford Univer­sity stu­dent, told Finger­hut, de­scrib­ing her dif­fi­culty in con­vinc­ing non-Jewish stu­dents to re­ject BDS with­out be­ing able to as­sure them that the broader pro-Is­rael cam­pus com­mu­nity also sup­ports an end to Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion. The choice be­tween ex­press­ing her sup­port for Is­rael and her op­po­si­tion to op­pres­sion, she said, is “heart wrench­ing.”

J Street and its cam­pus arm have re­jected BDS, and on sev­eral cam­puses, J Street U stu­dents played a key role in de­feat­ing di­vest­ment res­o­lu­tions.

Finger­hut at­tempted to un­der­score Hil­lel’s com­mit­ment to hu­man rights and its ac­tivism on so­cial is­sues that could res­onate well with the J Street U crowd. He ar­gued that Hil­lel and its donors, some of whom tilt strongly to the right, sup­port a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion to the Mid­dle East con­flict.

“I truly be­lieve that the pro-Is­rael or­ga­ni­za­tions on cam­pus across the road are for peace, for dig­nity for the Pales­tini­ans, for hu­man rights and for all the poli­cies you are speak­ing of,” he told the ac­tivists. “They have a dif­fer­ent view as how best to ac­com­plish this goal.”

This ex­pla­na­tion, while re­ceived po­litely by the stu­dents, did lit­tle to con­vince J Street U mem­bers that they are on the same page as Hil­lel. “& with that, @er­ic_fin­ger­hut ends talk­ing to @jstreetu stu­dents with­out once ac­knowl­edg­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion,” one of the par­tic­i­pants tweeted, mak­ing clear that de­spite the pos­i­tive at­mos­phere, dif­fer­ences still ex­ist.


Mak­ing Peace: Hil­lel CEO Eric Finger­hut speaks to J Street ac­tivists.

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