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