Love triangle?

Two Jews, three opinions: J Street U and (Open) Hillel

A Boston University Hillel student board vote to bar the J Street U chapter converges three campus organizations with differing agendas

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

A November 2012 pro-Israel rally held in front of the Erb Memorial Union (student Union) at the University of Oregon. (courtesy of Oregon Hillel)
A November 2012 pro-Israel rally held in front of the Erb Memorial Union (student Union) at the University of Oregon. (courtesy of Oregon Hillel)

April saw the first major convergence of the Hillel International, J Street U and Open Hillel constellation. Despite Hillel International’s public welcome of J Street, the Boston University Hillel student board decided not to reup the school’s J Street U chapter‘s membership as a “Hillel organization.”

Membership is decided by each individual Hillel chapter and grants the group use of the Hillel facilities for events, advertising, and easier access to Jewish students — all key to the Boston J Street U chapter’s success.

J Street U currently has 60 chapters nationwide with some 5,000 students. It is the magnet for liberal-minded Jewish students who cannot see themselves toeing the loyalist pro-Israel lines taken by more conservative campus groups such as AIPAC, StandWithUs and Aish Hatorah’s Israel Hasbara Fellowship.

Enter Open Hillel, a new grassroots effort among Jewish students founded in January 2013, mostly among eastern US campuses, that has made headlines this school year with campuses “seceding” from Hillel International. The movement mainly focuses on broadening the discourse on campuses surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but takes on other issues as well.

According to the organization, “The campaign’s main goal is to eliminate Hillel International’s ‘Standards of Partnership,’ which ban co-sponsorships, speaker events, and affiliations with organizations or individuals whose political views on Israel-Palestine are out of line with Hillel’s policies.”

The movement has claimed recent victories, when Hillel International announced a new Israel Strategy Committee to make recommendations on improving Israeli-Palestinian programming, as well as a Student Cabinet meant to address other student concerns. (For it’s part, Hillel says these new initiatives are part of its Strategic Implementation Plan and completely independent of Open Hillel.)

Open Hillel has also announced its first conference, slated for October 11-13, 2014 at the Harvard University campus.

Immediately after the Boston Hillel vote, Open Hillel created an online petition asking Hillel International to intervene and urge the Boston Hillel student board to reconsider barring the J Street U chapter.

The Times of Israel spoke with a cross-section of Jewish students and professionals about the convergence of these three campus groups, and, unsurprisingly, found a span of voices and opinions. The following are selections from conversations.

HOLLY BICERANO: Member of the Open Hillel Steering Committee, Boston University

Holly Bicerano, member of the Open Hillel Steering Committee (courtesy)
Holly Bicerano, member of the Open Hillel Steering Committee (courtesy)

Bicerano is the former Boston University J Street U chapter president, but since November has also been active in Open Hillel and is no longer a member of the J Street U executive board.

“When something like this happens — when a J Street group or any Jewish group is excluded from Hillel for political reasons, there’s Open Hillel to make it known in the Jewish community and try to get it fixed.

“Any time you’re trying to change the status quo and the system, it takes time.

“Social movements take time to have a big impact, but I’m confident that if J Street keeps reapplying and new students come in, they’ll eventually be readmitted.”

ANDY GITELSON: Executive director at Oregon Hillel Foundation

Andy Gitelson, executive director of the University of Oregon Hillel. (courtesy)
Andy Gitelson, executive director of the University of Oregon Hillel. (courtesy)

“In my eyes, the more students talk about Israel, even if it is critical (as long as it supports Israel’s right to exist as Jewish state), is a good thing, because it forces students to think critically, fosters opportunities for conversation, and provides the campus community with additional voices on supporting Israel.

“There are several Jewish organizations on campus, AEPi, the Jewish Student Union, Sigma Sorority, QuackPac, hopefully soon a J Street U chapter, and Hillel. Each organization has its own voice and we all come together when we can and understand there are programs, groups and times that we simply cannot work together — and that is ok because each organization has its own mission with regard to Jewish community, Israel, and the Jewish future. Hillel is no different.”

TRACY FRYDBERG: Texans for Israel (TFI), the pro-Israel organization at the University of Texas at Austin

University of Texas senior Tracy Frydberg (courtesy)
University of Texas senior Tracy Frydberg (courtesy)

“The issue for me is not whether J Street is ‘pro-Israel’ or not. First, the creation of a J Street U on campus as the ‘progressive voice for peace’ immediately shifts the existing pro-Israel group to the right as the unprogressive, anti-peace organization. This is highly problematic on a college campus where students are charged with responding to BDS and apartheid week while at the same time promoting peace and engaging Jewish and non-Jewish students on Israel.

“The pro-Israel community has a lot to do on campus and we don’t have time to be weakened or fragmented.

“J Street U, in my opinion, is a chain promoting a certain brand. They try to implement these student groups uniformly without taking into consideration the specific campus’s needs and existing pro-Israel community.”

DAVID EDEN: Hillel International’s chief administrative officer

Hillel International's chief administrative officer David Eden (courtesy)
Hillel International’s chief administrative officer David Eden (courtesy)

“The Hillel community is made up of many voices. Hillel International takes seriously our responsibility to be a pluralistic organization and recognizes many points of view when it comes to Israel engagement on campus. We listen to all perspectives and are responsive to our diverse stakeholders.

“The establishment of an Israel Strategy Committee and a Student Cabinet are both part of our ongoing Strategic Implementation Plan. The Student Cabinet will be led by Sheila Katz, Vice President for Social Entrepreneurship at Hillel International. The Israel Strategy Committee is being led by two of Hillel’s most experienced and respected executive directors.

“More details about these initiatives will be shared in the coming months.”

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Executive director of J Street

Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street (courtesy)
Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street (courtesy)

In an oped called “Setting the record straight” featured in The Times of Israel, Ben-Ami wrote:

“We oppose the growing practice in Jewish communal organizations of banning speakers and programs because individuals involved may hold personal views that are out of sync with those of more conservative established institutions or funders.

“Just because we support the right of pro-BDS individuals and groups to be heard does not mean that we support BDS.

“One hopes the Jewish community is sophisticated enough to understand this distinction despite our opponents’ concerted efforts to blur it.”

LEX ROFES: Open Hillel steering committee, former student rep to Hillel’s International Board of Directors; 2013 Brown University grad

Lex Rofes, former member of the Hillel International board, current member of the Open Hillel Steering Committee (courtesy)
Lex Rofes, former member of the Hillel International board, current member of the Open Hillel Steering Committee (courtesy)

“I took the title of student representative very seriously, so I did my best to reach out to Hillel students around the country (and occasionally in other countries) to hear where they thought Hillel could most improve. The answer that I heard most frequently was that it needed to do a better job of being politically pluralistic with regard to Israel.

“But with respect to Israel-Palestine, there is a broad feeling that not all perspectives are treated equal. That right-leaning perspectives are accepted, left-leaning Zionist perspectives like J Street are tolerated, and non-Zionist and anti-Zionists are thoroughly out of bounds.

“Liberal Zionists are generally allowed to work within a Hillel framework, but they tend to have their actions very closely monitored, and their programming often requires a ‘balancing perspective’ that is more right-leaning.

“Pro-Israel implies you must choose between Israel and the Palestinians. If I’m pro-Yankees, people assume I’m anti-Red Sox. I am pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. Anti-Violence and anti-Hatred… I conceptualize pro-Israel as supporting the people of Israel. I, and every single student involved with Open Hillel, am pro-the people of Israel. The Jewish community tends to be unified on that. We are not always unified about the state. And I avoid the pro/anti terms that further entrench Jewish disunity.”

JOANNA KRAMER : J Street U Brown activist, Brown University

Joanna Kramer delivering a J Street U 101 Workshop (courtesy)
Joanna Kramer delivering a J Street U 101 Workshop (courtesy)

“What I find troubling is that I would hope the ultimate goal is that Jewish students are being engaged — people who may not otherwise walk into the doors are being engaged because of these programs.

“I don’t feel we are valued members of the tent which is a frustrating aspect of our work.

“We’re a Hillel student group, yet when we invited Eric Fingerhut [Hillel’s CEO] to a town hall — a chance to come and speak with 300 students and engage — he wasn’t there.

“It can feel personal sometimes. It hurt a lot, it feels like Hillel likes to hold up our partnership but doesn’t do much to substantiate it. But that’s looking like it might change.”

DANIEL MAEL: Pro-Israel activist at Brandeis University, blogger

Pro-Israel Brandeis University student Daniel Mael courtesy)
Pro-Israel Brandeis University student Daniel Mael courtesy)

“Part of J Street’s sell is, we’re the next generation, you exclude us and you exclude the next generation… It’s like they don’t have a complete history book — their verson of history starts two weeks after the ’67 war… J Street creates a mass hysteria that is unjustified.

At Hillel, “the assumption is the program will be pro-Israel. The Open Hillel conversation [asking for a plethora of opinions for Hillel programming] can’t get off the ground, Hillel being a Zionist organization. It is literally asking for the organization to change its mission statement, upon which it’s fundraised.

“I’m a 21-year-old kid living in Massachusetts — who am I to decide Israel policy? The audacity to decide as children! I’m not in a position to bully Benjamin Netanyahu into deciding what to do in Yehuda and Shomron; it’s above my pay grade. They’re kids!”

SARAH TURBOW: Deputy director, J Street U

Sarah Turbow, deputy director of J Street U. (courtesy)
Sarah Turbow, deputy director of J Street U. (courtesy)

“At the beginning because the conversation was so much more closed than it is now, we originally wanted to be able to just have a conversation without screaming at each other.

“We came here to change the politics, change the community conversation. We met with growing pains, but the response we’ve received is both positive and negative.

“One of our founding ideas is we believe we represent a silent majority on this issue — there isn’t a liberal voice in Washington, on college campuses. To be pro-Israel is not to support every policy, but the survival of a Jewish democratic homeland. It is our responsibility as American Jews to do something about it.

“There is a reason why J Street is focused on American politics and policy. We don’t lobby in the Knesset or the Palestinians. But at the end of the day, at the Birthright mega events, Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] says ‘welcome home.'”

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