How the Israel Lobby Captured Hillel

Hillel International used to be a welcoming campus organization for Jews of all persuasions. Not anymore.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 23: Hundreds of J Street U students rush towards the doors of Hillel International to put up post-it notes in a response to Hillel President Eric Fingerhut canceling his scheduled speech at their conference. (Erin Schaff/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 23: Hundreds of J Street U students rush towards the doors of Hillel International to put up post-it notes in a response to Hillel President Eric Fingerhut canceling his scheduled speech at their conference. (Erin Schaff/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Joshua Wolfsun, a senior at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, never expected his college education to include the threat of a lawsuit. And he definitely didn’t expect it to include one from Hillel International.

“My sense going into college was that Hillel was a center for Jewish campus life,” Wolfsun told me of the organization that oversees a network of Jewish campus centers across the United States and abroad. Wolfsun joined the Swarthmore branch of Hillel during his freshman year and served on its board for three years. (He resigned recently to focus on “job applications and senior-year wrap-up things” but remains involved in the organization.) “I expected it to be a pluralistic, open, inclusive space to explore Jewish identities and learn and grow.”

He doesn’t think so anymore. In 2010, Hillel International, the parent organization of campus Hillels, developed an explicit policy, officially named the “Standards of Partnership,” that prohibits hosting or co-partnering with individuals or organizations deemed anti-Israel or in support of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Wolfsun and his colleagues at Swarthmore wanted to host a wider range of events and speakers than Hillel’s guidelines allow, and in December 2013, they declared their Hillel “open,” in rejection of Hillel International’s restrictions. In January 2015, the Swarthmore students began organizing an event featuring civil rights activists now involved in Palestinian solidarity activism who support BDS.

When Hillel International got wind of the program, the organization insisted that the program not proceed under its name. Liliana Rodriguez, then an associate dean at Swarthmore College, received a letter from Hillel’s lawyer that threatened legal action against the college if the program went ahead as planned. If the students or speakers “intend for this program to be a discussion in which the speakers present or proselytize their known anti-Israel and Pro BDS agenda, this would cross the clear line for programs that violate Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership and could be reason for Hillel International to seek to protect its guidelines, name and reputation,” Hillel’s lawyer wrote.

In response to Hillel International’s legal threats, Swarthmore’s Hillel group changed its name and proceeded to hold the event. Because the group there is independently funded — by Swarthmore’s student activities fund and through an endowment raised by Swarthmore’s Jewish organization over the years — no financial risk was at stake. (The group’s funds continue to be managed by Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.)

Swarthmore’s Jewish students were not the only ones to face intervention from Hillel in recent years, either directly or by local Hillel directors. Harvard University students had to relocate an event scheduled to take place at their Hillel when their rabbi nixed it on the grounds that the event was co-sponsored by a pro-BDS Palestinian solidarity group. The same civil rights speakers who caused the Swarthmore maelstrom were blocked from speaking at Oberlin College in Ohio by the local Hillel director. Then they were blocked from speaking at Muhlenberg College’s Hillel by the Hillel rabbi because the event violated the Standards of Partnership. Caroline Dorn, the student president of Muhlenberg’s Hillel at the time, resigned in protest. “I can’t be a representative of Hillel International, an organization that I feel is limiting free speech on our campus and prohibiting academic integrity,” Dorn wrote in an op-ed in the college’s newspaper.

 Hillel International is an umbrella organization that oversees some 550 chapters on campuses in North America and a few dozen in other countries around the world. These centers, which are headed by a Hillel director, often a rabbi, are meant to build “an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel,” according to its website. The organization fosters Jewish life on campus through a number of programs and activities, including Shabbat services, Passover Seders, lectures, discussion groups, and other programs.

How did Hillel go from being a center for Jewish life on campus to an organization threatening colleges with lawsuits for using its name?

According to numerous sources, Hillel has changed — both since its founding in 1923 and, especially, in the last 15 years or so — from a religious and cultural organization in which a variety of opinions were tolerated, to a wing of a hard-line pro-Israel lobby that tolerates limited dissent.

Supporters of the organization contend that as a private institution subsidized by private funding, Hillel is fully within its rights to place strictures on the kinds of conversations it tolerates. “We can be strongly supportive of the rights of anyone to engage in free speech on campus,” Richard Joel, a previous Hillel International president, told me. “I don’t think it means that has to happen at Hillel.” But does this policing of discourse come at the expense of the students whom Hillel was created to serve, students at American colleges where they have come to engage in critical thinking and debate? As Hillel has changed its priorities and become less tolerant of diverse viewpoints regarding Israel, it is coming into direct conflict with a growing and particularly contentious issue on college campuses: BDS.

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Hillel wasn’t always explicitly Zionist. Founded at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1923, the organization was funded by B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization, and later by local Jewish federations. By 1939 there were 12 operational Hillel centers. They were not political. In 1944, during debates about the creation of the state of Israel, a student organizer at the first Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel stated that it would be “neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist … neither Orthodox nor Reform.” Its organizers hoped to provide students with “an intensive preview of what awaits him who is called a Jew,” as Judah Shapiro of the Hillel Foundation put it.

Many former Hillel members recall a time 30 or 40 years ago when Hillel wasn’t associated so strongly with Israel or, at least, countenanced more debate on the subject. According to multiple sources interviewed for this article, many Hillel rabbis used to be members of Breira — a left-wing organization that often expressed criticism of Israel. “Historically speaking, when I was in college, I can’t remember any serious controversies that happened in Hillel because of Israel,” said Charles Manekin, a professor of philosophy and Jewish studies at the University of Maryland who went to college in the early 1970s. “It was relatively Zionist, but I don’t think it was that Israel-oriented.”

“When I first encountered Hillel it functioned within a university framework,” said a source very familiar with Hillel who declined to be named for fear of recriminations. “It was a place of free inquiry, intellectualism, and criticism. That’s why students who were looking for a setting that was different from their synagogue were more comfortable there.” Not any longer, he lamented.

The first shift began in the 1980s. The organization struggled to find the resources necessary to operate. The Jewish community was focused on other things — Israel, the plight of Soviet Jews, and the poor — with not much energy or financing left over for college students. All that changed under the administration of Richard Joel, who was Hillel’s president from 1988 to 2003.

Joel transformed Hillel from a group of small, independent centers into a more centrally organized, corporate institution with localized funding, provided by some of the American Jewish community’s largest donors. Joel scored grants from hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, mega-philanthropists Lynn and Charles Schusterman, and the now-deceased businessman Edgar Bronfman, among others. (Bronfman and Joel would visit campus centers via “Hillel One,” Bronfman’s private jet.) When Joel started in 1988, Hillel’s annual budget was $14 million, according to a 2006 report from Brandeis University. By the time he left, the budget had quadrupled, the report found. According to the Brandeis report, a rise in intermarriage recorded by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey helped spur his efforts to convince Jewish donors that college students were a demographic worthy of attention and funds.

“We created a brand called Hillel and made it compelling, both for a generation of college students ­­ bringing a different kind of approach to it that made it a real important Jewish educational enterprise ­­ and to major donors,” Joel told me in a recent interview. “But it’s not like selling a widget. It’s not about marketing. It’s about product and purpose.”

With Joel at the helm, Hillel developed a strong ideology and identity — as a Jewish educational enterprise with the mission of promoting “the valuableness of being part of the Jewish people on the part of Jewish students,” as he put it.

In 2011, casino mogul and megadonor Sheldon Adelson and his wife pledged $1 million to the Jewish Agency for Israel for the organization’s Israel Fellows program, which places Israeli college grads in Hillels throughout North America “to assist with Israel education and advocacy.” There are now 65 fellows, and the donation is $3 million annually, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the program.

And in 2013, Adam Milstein, a pro-Israel donor, donated $1,000 through the Hillel at the University of California, Los Angeles to the campaign of two “pro-Israel advocates,” as he put it, running for student government. “Checks can be written payable to Hillel at UCLA,” read an email leaked to the Daily Californian. “Please ear mark in the memo, UCLA Student Government Leaders.”

But the switch to the big-donor model had some unintended consequences, according to several sources with knowledge of Hillel’s inner workings.

“When an organization becomes larger, they become increasingly dependent on large donations from a small group of donors,” explained a former local Hillel director who requested anonymity for fear of recriminations. “In the Jewish community, the big donors have unnuanced views on Israel, and they have come to see college campuses as a war zone and they have to protect Israel.”

And the donors don’t have to explicitly threaten to pull funding for their politics to influence programming. “Whether they use their sway explicitly or not, in my experience, it amounts to the same thing,” he said.

The effect is a chilling of debate and discourse, the former director said. There is now a “right way” to think about Israel. “Everyone involved worried that if they say anything contrary to that view, they will lose donors. I always worried that I would be fired over something to do with Israel.” Being pro-Israel is the new circumcision, he said, “the definition of if you’re a real Jew.”

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During the Second Intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2005, Hillel’s self-conceived role as advocate for Israel was solidified. Previously, Palestinians weren’t speaking a leftist language, said Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism and a professor at the City University of New York. Throughout the 1990s, Yasser Arafat would appear on TV with a thick Arabic accent, wearing his keffiyeh and speaking about Arab pride. But after the Second Intifada, the atmosphere on college campuses changed. Pro-Palestinian activists increasingly adopted the international language of human rights and nonviolent resistance. And the BDS movement, which seeks to put pressure on Israeli policies through nonviolent boycotts and sanctions, saw a surge of support. Since then, BDS has been gaining traction among students, leading many in the Jewish world and Israel to view college campuses as the state of Israel’s latest battleground.

Joel served as president of Hillel until 2003, when Avraham Infeld took over for two years. Then, in 2005, Wayne Firestone became Hillel’s president and CEO. Firestone had previously worked as director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a national organization “dedicated to strengthening the pro-Israel movement on campus,” according to its website. With Firestone’s appointment came a change at the national level, said Gordon Gladstone, who worked at the campus Hillel at the University of California, Berkeley for six years, two of them as director. Gladstone remembered Joel’s rhetoric as centered on Jewish identity and Jewish experience, whereas Firestone’s administration was much more political, in rhetoric and action.

Firestone ratified a crackdown on anti-Israel programming by formulating the Standards of Partnership within the Hillel Israel Guidelines; he announced these standards in an op-ed published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2010. The role of the standards was to establish “valid partners in promoting civil and informed discourse on Israel,” Firestone wrote. “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that … [d]eny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders” or that “[d]elegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” the standards state. Anyone who supports BDS is disqualified.

Under Firestone’s leadership, Hillel also took proactive steps in establishing itself as an advocate for Israel. According to students who were on Hillel boards at the time, in 2012 Hillel International changed the wording surrounding Israel in its strategic plan from “Israel engagement and education” to “Israel engagement, education, and advocacy,” making explicit this new part of its mission.

When former Rep. Eric Fingerhut of Ohio was appointed Hillel’s president and CEO in 2013, he said in an interview that using Hillel’s staff and resources to fulfill its commitment toward supporting Israel was nonnegotiable. “I am personally in my life deeply committed to Israel and would only be part of an organization that is not only pro-Israel in its own behavior, but is helping to instill the love of Israel in the people we serve, the young adults that we serve,” Fingerhut said. (Fingerhut refused multiple requests for an interview for this article, but Hillel spokesperson Matthew Berger agreed to answer questions via email.) As part of his strategic plan, Fingerhut initiated the new department of Israel education and engagement.

In 2013, the year Fingerhut took office, Hillel broadcast a partnership with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the conservative pro-Israel lobbying group, vowing to “strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus,” according to an op-ed in the Jewish Week. The partnership has included events such as the Northern California Campus Summit with the Hillel at Stanford University, which “explored critical issues facing Israel and the U.S. in the Middle East,” the op-ed stated.

The shift toward Israel advocacy has been correlated with explicit mentions of donor influence setting the agenda. In March, Fingerhut backed out of attending a conference — hosted by the college arm of J Street, a dovish pro-Israel lobbying organization — where he was scheduled to speak. Students affiliated with J Street were told by multiple Hillel officials that Hillel’s donors spoke out against Fingerhut’s making an appearance. (Hillel officials called the decision an administrative mistake, according to students, and Fingerhut has since apologized for pulling out of the conference.) A Hillel spokesman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the decision had been reached after consulting with the “full range” of Hillel stakeholders. But when I asked who specifically had counseled Fingerhut not to attend the conference, Hillel spokesperson Berger replied, “The decision not to speak at the conference was made by Eric Fingerhut. It would be inaccurate to say or suggest otherwise.”

But for some, Fingerhut’s refusal to attend the J Street conference was the direct result of other developments. “When you see what just transpired with Fingerhut, you realize the degree to which these donors have influence on the policy and behavior of the organization,” said Gladstone, the former local Hillel director. Many others with knowledge of Hillel’s inner workings agreed.

* * *

Richard Joel, Hillel International’s president in the 1990s, insists that Israel has always been central for Hillel. “It’s not simply an open marketplace to talk about the future of the Middle East,” he told me. “It’s an institution that’s committed to the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Therefore it is right to say what can Hillel do, in addition to its Jewishness mission, to help train activists to provide the right kind of information to support the state of Israel, to engage in activities that foster people going to Israel, that will defend against acts of anti-Israel, anti-Semitic actions.”

But these new policies raise questions about who is being served by the pro-Israel developments. Many current and former Hillel directors spoke of the apathy that many Jewish students feel toward Israel. “My experience is, the vast majority of students who walk through the doors of Hillel are not there because they are interested in Israel as a political issue,” said Gladstone. “If they have an interest in Israel, it’s as the historic homeland of the Jewish people. They’re looking for community. They didn’t sign up to fight the BDS war.” But, he went on, “there’s clearly a class of donors who very much think that should be the role and that should be the business.”

Hillel disputes the claim that students are being conscripted to fight the BDS war to satisfy the ideological needs of donors. “This is 100 percent false,” Berger wrote in a statement. “Hillel has as much power to compel students to tackle BDS as it does to force every Jewish student to attend Shabbat services.”

What Hillel does have the power to do, though, is to explicitly (via lawsuits) or implicitly (via the Standards of Partnership) limit the debate within individual affiliates around the United States, thereby constricting the breadth of the conversation about Israel in the most important centers for Jewish life on college campuses. The pro-BDS civil rights speakers whom Hillel International blocked from Swarthmore by threatening the college with a lawsuit were also blocked by local Hillel leaders from speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg was barred from speaking at Harvard Hillel in 2013 because the event was co-sponsored by the Palestine Solidarity Committee — a pro-BDS organization — which thus violated the Standards of Partnership. In addition, J Street U, J Street’s college arm, has struggled to partner with Hillels. And back in November 2012, students at Harvard University had put together another program co-sponsored with the Palestine Solidarity Committee. The rabbi of Harvard Hillel shut down the program after receiving emails from the vice president of Hillel International, according to an article in the Harvard Crimson and a student organizer of the event, Rachel Sandalow-Ash. In response, Sandalow-Ash and other students banded together to form a campaign called Open Hillel that seeks to break with the Standards of Partnership and broaden dialogue to groups and speakers who are not pro-Israel.

Students at four colleges declared their Hillels to be “open”: Swarthmore, Guilford, Vassar, and Wesleyan. Guilford and Swarthmore colleges were both threatened with lawsuits by Hillel International unless their Hillel groups stopped using the name “Hillel,” and those groups have since disaffiliated with the parent organization. (Wesleyan and Vassar were not threatened with a lawsuit.) But Open Hillel is a campaign rather than an organization; it’s meant to create change within the existing Hillels rather than compete with them, according to organizers. Although drawing support from hardly the majority of Jewish students at U.S. colleges, or even the majority of Hillel attendees, the Open Hillel campaign now has hundreds of students participating from over 60 universities.

Their efforts are being met with increased resistance from Hillel International. In December 2014, in an address at the inaugural Hillel International Global Assembly, Fingerhut brought up “the rebellion of Korah,” the biblical character who rebelled against Moses. “We, too, have experienced deception in the past year,” Fingerhut said. “As you all know personally and deeply, Hillel is an open, pluralistic organization that works hard every day to make as many people as possible feel welcome and appreciated.” He went on to assert that “some who claim Hillel is not open do not really mean that. Their real agenda is to have another platform for anti-Israel agitation.” At another appearance, before the Israeli Knesset, Fingerhut told Israeli lawmakers that he intends to enforce the Standards of Partnership “rigorously.”

In an email, Hillel spokesperson Berger wrote that Fingerhut’s biblical allusions were in reference to an incident in which an American Jewish Committee staffer offered to supply Open Hillel with relevant information from an off-the-record conference call about Hillel. About BDS and Hillel’s opposition to it, Berger was even more forceful than Fingerhut at his address. “BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic,” Berger wrote. “Hillel will not be a platform for individuals or organizations to advance their campaign against Jewish people and the existence of the Jewish State.” Berger insisted that Hillel is not a political organization and does not exist to further a political view.

But others disagree. “The assertion that everyone is welcome in Hillel is factually true. However, students who actively promote a pronounced ‘deviant’ point of view learn early on that they’re not really welcome,” said the source very familiar with Hillel. “The nature of the discourse at Hillel and the speakers who are brought all represent one point of view. If you claim to be an inclusive organization, where is the variety of representative ideas? You should at least have a debate about BDS and invite someone with that position to participate in the debate.”

He went on, “Could you imagine a Hillel without a Reform Jewish service? Could Hillel survive if it didn’t have the full variety of expression of religiosity from within the Jewish community? So how can Hillel survive without the full variety of expression regarding Israel?”

Image credit: Erin Schaff/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter: @bungarsargon.