Hillel CEO, who has previously threatened legal action against students for controversial speakers, decries ‘crisis’ of free expression on campus

Dramatic reversal as Hillel International president and CEO Eric Fingerhut announces support of open discourse, shocking Jewish student activists.

Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International; Photo: Hillel International website

WASHINGTON — Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, recently spoke on a panel at the Bipartisan Policy Center entitled “Crisis on Campus: The Future of Free Expression and Intellectual Diversity.” In a stunning about-face, Fingerhut — whose organization has previously suppressed student debate on issues related to Israel, including via lawsuit threats — now says that he realizes the importance of open discourse.

“We do need to be attentive to the cases that exist when we end up in a situation where there really is sort of an enforced way of thinking on any set of issues and students feel oppressed, truly unable to fully express their identities,” Fingerhut said. 

Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, has gained attention in recent years for their Standards of Partnership, which do not allow Hillel chapters to “partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel” or “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against…Israel.” In response, students formed the Open Hillel campaign in late 2012 to protest these policies and instead support a Jewish communal conversation that also includes opinions that they encounter on the campus at large. In practice, Hillel’s policies often exclude perspectives that range from liberal Zionist,1 if more harshly critical of Israel, to non- and anti-Zionist views.

Until this surprising reversal, Hillel has consistently thwarted students’ efforts to engage with dissenting opinions within their campus Jewish communities. In 2015, Hillel threatened to sue students for hosting speakers that violate their Israel policies.

(above) Hillel International’s letter threatening to sue Swarthmore College’s Hillel chapter should they host a panel of civil rights activists, some of whom supported BDS. Photo: Open Hillel Facebook page

Even association with offending groups has had consequences, in at least one known instance where Hillel disaffiliated a group for being one of fifteen co-sponsors of an event unrelated to Israel, because one of the other co-sponsors supported BDS. 2

More recently, Hillel has taken their ideological interference outside of campus Jewish institutions, such as by endorsing the nomination of Kenneth Marcus — who has a long record of targeting First Amendment rights of pro-Palestinian students and endorsing vague definitions of antisemitism that would include any criticism of Israel — as the leader of the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education. 3

Yet at the event, Fingerhut reportedly explained that the idea that certain views on Israel “should be banned or defeated rather than studied and discussed is so prevalent [on campus] that it intimidates Jewish students and others, excludes them from some campus organizations and activities, and discourages them from openly sharing their views.”

“It can result in censorship of student behavior so they can’t fully engage in the life of the campus community,” he said. He suggested a wider range of programming and guest speakers could be helpful for ensuring diversity of viewpoints, adding, “[I]f we find ourselves in a position that a train of thought is not being represented on campus, we should take steps to make sure it is represented.”

Open Hillel has tweeted at Hillel International to ask when the Standards of Partnership will be officially rescinded so that they can declare the end of their campaign. We will update with new developments.

Brief historical notes on “red lines” in intra-communal Israel discourse

Yousef Munayyer’s latest piece linked to a report titled “The Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy: The Frustrating 20X Question: Why Is It Still Growing? Condition, Direction and Response”1 by the ADL and the Reut Group, an Israeli think-tank.2 Some quick research shows that the paper seems to have been originally leaked3 to pro-Palestinian website The Electronic Intifada almost two years ago, despite now being hosted on the website of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The authors explain the “20X Question” in the title of their report as follows:

The focus of this report is the ‘20X question:’ How can it be that the collective investment of the Jewish community in dealing with this challenge is estimated to be twenty-fold bigger over the past six years, yet results remain elusive? [emphasis mine]

I’m still working my way through the paper, though it is easily digestible in its numerical/bulleted list format. (There are 113 listed points.)

For now, I’ll make some quick comments about a section that jumped out at me:

92. However, even a broad tent has limits, and therefore establishing red lines with regards to the discourse on Israel is also essential:

This caught my attention because “broad tent” and “red lines” are terms that originated with Reut, according to a 2011 policy paper4 on their old website. I first learned about this paper several years ago as a student activist with the Open Hillel campaign, which advocates against Hillel International’s Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities, specifically the Standards of Partnership (which, as noted in the 2011 paper, were developed in consultation with Reut.)5 The basic idea is that the Jewish community should allow for a “broad tent” of Israel supporters within the communal conversation, but actively work to exclude Israel’s “delegitimizers” from the same:

[T]he broad tent approach must be compounded by complementary principles such as:
* Narrowing the definition of ‘delegitimization’ (Reut suggested delegitimization to mean the rejection of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination or of the State of Israel to exist), and then
aggressively outing, naming and shaming delegitimizers [emphasis mine]

(Fun fact: in the paper, Reut mentions that the original framing was “open tent” before it was “broad tent.” Can’t have an open tent now, can we?!6 7 🙂 )

So the section on “red lines” in this new paper is an ideological continuation of Reut’s previous work. Given that almost six years had passed between the publication of these two papers, I wanted to see if there was an evolution in strategy.

I continued to scan and saw the bold-faced intros to each bullet: “On the left…” and “On the right…” Coincidentally, I was recently speaking with the Hillel director of my alma mater (who certainly did not agree with my activism as a student!), who mentioned to me that she and other Hillel directors have been brainstorming proposals for “red lines” for individuals and organizations on the Right to mirror the current Hillel policies, which exclusively affect those on the Left.8

So when I saw these bullet points, I was intrigued. Perhaps this is evidence of (finally) some symmetry, even if I think it’s ill-advised and counterproductive on the Right as well as the Left? The section on the Left is about what you would expect:

On the left, the red lines need to distinguish between legitimate criticism and acts of delegitimization. Such a slippage can occur when criticism is consistently and repeatedly one-sided, not nuanced and without context, for example, when placing all the blame for the current state of the political process with the Palestinians on Israel. This is particularly sensitive since such criticism can quickly feed into the delegitimization campaign;

So I was ready to hear Reut’s idea of what constituted “out of bounds” discourse on the Right.

On the right, the red lines also need to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and delegitimization. In this case, when legitimate criticism is framed as an act of delegitimization and its conveyers as delegitimizers, the pro-Israel community is fragmented and drawn into infighting. In fact, liberal Zionist Jewish organizations are the most effective tools against delegitimization among liberal progressive circles. Moreover, efforts to combat delegitimization will fail if they are accompanied by anti-Muslim sentiments that push soft critics and bystanders toward the delegitimization movement”

…but it turns out it’s not red lines for the Right, but rather, what right-wingers need to keep in mind when those to their left criticize Israel! (Also, LOL @ “don’t be Islamophobes, guys!”)

This is unsurprising, not only because Reut wrote this report under the guidance of the Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry, but because it would be impossible to write an ideological litmus test for the Right that didn’t exclude significant number of high-ranking Israeli politicians.

Of course, red lines existed far before Reut created this strategy. During my organizing in undergrad, I remember talking to an older woman who remembered when support for the two-state solution was what got one kicked out of the tent. (She mentioned Hillel directors fearing for their job over the matter.)

But communal discourse shifts and we have more access to information and dissenting voices than any time in history. Mainstream Jewish institutions can pour resources toward hasbara as much as they want, but they can’t pay anyone not to listen to ideas outside of their ideological lines. “Outing, naming, and shaming” the (disproportionately young, female, and non-White) Jews who espouse dissenting views only delegitimizes the communal institutions themselves.