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.


Notes

  1. Hillel excludes pro-Israel narratives, March 2019
  2. At Ohio State University, the Jewish LGBTQ group B’nai Keshet was one of fifteen co-sponsors of a fundraising event for LGBTQ refugees in spring 2017. However, because one of the other co-sponsors was the university’s Jewish Voice for Peace chapter, Hillel severed their affiliation with B’nai Keshet, despite the fact that the event was held outside of Hillel and the content of the event was unrelated to Israel. See Hillel Ousts Jewish LGBTQ Group for Teaming Up With Pro-boycott Organization
  3. Students Beware: This Trump Nominee Doesn’t Believe in Your Civil Rights, January 2018

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