Student group protests Hillel’s funding from Israel government-led project

Protestors including Lara Haft, at far right, who made the Yiddish sign that means “Down with facism,” gather outside the offices of Hillel International. Photo by George Altshuler
Protestors including Lara Haft, at far right, who made the Yiddish sign that means “Down with facism,” gather outside the offices of Hillel International.
Photo by George Altshuler

A dozen protesters of the student group Open Hillel gathered in front of the Washington headquarters of Hillel International last week to protest Hillel International’s $22 million dollar grant from an organization led by Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.

In a statement, Open Hillel, a network of student groups that promotes open dialogue about Israel on college campuses, accused Bennett, leader of Israel’s right-wing Jewish Home Party, of having values that don’t reflect the views of students in the United States. The group cited Bennett’s opposition to same-sex marriage and his ministry’s decision to ban from Israeli schools a novel featuring a romance between Israeli and Palestinian students.

Lara Haft, a 21-year-old senior at Duke University who grew up in Rockville, said the Mosaic United grant would come with “strings attached” that would influence Hillel International’s programming.

“I don’t know how an organization can say that its donors won’t influence its programming,” she said.

Bennett supports Israel’s settler movement, opposes a two-state solution with the Palestinians and favors annexing large parts of the West Bank to Israel.

Mosaic United, an organization that seeks to strengthen Israel-Diaspora ties by promoting Jewish identity, is also giving $22 million each to Chabad on Campus International and Olami, an Orthodox outreach group.

Mosaic United, previously known as the Israel-Diaspora Initiative, receives funding from the Israeli government and various individuals and groups. It falls under the purview of Bennett’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

Hillel spokesperson Matthew Berger said that Mosaic United would have no political influence on his organization’s programs.

“We stand firmly behind our policies and programming decisions, including working with Mosaic United because it supports the mission of Hillel’s Drive to Excellence and can help further student engagement outcomes on campus,” he said in a statement. “Hillel’s commitment to pluralistic programming that reaches every Jewish student is a cornerstone of every grant Hillel accepts, particularly the Mosaic United investment.”

Haft said the grant would make students like her feel unwelcome at Hillel.

“For me as a queer woman, when Hillel says they’d rather have the $66 million from Bennett, they’re saying that they don’t want me in Hillel,” said Haft, who held a large Yiddish sign she made modeled off that of German-Jewish anti-fascist protesters of the 1930s.

Itay Barylka, an 18-year-old attending New York University who grew up in Israel, also criticized Hillel International and its partnership with Mosaic United.

“I think it’s atrocious that an organization that claims to represent American Jewish students would team up Bennett and the Israeli extreme right,” said Barylka.

Open Hillel was formed in 2012 to protest Hillel International’s guidelines that Hillel campus chapters cannot partner with organizations or speakers that support boycott, divestment or sanctions against Israel. Barylka also faulted Hillel International for limiting freedom of speech.

In its statement, Hillel International disputed this allegation.

“Hillel International has enormous respect for diverse points of view and the right to argue within the Jewish tradition,” said the statement.

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JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

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