J Street U student leaders did not want to talk about inclusion on campus.
More than 120 of them had come “to talk about the occupation and the two-state solution,” Amna Farooqi, the newly elected president of the student arm of J Street, told Hillel International’s president during a Monday meeting in Chevy Chase, Md., where J Street U’s three-day summer leadership institute was taking place.
For his part, Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, stuck to the message that Jewish students are welcome at Hillel and that anti-Semitism linked to boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts on campus poses a serious threat. Hearing this, student activists repeatedly tried to steer the conversation back toward occupation and their sense of being marginalized by the wider Jewish community. Fingerhut wasn’t willing to dwell on these topics. But he was willing to offer them something else — an apology.
In the spirit of the month of Elul, a time when Jews reflect on their actions from the previous year, Fingerhut apologized for any offense caused when he backed out of a planned talk at J Street’s conference in March. The cancellation led to a student protest outside of Hillel International headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.
“There’s no question that the political dynamics are fraught, and I know we had that conversation,” Fingerhut said while gesturing to Benjy Cannon, J Street U’s former student board president. “But there’s nobody responsible for any hurt that occurred in March except me.”
He clarified, when pressed by Cannon, that he “took a step back” from the conference — though not, he said, a step away from student engagement — when it became clear that his speaking during the J Street conference could be viewed as an endorsement of the group’s policies.
“This is about engaging students,” said Fingerhut. “It’s not about endorsing an organization’s political agenda, because Hillel doesn’t do that.”
Politics is everywhere, said Zoe Goldblum, a sophomore at Stanford University and newly elected vice president for the Northwest Region of J Street U, describing for Fingerhut how the BDS campaign on her campus turned into a referendum on race, oppression and occupation.
Goldblum described a meeting in which pro-divestment students, mostly people of color, sat on one side of the room wearing red wristbands and kaffiyehs, while on the other side, wearing blue-and-white T-shirts, was the mostly white group of pro-Israel students.
This led to a dynamic, she said, of “you can either support divestment and support anti-oppression, anti-occupation or you can be a pro-Israel student.” For students who oppose oppression and occupation while supporting Israel, she said the choice was “wrenching.”
“I am telling you this story because I and students like me honestly do not know what to do when we go back to school in a few weeks,” said Goldblum. “As the president of Hillel International, what do you think I should do?”
Fingerhut, who addressed the proliferation of BDS on campus in his prepared remarks, responded that Hillel is proactively building coalitions and mending frayed relationships with students of color and with social justice movements.
In an attempt to turn the conversation toward the “elephant in the room,” as Cannon called it, namely, the influence of donors and stakeholders in the Jewish community, Solomon Tarlin offered up a personal story.
At Boston University, where Tarlin is a junior, J Street U is recognized under the Hillel umbrella. Immediately following the Hillel student board’s decision to include the group, Tarlin claimed that big-name community donors began haranguing the local Hillel director.
Tarlin then turned and asked the audience if anyone else experienced the same thing. More than a dozen hands shot up.
Said Tarlin, “How can we work together to counteract the outside forces that are restricting our ability to fight for Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state?”
Fingerhut responded, “The debate, with all due respect, is not between J Street and powers that be in the community, it’s amongst the Jewish people, amongst the Jewish community on campus, some of whom will agree with you, some of whom won’t.”
Hillel’s responsibility, he said, is to make sure all pro-Israel student groups have a home at Hillel so that students can decide for themselves what position to take.
Farooqi, a senior at the University of Maryland who moderated much of the conversation, pressed Fingerhut to address when “donors’ values take over students’ values,” referring to a story shared by a student from Northwestern University in which the word “occupation” was taken out of an anti-BDS statement jointly issued by the campus chapters of J Street U and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as a result, the student said, of donor pressure.
Rather than address donor influence, Fingerhut told the audience that he disagreed that J Street U is the only organization working toward a two-state solution.
Said Fingerhut, “That would not be the opinion shared by those who are working — including students — with other pro-Israel organizations on campus. They would see it very differently from you.”