The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses threatens not Israel but the lives of American Jewish students and the integrity of the university, according to Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel International.
In an interview late last month, Eric Fingerhut repeatedly drove home his belief that the BDS movement is “at its heart an anti-Semitic movement.” But he skirted questions about the controversies that have dogged him since he took the job as Hillel’s leader nearly two years ago.
The past academic year was a challenging one, he said. “We saw a significant rise in both the number and sophistication of anti-Israel activities on campus. All the BDS referendums that went for a full vote were defeated. Not a single one passed.”
For Hillel to effectively respond to this “wave of anti-Israel activity on campus” it had to build coalitions with other campus groups, something it wasn’t necessarily prepared to do, he acknowledged.
“When these initial waves began earlier this year, perhaps we weren’t as organized as we should have been with other pro-Israel organizations,” Fingerhut said. “I think we’ve improved that. Coalitions take time to build.”
Noting a recent cover story in the Washington Jewish Week about campus attitudes on Israel that reported that BDS was an isolated phenomenon on campuses, and not a widespread epidemic, Fingerhut said that the colleges affected are “not an insignificant number. I would think it would be wrong to dismiss it as an unimportant issue. I think it’s necessary to acknowledge that there was a significant increase this year. And there’s likely to be a significant increase next year.
“And so some Hillel directors who might not have experienced it may find that they experience it in the future. And our job is to be proactive.”
Fingerhut is spending his political capital on holding the line on a movement that questions Israel’s right to exist and threatens its continued existence, at least rhetorically. Asked what would happen if he failed, Fingerhut said it wouldn’t be Israel that would suffer, but Jewish students and the universities they attend.
“It’s not as if some student resolution passes Israel is going to fall into the Mediterranean,” he said. But because young Jews are the future of the Jewish community, “their ability to organize is an indicator of our future capacity to do that as a Jewish people.”
Jews should enlist the university community in rejecting BDS because “they’re not just attacking the Jewish community. They’re attacking the university’s academic integrity.”
In March, Fingerhut canceled an appearance before university students at J Street’s national conference in Washington. The reason: Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was speaking elsewhere at the conference. Erekat has made inflammatory statements about Israel, but despite Erekat being an acceptable interlocutor to the Israelis, Fingerhut bowed out. He suggested he would compromise Hillel’s opposition to BDS if he appeared at the same conference as Erekat.
In response, the students walked to Hillel International headquarters and stuck Post-it notes on the building’s front windows, criticizing him for canceling on him.
Why would the head of a Jewish campus organization give up an opportunity to speak to 1,000 Jewish students — attracting unflattering headlines in the process?
Asked if large donors to Hillel had pressured him to withdraw from the conference, Fingerhut did not respond directly. He said that Israel is a Jewish value and that he speaks to J Street students regularly.
Fingerhut’s tenure at Hillel has been marked by the rise of the Open Hillel movement which protest Hillel’s guidelines about which positions on Israel are acceptable in the organization’s activities. In 2013, Swarthmore Hillel declared itself an Open Hillel, not bound by the Israel guidelines. In March, Swarthmore Hillel, which is governed by a student board and has no donors to answer to, seceded from Hillel entirely.
But the strangest in this series of events concerned Danny Blinderman, a staffer at the American Jewish Committee’s Boston office and an Open Hillel member. Last November, Blinderman contacted his Open Hillel colleagues about an internal AJC conference call about Israel on campus in which Fingerhut was to take part.
In a series of emails they discussed the possibility of Blinderman recording the call and passing the information to Open Hillel. The story was leaked to the Washington Free Beacon, an online publication, and Blinderman was fired.
Asked if he knew who leaked the story, Fingerhut said, “I have no idea.”
David Holzel writes for Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.