Fighting for Israel on Campus, is Hillel Up to the Task?


On Shabbat morning, January 31st Jason Bernhard, a member of the AEPI Jewish  fraternity at UC Davis had just left his frat house when he saw the hated symbol spray painted on the side of the building, he turned to see another Swastika painted blood-red on the ground. The Thursday before, Jewish students on the same campus were taunted with shouts of Alahu Akbar (Allah is great) after a resolution to boycott the Jewish state led by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) had passed the student senate. 

Hillel Students celebrating Israel at University of Rhode Island. Photo Credit URI Hillel.

Hillel Students celebrating Israel at University of Rhode Island. Photo Credit URI Hillel.

This past August, Daniel Vessal, a Jewish student at Temple University was assaulted while subjected to a barrage of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel epithets, reportedly  by an associate of members of SJP. At Loyola University this past September, SJP activists linked arms preventing students from accessing a pro-Israel educational display. These incidents are not anomalies, a study released by the Israeli government in January reported that anti-Israel activity has increased on US campuses with an over 400 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents on US campuses over the previous year. 

Meanwhile what had been a trickle of anti-Israel boycott resolutions being approved by college senates, has become a deluge. Anti-Israel resolutions were passed most recently at UCLA and UC Davis – campuses that had previously fended off such efforts.

While the chance of such boycott resolutions being implemented by university administrators is zero to none, disinvestment is not the goal. The battle is for the hearts and minds of the next generation of leaders. SJP and their allies invest relentless effort towards alienating and intimidating pro-Israel, usually Jewish students from expressing public support for the Jewish state. The goal being to make the very notion of supporting Israel anathema on campus.  (see video below).

On most US campuses the pro-Israel response to anti-Israel efforts emanates from within the over 500 branches of Hillel International. Founded in 1922, Hillel serves as a cultural oasis for the tens of thousands of Jewish students in higher learning. Providing social activities, classes, speakers and always lots of comfort food, Hillel was envisioned as a safe welcoming, space for Jewish students of all persuasions, opinions and backgrounds. Hence, controversy and polarization serves counter to Hillel’s core mission.

Hillel Bagel Brunch promo at Gettysburg College.

Hillel Bagel Brunch promo at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

Hillel is not designed for full-time combat, yet as the hot battle for Israel rages at our colleges, it is Hillel that assert itself as the clearinghouse for Israel’s defense. In contrast to SJP whose raison d’être  is the full-time demonization of the Jewish state, Hillel’s mission is much wider than the resource and time depleting effort to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel movement (BDS). As Hillel UW director Rabbi Oren Hayon lamented in an article in Seattle’s JTNews, the BDS fight “distracted us from spending time doing thoughtful, engaging, meaningful, fulfilling programming for our constituents, because when stuff like this emerges on campus it sucks everyone’s time and energy into it,”.

Under Eric Fingerhut’s leadership Hillel has proclaimed itself absolutely pro-Israel and firmly opposed to the BDS movement. Hillel chapters across the country have expended great effort and resources towards countless impressive pro-Israel activities and programs. Many Hillel chapters have taken the lead in fighting and often defeating anti-Israel resolutions on campus. That having been said, Hillel serves a constituency that is widely polarized when it comes to the Jewish State. Hence Hillel leaders must invest exhausting hours and days trying to cobble together a student consensus-driven response to anti-Israel efforts. The areas of agreement amongst the diverse body of Jewish students are often so sparse as to make a robust, limber defense of  Israel near impossible. 

Every Hillel branch operates semi independently, each with their own director and board. This results in a wildly inconsistent approach to Israel advocacy. While Hillel’s national policy precludes partnerships with anti-Israel Jewish groups, chapters at Swarthmore and Vassar have declared themselves to be “Open Hillel” which means they welcome groups that are openly anti-Zionist. On the other end of the spectrum, Hillel at UC Berkeley has placed restrictions on J Street U and their ability to sponsor anti-Israel events using the Hillel name.

Anti-Israel training at the University of Washington - 2014.

Anti-Israel training at the University of Washington – November 2013.

There are no such conflicts hampering the efforts of SJP activists. The students who affiliate with the organization are fully sympathetic to the group’s mission and tactics. The group is ideologically unified, single minded, unapologetic and undistracted by conflicting goals or responsibilities.

Sometimes working in tandem with Hillel, other times independently, there are a small multitude of Israel advocacy organizations of varying size and scope peppered across the college landscape. While their methods and morals differ from SJP, many of these pro-Israel groups share SJP’s singularity of purpose. And yet groups like StandWithUs, Camera on Campus, The Amcha Initiative, The David Project and many others, more often than not, feel compelled to defer to the hamstrung Hillel.

Does Hillel's diffuse mission and internal battles impede their ability to lead the campus struggle for Israel. Photo: Open Hillel conference-2014.

Anti-Israel members of Open Hillel demanding a greater voice at Hillel. Photo: Open Hillel conference-2014.

To further complicate matters, students associated with anti-Israel groups like J Street U, Jewish Voice for Peace and Open Hillel exploit the certificate of entry granted by their Jewishness. These Jewish groups undercut and even sabotage pro-Israel efforts at Hillel, the internal squabbles creating a time-wasting distraction and another impediment to meeting the challenges at hand.

Thus Hillel,  a group restrained by a diffuse mission, a need for consensus and a conflicted student base, finds itself on the front lines in a battle not of their choosing and for which they were not designed.  

There has not been a time in decades, if ever, that it has been so dangerous to be an openly pro-Israel Jew on campus.

SJP and their anti-Israel allies are wreaking havoc across the US campus universe.  Jewish and pro-Israel students are routinely mocked, derided, intimidated, even assaulted for supporting the Jewish state. With Hillel leading the response there has not been a time in decades, if ever, that it has been so dangerous to be an openly pro-Israel Jew on campus. Late last year at UCLA Jewish students were so hopelessly outmaneuvered that they chose to boycott the BDS resolution debate rather than face the angry mob. Last month pro-Israel students at UC Davis walked out midway through the campus BDS debate (amid taunts and shouts of “Alahu Akbar!”).

Our college students desperately need a nationwide organization dedicated full time solely to the unapologetic, robust defense of Israel and the pro-Israel student community. While such groups exist in certain regions and campuses, they are unlikely to take the lead until Hillel and the organized Jewish community gives them the green light to do so.  

The frightening repercussions of this Hillel takes the lead strategy is evident from campus to campus. Is now the time for a new model? For many college students the time is past due.