Editor's Note: Breaking the Silence, an organization of IDF veterans that publicly discusses their experiences serving in what they call the "Occupied Territories" obtained this letter from a Hillel member. In it, Hillel Internationl's CEO, Eric Fingerhut, discusses how his organization reacted to a presentation at Washington University's Hillel by a member of Breaking the Silence, Oded Na'aman. Please find an opinion piece by Na'aman here.
This week I have received emails regarding the program involving J Street U, Breaking the Silence, and Hillel at Washington University. Many expressed anger and opposition to Hillel’s decision to host the program.
I want to share with you what I know about that program. It is my aspiration, in every action I take as president of Hillel, to fulfill our vision of inspiring Jewish college students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning, and Israel. With that as a caveat, I always welcome comments that help focus that vision. Your thoughts are very valuable as I continue to develop the best approaches to these complex issues.
Breaking the Silence was invited to Washington University by a Jewish student who is also an active member of J Street U. The student had heard Breaking the Silence at another program off campus. The student asked Hillel to host the program. We are well aware of the one-sided discussion that Breaking the Silence presents on the subject of the IDF’s role in guaranteeing Israel’s security. Our Washington University Hillel Director consulted local and national professional and lay leaders before a decision was made locally to host the program under clear supervision and restrictions.
Why would we do so? The reasons are several.
First, this program was going to happen on the Washington University campus with or without our involvement. The student who invited Breaking the Silence is an active, interested member of the Jewish community and has repeatedly expressed her commitment to Israel. By inviting Breaking the Silence the student intended to challenge the campus community to engage in a conversation around difficult issues. We chose to work with the student in an educational setting rather than push the student outside our tent. To have done otherwise would have sent a clear message of rejection to a student who is a positive and constructive member of our community. Since the student had already heard this specific Breaking the Silence speakers’ presentation, declaring the presentation off limits would have also had the effect of making it appear as if the presentation contained information we were afraid to confront, rather than something we felt confident tackling head on.
Second, by bringing the program under our roof, we had the opportunity to balance the event proactively. After consulting with a number of concerned organizations and individuals (many of whom still disagreed with our decision), our Shaliach from the Jewish Agency arranged for one of our very best Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to fly to St. Louis. The Israel Fellow met with students before the program, helped frame the conversation, listened to the entire Breaking the Silence presentation, and then made a detailed presentation on the same issues after the program. That fact was left out of reports about the event. Our Hillel Director introduced the program by telling the approximately 40 students and adults in attendance that Hillel is unequivocally pro-Israel, introduced the Israel Fellow, and reminded students to stay for the Israel Fellow’s presentation afterward. Following the Breaking the Silence presentation, the majority of students met with our Israel Fellow and learned a very different point of view. None of this would have happened had we not participated in the program. Instead it would have been allowed to occur as a one-sided program on campus without our involvement. There would have been no opposing viewpoint and balance whatsoever.
Third, while we join with the majority of the community in deeply resenting the actions of the former IDF soldiers in Breaking the Silence, who come to college campuses in America to disparage the IDF, it is, regrettably, part of the broad tent of dialogue regarding Israel. The IDF veterans sent by Breaking the Silence are a small part – but a part nevertheless – of the political debate in Israel about peace and security. Indeed, the speaker from Breaking the Silence began his presentation at Washington University by affirming his own love of Israel, calling it “his only home.” While we may strongly disagree with this expression of love, it does not call for the destruction of Israel or delegitimize Israel’s existence.
In short, Breaking the Silence is a program we would never seek out for Hillel. We encourage students interested in this topic to search for other alternatives for learning about these challenging issues. But, if the program is already coming to campus, we are serving our mission better by handling it in a comprehensive, educational manner rather than by declining to participate and sending the program to another location outside of our control. Our willingness to confront these difficult cases gives us added credibility when we decline to participate in programs sponsored by organizations and speakers whose clear agenda is to destroy, demonize, and delegitimize Israel.
Hillel also makes extraordinary efforts every day to introduce Jewish students to positive IDF role models. Our full-time Jewish Agency Israel Fellows, all IDF veterans, are on more than 60 campuses. Hillel is one of the largest recruiters and sponsors of Birthright Israel trips, where students spend intensive days on the bus with active duty IDF soldiers, who rate Hillel as the very best in engagement with them. It is no exaggeration to say that Hillel has exposed tens of thousands of Jewish students to positive IDF role models, while only a very small number have heard Breaking the Silence in all the time it has been circulating on campuses.
One final note. During this same week, Hillel students and professionals worked hard together to confront a BDS resolution at Ryerson University in Toronto. Last week, we did the same thing at McMaster University, Loyola University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan. We need a unified Jewish community on campus to mount these important efforts. Allowing Breaking the Silence to speak at Hillel doesn’t encourage BDS; those who support such hatred are already committed to that scurrilous cause. Rather, having allowed students who are critical of Israel’s security policies to air their concerns while affirming their love of Israel, we are in a much better position to mobilize those students against the greater threat from those who are truly trying to hurt our Jewish homeland.
As always, I welcome your thoughts.
Wishing you a happy and meaningful Passover in the company of family, friends and community.
May God grant the Jewish people the wisdom and strength we need to live the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt in our own time.
Eric D. Fingerhut
April 4, 2014