The organized Jewish community’s ongoing debate over if, when and how to deal with J Street is in the news again. On the eve of the controversial left-wing lobby’s national convention, set for March 21-24 in Washington, D.C., Eric Fingerhut, the international president and CEO of Hillel International, has announced his withdrawal as a featured speaker. His statement said that “after reviewing the full list of speakers,” he concluded “any benefit that might have come from this opportunity would be overshadowed by concerns regarding my participation amongst other speakers who have made highly inflammatory statements against the Jewish state.”
David Edel, Hillel’s chief administrative officer, told JTA that Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator with the U.S. and Israel — and a featured speaker at the J Street conference — has made such statements against Israel.
So, for that matter, has former James (“F— the Jews”) Baker, another featured J Street speaker this year, who angrily clashed with Israel during his tenure as secretary of state.
It is true that Erekat’s condemnatory declarations about Israel and its alleged lack of willingness to engage in peace talks are often infuriating and unfair. Ironically, though, Jerusalem and Washington have been dealing with him on an almost daily basis for two decades.
Fingerhut had an opportunity to speak at a student-only session with 1,000 college students. His planned topics were BDS (the Boycott, capitalize and Sanctions movement) and anti-Semitism on college campuses, and we are certain he had an important message to convey. How unfortunate that he chose to give up a chance to educate and inspire our next generation. What audience is more important to reach than our sons and daughters?
We would imagine there are influential Hillel donors who see J Street as far from the “pro-Israel” label it uses to describe its work, and we appreciate those concerns. But the culture of the college campus is one of openness, placing the highest value on free speech. And Hillel does such important work in promoting Jewish life on campus, with an emphasis on pluralism, diversity and dialogue. We hope this incident will not tarnish its image.