President of Hillel Eric Fingerhut’s decision to speak at J Street U’s Student Leadership Institute next week has everybody talking — just not to the press.
The announcement, which Fingerhut shared personally in an email last week, comes after his decision to pull out of a commitment to speak at J Street’s annual conference in March made headlines.
Fingerhut reportedly canceled under pressure from Hillel donors who object to J Street, a self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying group that advocates greater U.S. engagement toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and criticizes Israel’s settlement policies.
This time around, he will address 120 national J Street student leaders on Aug. 17 and “discuss issues of mutual concern,” according to a statement put out by J Street.
Still, despite what many are hoping to be a fresh start, Fingerhut could not be reached for comment. Matthew Berger, a spokesman for Hillel, disseminated a brief statement expressing Fingerhut’s excitement to engage with student leaders. “Eric appreciates the invitation from J Street U and looks forward to meeting the students and engaging with them,” it said.
Mum’s the word from J Street as well. The group’s representatives and campus leaders have declined to comment, referring instead to a bland statement welcoming Fingerhut.
One senior Jewish communal official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the charged politics, said Fingerhut’s decision to speak is a “very good thing.”
“There’s a growing acknowledgement that students who are joining J Street U on campus are exactly the types of students we need to engage — progressive, invested, and passionate about Israel,” the official said.
J Street U student leaders are often the best advocates against the growing BDS movement, the official added. J Street officially opposes boycotting and divesting from Israeli products, while other left-wing organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace, strongly advocate for BDS on campus.
“Hillel can’t put out talking points about BDS that are essentially the same at J Street’s and at the same time not embrace these students,” the official said.
And, going forward, Hillel may not be able to ignore J Street U’s growing numbers. The group currently has a presence on 85 campuses across the country, and 1,100 students attended the organization’s last conference in March. Though these numbers are still dwarfed by Hillel’s (550 campuses, over 1,000 trained student and faculty staff) J Street U is quickly growing.
With the burgeoning BDS movement on college campuses, recognizing similarities between the two organizations may be more important than ever, some suggest.
“I’m glad that Eric seized the opportunity to meet with these students who, in addition to their involvement with J Street, are involved in many aspects of Jewish life on campus,” said Brian Cohen, the executive director of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life. “He’s demonstrating Hillel’s commitment to working with students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse views.”
Said the community official: “Students shouldn’t be punished because of conspiracy theories against J Street. Halevi [if only] we should have the problem of too many Israel advocates.”