The desk where the buck will stop at Hillel headquarters is about to get a new occupant. There are those who worry that a recent, perhaps accelerating Hillel trend towards allowing everyone “in the tent” will come to mean that there are no standards at all.
Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, serves Jewish students in more than 500 universities worldwide, the vast majority of which are in the United States. The annual operating budget is just under $90 million.
But while Hillel is “the largest Jewish campus and community-based organization in the world serving the college-age population,” some wonder whether the orientation which is increasingly about “self-authorship” regarding Jewish practice, is likewise so open-ended about support for Israel that the words mean very little.
For instance, in the last year, the venomously anti-Israel group “Breaking the Silence”, an organization which exists solely to demonize the Israel Defense Forces, has been welcomed into Hillel, the Jewish communal home on campus. And this didn’t only happen on the west coast University of California at Berkeley, as suggested in an article by JNS.com reprinted in EJewishPhilanthropy.org.
The University of Pennsylvania Hillel also hosted a speaker from Breaking the Silence this spring. According to those involved, the issue was put to a vote of the board of the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, and the majority chose to host the group.
Breaking the Silence isn’t just any anti-Israel organization. Last month the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson, Capt. Barak Raz, exasperated by the organization’s continuous pummeling of the IDF, while it nonetheless refused to engage with the IDF in order to make changes. In an interview with Tazpit News, Raz explained that the IDF has standing orders, regulations, and an ethical code that soldiers must abide by.
“These not only require soldiers to act according to the law, but also to report instances when things were otherwise,” he writes. “Instead of taking responsibility for their mistakes, these soldiers simply blame the army for what they did wrong,” he told Tazpit News Agency.
Furthermore, Raz continues, “the information used by Breaking the Silence by and large seems to derive from two sources – unverifiable hearsay or accounts from anonymous former soldiers who, sometimes, they themselves deserve to be behind bars in military prison for what they did!”
Natan Nestel is the former chairman of the Israeli Students Organization in North America. Nestel has spent the past several years making a documentary about Hillels, and he is greatly disturbed by what he has found.
Nestel told JNS.org that groups that demonize Israel should be outside of the ‘big tent’ on campus.
“Nominally Jewish groups, including those who assist anti-Israel groups and speakers to come to campuses, should not be included [in the tent],” Nestel said. Nestel cited the self-labeled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group J Street, which he said sponsored the appearance at Berkeley of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group that defames the Israeli army for “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity,” “ethnic cleansing” and “violations of human rights.”
In the statement issued by the entity engaged to conduct the search for the next Hillel leader, a frank admission is made about the shift in orientation regarding how Hillel sees itself in relationship to being a Jewish institution on campus,
Over the decades, Hillel’s approach to education and engagement has evolved. Once seen as the “synagogue on campus,” Hillel today encourages students to take ownership of their Jewish experience and define “Jewish” in their own way. The destination of their Jewish journey is up to the student – Hillel provides the resources.
Is what the Hillels are doing just another attempt to define “pro-Israel” in their own way? As Nestel points out,
J Street is already entrenched at Berkeley’s Hillel and the JSU (Jewish Student Union),” Nestel wrote. “The Hillel group, Kesher Enoshi (KE), is its proxy there. This year KE, along with J Street U, brought the founder of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement in to speak at Hillel. He demonized Israel, proclaiming, ‘Jerusalem is a symbol of evil.’ Berkeley’s Hillel director argued that this was ‘within the framework of national Hillel’s Israel policy.’
A professional search firm, Spencer Stuart Executive Search, was hired by Hillel in January. An internal search committee was announced in February.
In April, the search firm announced that nearly 325 individuals had been identified as potential candidates, and that more than 200 people had been contacted by the committee.
Initial predictions were that the new Hillel leader would assume the position in June. That timeline was recently revised, and it is now anticipated that the new Hillel CEO will be announced at the 2013 annual gathering known as the Hillel Institute, which will take place on July 29, at Washington University in St. Louis.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus