By Ron Kampeas, JTA World News Service
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Hillel International said its president, Eric Fingerhut, was pulling out of J Street’s upcoming annual conference because of the scheduled appearance there of Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.
But J Street isn’t buying it.
In a statement Monday, the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace group said Fingerhut had known about Erekat’s participation in the March 21-24 conference when he agreed to appear at a public forum with students from J Street U, the lobby’s campus affiliate. J Street says it made Erekat’s participation public on March 3 and Fingerhut confirmed on March 6.
“The speakers were clear to Mr. Fingerhut before he confirmed and Mr. Fingerhut was not being asked to share a podium with anyone he might find objectionable,” the statement said.
In a statement earlier the same day, Fingerhut said he withdrew from the conference because of “concerns regarding my participation amongst other speakers who have made highly inflammatory statements against the Jewish state.”
Asked by JTA to name an offensive speaker, Hillel’s chief administrative officer, David Eden, cited Erekat, the longtime chief negotiator who has represented the Palestinians for years in talks with Israel, though he has also been criticized for making inflammatory statements. Eden and other Hillel officials insisted that Fingerhut was not aware of Erekat’s participation before confirming.
Fingerhut was slated to speak about counteracting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. J Street U is opposed to the movement and has joined with Hillel on the campus level in presenting an alternative view.
“My desire to attend the conference was based on my wish to speak at a student-only session directly with the students who will be in attendance, to thank those who have joined in the fight against BDS and anti-Semitism on college campuses, and to urge everyone to take up this crucial cause,” Fingerhut said. “However, after reviewing the full list of speakers, I now realize that any benefit that might 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.”
J Street says it anticipates 3,000 activists at its conference, including 1,000 students. Fingerhut’s appearance would have been his first at the gathering.
In recent months, Erekat has compared Israel to the Islamic State, or ISIS, the terrorist group that has taken control of areas of Iraq and Syria and released several graphic videos of its activists beheading journalists and aid workers, including several Americans.
Eden noted that the State Department has condemned Erekat’s statements. However, the department still deals with him as the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Israeli officials for years have accepted him as an interlocutor, even while complaining that he periodically makes outlandish claims about Israeli actions.
“At J Street, we try to create opportunities to listen, engage and tackle difficult issues across differences,” the J Street statement said. “We do not insist that everyone we speak with agree with us. We do not endorse the views of all those who speak at our conference.”
Eden said Erekat’s presence at the J Street conference nonetheless did not meet Hillel’s standards.
“Eric is the head of Hillel International,” Eden said. “We hold our organization to a rigorous standard for the types of events he will participate in. That’s something the entire Hillel community expects, not just our students, but our board.”