J Street officials say the Hillel International president was aware of who would speak at the conference before he confirmed his attendance.
WASHINGTON — Eric Fingerhut, the president of Hillel International, is withdrawing from speaking at J Street’s annual conference because of the presence of Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator.
“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 in a statement, making reference to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. (J Street U, the group’s campus affiliate, has been active in opposing BDS, and the national group has a policy of opposing the practice.)
“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.”
The liberal Jewish Middle East policy group was quick to respond, saying that Fingerhut was aware of who would speak at a J Street conference before he confirmed his attendance.
“After agreeing to speak for the first time in a public forum with J Street U students he chose to pull out, citing objections to the other featured speakers,” J Street U, the group’s campus affiliate, said in a statement late Monday.
“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.
Asked what speaker at the March 21-24 conference triggered the pullout, Hillel’s chief administrative officer, David Eden, named Erekat, noting his inflammatory statements in the past. In recent months, Erekat has compared Israel to the Islamic State, or ISIS, the terrorist group battling a U.S.-led alliance. Eden also noted that the State Department has condemned such statements.
While the State Department has rebuked Erekat for some of his statements, it still deals with him as the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Israeli negotiators for years have accepted him as an interlocutor, even while complaining that he periodically makes outlandish claims about Israeli actions.
Eden said Erekat’s presence at the J Street conference nonetheless did not meet Hillel’s standards.
“Eric is the head of Hillel International,” he 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.”
Eden said Fingerhut, when he gave J Street permission to list him as a speaker on March 6, was not aware that Erekat was speaking. A J Street official said Erekat was first listed as a speaker on March 3.
“At J Street, we try to create opportunities to listen, engage and tackle difficult issues across differences,” continued the J Street statement claiming Fingerhut knew of the other speakers beforehand. “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.”
J Street anticipates 3,000 activists to attend its conference, among them 1,000 students. The official otherwise did not have comment on Fingerhut’s withdrawal.