Monday, March 27, 2006

Wayne Firestone: New President of Hillel Int'l


Wayne Firestone has recently been named President of Int'l Hillel. When I was an executive member of Brown Hillel's board of trustees i was somewhat involved in broader hillel politics. i met wayne a couple times and found him to be thoughtful and serious about pluralism.
The first time i met wayne was following a very tough experience with Avraham Infeld, President of Hillel's International Center. Infeld's statements at Hillel's Leaders Assembly were deeply offensive. He, i think intentionally, used language to marginalize progressives, specifically people critical of Israel's human rights abuses. Among other things Avraham said that "there is no place in hillel for someone who doesn't support israel." This was a not-so-subtle reference to the incident in which Jilian Redford was ousted for an e-mail she sent the israeli consulate that was both brusque and critical of "zionist propoganda." I had always seen hillel as a place that was open to progressives in theory, if not practice. It was an awful and revealing moment to hear the head of the organization say that it is irrelevant what the students of on your campus think because if the int'l center thinks you moved to far to the left you will be ousted. Infeld didn't say if you deny the right of the state of israel to exist or support transfer of palestinians there is no place in hillel for you nor did he mention any other reason why hillel would push an elected student leader out of hillel. I assumed i had misunderstood and that he in fact had oversimplified. I sought him after the talk and asked for more details. He said he'd be very happy to support a student leader and that i should e-mail him. I sent a calm, collected, even handed e-mail and it was never returned. I followed up a few more times but he never explained his statements.

Before he was President of Hillel, Infeld spoke at Brown while i was a student and took a question from an ISM -type. She used a fairly uncharitable rhetoric in asking her question about the occupation. He responded to her quiet, calm, critical question with furious yelling, aggressive pounding, and nasty accusations. A few minutes later the girl was crying. In that moment, like the moment i described earlier, he bullied people who didn't agree with him.

There are a few problems with his behavior in both situations:
1) he shut down dialogue and learning, in one case with aggression and in the other with simplification and dishonest dismissiveness.
2) he used power to disempower potential hillel leaders and invalidate their opinions
3) he failed to show the respect that people offered him (even now i'd accept and apology and would have a discussion about these issues in a calm and collected manner)
4) perhaps most important, as one of the more important jewish leaders, he used his pulpit fo r divisive rhetoric instead of seeking to unite the jewish people for the purpose of positive world change. What a terrible squandered opportunity. I suppose one could argue that the most important issue for Jews to address is anti-semitism, but i think i needn't respond anymore than to say that whereas that may have been the case at some point it certainly isn't now.

After Infeld dismissed my reasonable questions at Leader's Assembly, Wayne Firestone was running the Israel-on-Campus Coalition and I sought him out to find out more about his feelings and Hillel's position. Wayne had a much more careful inclusive view and wanted to involve a wide swath of people in the discussion about how North American hillels out to relate to israel.
He said there were a variety of critiques he thought should be accepted within the confines of hillel, but that it was his job to expand the discussion not setup boundaries. I was impressed and hope he takes this pluralist approach to the top of hillel. I worry that perhaps he will have to shed his more thoughtful approach in favor of the simplifying rhetoric that is all too common in the jewish world. The carefulness that he approached me with may be well suited to students and not as well suited to parlor meetings, sound-bites, and fundraisers all necessary for enlisting the financial support for hillel.

The Jewish Week quotes Infeld as saying that:
"One of the reasons I a’m staying around for the next several months is to groom him in the area of fundraising..."
My worry is that grooming him in the area of fundraising means convincing him to stop thinking critically and instead use the talking points on anti-semitism, the holocaust, jewish continuity, and israel hatred. Those talking points probably bring in money quickly. Perhaps its time to think about how to educate funders as well and get the whole jewish people working for justice, beauty, and a better world. If we do holy, creative, exciting things continuity will be a minor question. A guy interviewing for our hillel director job said in an interview that "we should stop focusing on anti-semitism and start focusing on semitism." I hope that approach brings in the bucks and that Wayne is the person to show that it works.

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