Hillel International tells Jewish college students to ‘lay low’ during anti-Israel week

“I am most disgusted with the suggestion to ‘stay low-key,’ said student activist Phillip Yurchenko.

By Jackson Richman, JNS

Amid this week being “Palestinian Rights Awareness Week” at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., pro-Israel campus students and Hillel professionals disagree on the appropriate approach toward countering the latest installation of anti-Israel bias. While some campus activists want to fight the initiative head on, Hillel professionals have been counseling the students to “lay low.”

The week-long initiative, promoted by Kristina Gupta—an assistant professor at the school’s Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies—“is dedicated to raising awareness about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the importance of recognizing Palestinian rights.”

Students reached out to Hillel International for assistance on fighting back against the event, but they were met with advice to let it pass without creating any additional attention.

Wake Forest junior Joshua Sokoloff told JNS that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Students Supporting Israel (SSI) and StandWithUs (SWU) have more of an on-campus presence than Hillel.

“Hillel International states they are deeply involved with Israel, and donors give money to Hillel for specifically this reason,” he told JNS. “Organizations such as SSI, ZOA and StandWithUs have reached out to us to provide support. They have been pivotal in helping us counteract this poorly organized week that has taken actions to attack Israel.”

“It is times like this where we cannot be silent and need to stand in unison to protect Jewish students on campus,” he added.

In an email obtained by JNS to WFU Hillel Israel chair Phillip Yurchenko, director of Jewish life on campus Gail Bretan instructed him to “stay low-key, ask respectful/thoughtful/insightful questions and to present alternative information to that which is presented” throughout the events.

Only Jews expected to lay low when attacked

Yurchenko, however, told Bretan that only Jews are expected to lay low in the face of bigotry. “Imagine rumors of a homophobic event coming to campus and the director of the LGBTQ+ Center telling students to not bring more attention to the event,” he continued. “Imagine rumors of a racist speaker coming to campus and a university official telling concerned students to not bring more attention to the event. Unimaginable.”

Bretan also noted that Palestinian Rights Awareness Week “is a direct response” to a pro-Israel resolution passed by the student government in December.

The resolution’s main clauses state that “the Student Government recognizes that some, but not all, criticisms of and attacks on the State of Israel can be anti-Semitic dog-whistles and condemns such criticisms and attacks,” including “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and denying Israel the right to exist.”

Yurchenko, a junior who is also president of Wake Forest’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel, rebuked Bretan’s claim that the passed pro-Israel resolution is to blame for this week’s anti-Israel festivities.

“The present situation is not ‘a direct response’ to a resolution that simply stated that Jews have same rights as ALL other people,” he said [emphasis his].

“For years, anti-Semitism at WFU was bubbling just under the surface,” he continued. “Professor [Charles] Kennedy’s infamous class on the Middle East has been discussed endlessly. Jewish students are warned to not take the class because it is so incredibly biased. Multiple WFU professors have signed on to BDS, which is a movement with the aim of destroying the Jewish state. The list could go on, but blaming the resolution for the situation is dishonest.”

Bretan did not respond to a request for comment, instead forwarding it to Timothy Auman, a chaplain at the university.

“Regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, there are many different perspectives, including those represented in the student-organized campaign and those of student groups representing other worldviews,” said Auman. “Given the strong response to the information on display for Palestinian Awareness Week in the Benson University Center atrium, the Office of the Dean of Students has made additional space available for community members to display alternative information, perspectives and beliefs.”

Hillel International ‘did not offer relevant support’

Wake Forest junior Gabriel Benzecry chastised Hillel International for not assisting the pro-Israel community on campus: “They weren’t a helpful resource during this week.”

“Although I am not connected to Hillel anymore, I was the president of our Wake Forest chapter last year,” he continued. “Our chapter has being super helpful and is definitely a pillar of the pro-Israel movement in our campus.”

“However, I cannot say the same thing about Hillel International,” he added. “They did not offer a relevant support for students, and they did not have a presence in our campus like other organizations did.”

Along the same lines as Bretan, Jason Horowitz, regional Israel education director at Hillel International, emailed Yurchenko, writing, “My initial thoughts are to not give it more publicity than it already has. If we make a big deal out of it happening, it’s going to attract more attention. We should keep tabs on it, but not draw attention to it.”

Hillel International campus support director Rebecca Simons concurred with her colleague, emailing Yurchenko: “Jason raises some very important points. The balance [here] is to manage the situation on campus without drawing further attention to the issue. The last thing you want is that your actions increase the publicity around their efforts.”

Yurchenko told JNS that in a conversation with Simons, “she asked what she could do to be supportive of Jewish students. I said it would be great to see a statement from Hillel International condemning the anti-Semitism on [the] Wake Forest campus. She told me that is complicated because she does not speak for all of Hillel International and because of free speech.”

“Hillel believes strongly that all students have the right to feel safe and welcome on college campuses and has no tolerance for anti-Semitism,” Hillel International vice president of communications Matthew Berger told JNS. “We work closely with university leaders across the country to prevent and mitigate anti-Semitic incidents on campus, as well as to train administrators to understand how attacks on Israel can often lead to anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

“We are supporting the Office of Jewish Life at Wake Forest University as they work with students, staff and the campus administration toward a common goal of a Wake Forest University community in which Jewish students, faculty and staff feel safe and valued as they engage in Jewish life, learning and Israel,” he continued.

“We have been and continue to work throughout the year to provide opportunities for Jewish and pro-Israel programs, speakers and initiatives to counter anti-Israel activities on the campus,” added Berger. “In the last year, Wake Forest has hosted a UNESCO photo exhibit on Israel and anti-Semitism, explored Israeli cooking and archaeology, and sent students to experience Israel themselves through Birthright and Onward.”

‘A duty to listen to Jewish students’

Masha Merkulova, executive director of Club Z, which has helped Yurchenko and his peers through the dilemma, told JNS that “we have a duty to listen to Jewish university students across the country; they are the ones on the ground. In the case of Wake Forest University, students followed what we preach: speak up against anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel on campus.”

“It is extremely disappointing that Hillel International discouraged these students by advising them to lay low and not attract attention to what is happening,” she continued. “That’s unacceptable. We must do better as a Jewish community and act in support of students. I am so proud that these students are standing up for themselves and for the entire Jewish people. These are the kind of leaders we need today.”

In his email to Bretan, Yurchenko said, “I will not stay low-key when I see anti-Semitism. I will always be respectful, but I will not be quiet. If anyone sees it another way, I challenge you to question your ethics and truly ask yourself where you stand.”

“I am most disgusted with the suggestion to ‘stay low-key,’ ” he said. “Many Jewish students are worried about anti-Semitism coming to campus, and our support system is advising us not bring more attention to this event.”