I know a cover-up happened at Brown/RISD Hillel over an anti-Israel “Nakba Day” event held on the premises organized by a small group of leftist Jews and anti-Israel campus allies.

How do I know? I was there.

Such an event arguably violated Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines (aka Standards of Partnership), but it is not an isolated event. And that is the bigger picture, how some local Hillels promote anti-Israel narratives and turn the one place on campus where pro-Israel students can feel comfortable into just another anti-Zionist forum.

Here is the story of what happened:

  1. Left-wing Activism and Planning “Nabka Day” at Brown Hillel
  2. What is Zochrot?
  3. What is the Nakba?
  4. The Public Event
  5. The Decoy
  6. Caught Red-Handed
  7. The Aftermath
  8. A Problem from the Top
  9. Conclusion

1. Left-wing Activism and Planning “Nakba Day” at Brown Hillel

In 2015, among 18 to 29-year olds, 29 percent blamed Israel more for the war on Gaza, while 21 percent blamed Hamas.

This development relatively recent. People over age 30 supported Israel in far greater numbers. You see a steep decline from the mid-20’s downward.

A lot is to blame for this problematic new zeitgeist. The rise of social media, the drastic change in field of journalism where clicks and pageviews trump journalistic ethics, and an increased push in the anti-Israel PR machine.

But these changes have been in the making for decades. While we Jews have been asleep at the wheel, Soviet and Arab propaganda was slowly seeping into and brainwashing academia, igniting a new leftist twist on an old form of antisemitism. Meanwhile, Hillel has remained stubborn and complacent, ill-equipped to face these changes.

Since I first started college in 2008, I’ve witnessed some cracks in Hillel’s foundation, cracks that were most apparent when it came to lackluster Israel advocacy. It had always frustrated me how the anti-Israel advocates were so strong and proud, showing so much conviction in everything they were doing, while Jewish students shied away from the limelight, looking down on activism and even subverting it.

The deeper I dug, the more I realized that the problem is culturally embedded in the “sha shtill” – or sit down and be quiet and don’t rock the boat – mentality, a mentality that is promoted at Hillel with harsh consequences for transgressors. Activists were frequently ostracized, and it was a badge of coolness to criticize Israel.

By the time I had graduated college, I was a solid J-Streeter. I opposed the “settlements” and the “occupation,” and despised Israel’s “violations of international law” and “ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948. I felt that those who didn’t support a two state solution were bigots and fools. I was embarrassed about the stuff I read on the news that Israel had allegedly done. I still loved Israel and engaged in Israel advocacy, I just felt I would be more listened to if I met my opponents halfway, and looked down on those who “refused to compromise” as bigots and haters of peace.

After graduation, I learned about incitement, and why the two state solution wasn’t viable without mutual recognition. I was introduced to my academic idols such as Richard Landes, Alan Dershowitz, Phyllis Chesler, and Mordechai Kedar.

When I got to graduate school, I felt like I was looking at the matter with fresh eyes. I had read a lot more, been referred to the right sources by my ex’s dad, I had developed the critical thinking skills to see the issues with antizionist arguments. And here I was, surrounded by kids who thought that criticizing Israel made you cool, morally superior, and smart – like I had.

This heightened awareness and higher standing in the pro-Israel community following the success of my new blog. I had developed a reputation as a fearless whistleblower of anti-Israel activity within Jewish spaces, but I had no idea what I was in for when I walked into the Brown/RISD Hillel building on a sunny Wednesday evening.

It started the Monday before the event, May 9, 2016. A group of students were sent a message alerting them to the following public event, with a link to it:

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To our shock, the event was to feature Zochrot, an anti-Israel NGO, and hosted by Brown/RISD Hillel, a chapter of an organization that gets donations under the mistaken idea that they are the sole provider of pro-Israel programming.

2. Zochrot

Zochrot, the organization hosted by Hillel, claims its goal is:

“rais[ing] public awareness of the Palestinian Nakba” and “recognizing and materializing the right of return,” stressing that “the rights of the refugees to return must be accepted.”  This agenda is equivalent to calling for the elimination of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

According to the watchdog NGO Monitor, Zochrot has a lot of the same funding sources as Students for Justice in Palestine and the anti-Israel, pro-BDS organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, such as Oxfam Great Britain, Broederlijk Delen (Belgium), Rosa Luxemberg Foundation (Germany), Finn Church Aid (Finland), Christian Aid (UK), Trocaire (Ireland), ICCO (Netherlands), CCFD (France), Misereor (Germany), HEKS (Switzerland), Mennonite Central Committee, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Rockefeller Brothers Fund and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

Moreover, like many other anti-Israel NGOs, most of Zochrot’s funding comes from foreign sources:

Zochrot funding

The watchdog also notes that some organizations have backed out of funding it due to its “clear political agenda.”

The clear problem with hosting an organization like Zochrot within a Hillel space is that it violates Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines (also called Standards of Partnership):

Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

  • Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders;

  • Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel;

  • Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;

  • Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.

Among the activities Zochrot engages in are:

Demonization:

  • Promotes the Durban demonization rhetoric, accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” “ongoing destruction of Palestinian localities,” “expulsion,” “massacres,” and “disregard for the rights of refugees and displaced people.”
  • Founder Eitan Bronstein wrote a May 16, 2010 article, claiming that if the Palestinians give up their “right of return,” Israelis, “will be sentenced to the shameful life of an eternal occupier, armed from the soles of my feet to the depths of my soul and always afraid, like all colonizers.”

Delegitimization:

  • Supports a “One State Solution” or a “de-Zionized Palestine,” and refers to Israel as having an “ethnicized and racialized Zionist” system. (See NGO Monitor’s factsheet on Zochrot’s Support for “One State,” May 1, 2014).

Double-Standards:

  • Supported the UN targeting of Israel as the single worst human rights violator. In a December 2008 joint submission to the UN Human Rights Council for Israel’s Universal Periodical Review, Zochrot falsely accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and “forcible displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people.”

3. What is the Nakba?

The term “Nakba” — Arabic for “catastrophe” — refers to the largely debunked Palestinian version of events surrounding the foundation of the state of Israel, and is largely associated with mourning the defeat of the Arab armies and subsequent establishment of the Jewish state. The Palestinian Authority has designated an official “Nakba Day” to bemoan Israel’s existence.

Those who support the Nakba narrative draw attention to the displacement of 700,000 Arabs (not yet called “Palestinians,” that started much later) in 1948. They typically ignore:

  • The forced displacement of 850,000 Jews from Arab countries.
  • The fact that the vast majority of Arabs who were displaced did so on the advice of their own leaders, and many others fled war, assuming they would return in a few days when the six Arab armies defeat the nascent Israel.
  • That a lot of the Arabs who were allegedly “forced to leave” by Jews only were because they were hostiles fighting the Jewish state.
  • Historians are finding out that an increasing number of expulsion stories allegedly done by Jews are in fact false.
  • The Palestinian Leadership’s complicity in the violation of human rights against their own people, while blaming Israel for it in totality.

4. The Public Event

The event was initially sponsored by all the Jewish and pro-Israel groups on campus that have Hillel affiliation, in addition to the Hillel itself: Brown Students for Israel and J Street.

Ben Gladstone, president of Brown Students for Israel (BSI), told me that although he disagreed with the event, he felt pressured into hosting it because their Hillel told him that if these students weren’t allowed to host it in Hillel or given Hillel’s blessing, they would branch off and form an Open Hillel. Given that the Hillel student executive board are nearly entirely leftist, another student at Brown, who declined to have his identity revealed, told me that they would definitely vote themselves out of Hillel International, potentially leaving the Brown/RISD Hillel staff, who are employed by Hillel International, without a job, and the pro-Israel students without a safe space.

When Gladstone realized the political agenda behind the event, coincidentally at the same time my story broke in Israellycool, he and the rest of BSI decided to back out of sponsoring the event. According to Brown/RISD Hillel, their chapter could no longer host it either because the decision was no longer unanimous among Hillel organizations.

5. The Decoy

The morning of the event, I received a call from the friend who had alerted me to the event. He told me not to bother going because it was cancelled.

Meanwhile, waiting for me in my Facebook notifications, was an invite to this event, which I assume I received along with 820 other people because I had clicked “interested” to the public event. I had also written my blog under a pseudonym:

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As we can see, Hillel had allegedly removed their sponsorship, but somehow the students were still allowed to host the even in the Hillel building (which still violates the standards of partnership).

It is also clear there there is a sense of moral superiority among these students, for being so much better than their pro-Israel detractors because they have the “moral clarity” to ask the “tough questions.” (Though I personally am partial to the term “moral narcissism” to describe this phenomenon).

Unfortunately this means buying into a narrative, or at least a version of a narrative, that has been heavily debunked as embellished at best, flat out false at worst, due to the lack of exploration of the cultural factors that contributed to the way it was constructed.

But eventually, in an update at the top of my initial Israellycool piece, I blew the whistle on the decoy event too. When I arrived in Providence, I read that the decoy event, which was set to private, was also cancelled due to “security concerns.”

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For a minute, I was worried I made the nearly four-hour trip from New York to Providence in vain, until around 6:00pm, when my friend tipped me off to the fact that the event had actually started at 5:30pm in the Hillel house as planned. The “real” invites were sent to about a hundred students they deemed trustworthy. I decided to go check it out, and see what was going on.

6. Caught Red-Handed

I was heading towards the Hillel building at around 6:30 when all of a sudden I heard thunderous applause emanating from the Hillel Meeting Room, where the 8pm event had been scheduled to take place. It was then that my friend and I were both certain that the tip he had been given was correct.

When I walk into the lobby, there are about five employees who all seem incredibly nervous. The security guard asks me anxiously what I am doing there. I think quickly: the only way they’ll let me stay is if I say I’m waiting for a friend who went to the event. He looked flustered. “What event?” he asked nervously. “I dunno, he didn’t tell me, he just said an event.”

“There is no event” he said.

The first thing I saw when I walked in was this food spread:

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[Photo of the food outside the event. Credit: Me.]

As you can see above, there was a table laid out full of perishable food items: A Kale salad, some veggies, and a vegetable quinoa dish. A man was standing next to the food. I was about to talk to him when one of two women sitting at the front desk asked me what I was doing there.

I immediately then asked them what was going on. One of them responded “I’m not allowed to talk about it.” I asked “why not?” She said “because I know you’re recording.”

I was then greeted by an employee, a man who looked to be in his 40’s, who introduced himself as Marshall, later confirmed to be Brown/RISD Hillel Executive Director Marshall Einhorn, as if I were a guest to his party. He immediately offered me food.

I asked him what it was there for. He said: “It’s for the event.” I asked “What event?” After that question, he must have felt I wasn’t in the know since I showed (actually feigned) ignorance of what event was going on, so he had to cover up: “Oh, it was for an event last week.” The food looked totally fresh, so I gave him a look that said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Really?” I asked incredulously.

“So maybe it was from the last few days,” he corrected himeslf.

“Oh, okay” I said.

I headed towards the stairs to make my way up to the meeting room when he caught up with me near the foot of the stairs.

He laughed nervously, “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

There were between four and six employees present (I don’t remember exactly how many, nor did I talk to all of the ones who were present).

Suddenly, a throng of youngsters bounded down the stairs from the meeting room. I ask the secretaries at the desk about the event that was going on and they said they are not allowed to disclose any information on it for security reasons. Another employee approached me and said frantically “The event was cancelled, there was no screening!”

Then what are all these people talking about the Nakba for? I wondered.

“What happened up there? A screening?” I asked another employee (could have also been student, wasn’t totally sure).

“Yeah, a screening.”

“About what?”

“I don’t know…”

Finally, I approached a student who had attended the screening.

“So what was going on up there?”

“A screening.”

“About what? The Nakba?”

“Yeah, the Nakba.” Her friend nodded.

“Ohhh weird!” I said.

“Why is it closed?” I asked another student, “I wanted to come study here but they said I can’t because it’s closed.”

“Oh, I’m gonna tell Eital, she’ll tell you all about it.”

I asked Eital Schattner-Elmaleh, whom I recognized as one of the organizers, why the building was closing.

“Because it’s a holiday tomorrow,” she answered.

“What holiday?” I asked. I knew Hillel didn’t close early the night before holidays. They typically held ceremonies and prayers instead.

“Uhhhh… I don’t know much about it…” she responded anxiously. I surmised that she just didn’t want to mention Independence Day, being pro-nakba and all. I started to feel the hostility and suspicion caving in on me.

“Oh… well I’m waiting for a friend here, I’ll just go outside.”

I was followed by another student who turned out to be a Hillel student executive member, later confirmed to be outgoing Hillel president, Joanna Kramer, who was at the event.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I was supposed to wait for him in there but he’s out here somehow… I can’t find him… Oh! we were going to grab dinner now!”

When she started to interrogate me, I played my getaway card: “I’m going to be late, I have to go!”

7. The Aftermath

I broke the story following the event at 4:30am EST, in the form of a blog post at Israellycool, that the event had actually taken place, despite what both Brown/RISD Hillel and Hillel International had said.

The first person to let the cat out of the bag was Brown Students for Israel (BSI) president Ben Gladstone, who released the following statement around midnight after the event:

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Ben had been briefed about the content of the event from the same people who briefed me, who were present at the event. However, he was still under the mistaken impression that Hillel staff had ordered the cancellation of the event, and that no Hillel staff members endorsed or helped with the event, likely due to the fact that he was not present to witness it at any point in time and had believed what he was told. 

The next morning, Open Hillel let the cat completely of the bag, not only announcing that the event took place, but announcing the fact that their Hillel was supportive. Not only that, but they included photos:

openhillel screenshot

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In this statement, the organizers even openly admit that Hillel had initially willingly agreed to host the event.

To the press, Brown/RISD Hillel – after realizing they could no longer say the event never happened – said they are embarrassed and horrified with this breach, and that they are taking steps to resolve it. They also claimed that they actually had closed the building early to prevent the event from taking place, but that students went behind the backs of the higher-ups.

From the Open Hillel statement above (emphasis added):

Ultimately, the process of planning this event forced our Hillel to recognize its own lack of openness and to begin reworking its guidelines on Israel/Palestine programming. These guidelines will not be in keeping with the guidelines published and enforced by Hillel International’s in their ‘Standards of Partnership,’ which have been used time and again to silence critical Jewish voices on Israel/Palestine. In order for Hillel to maintain its integrity as a pluralistic Jewish space, the community must embrace Jews who currently feel excluded from mainstream Jewish discourse and who seek to question dominant narratives about Israel.”

First, they admit yet again that Hillel helped them plan it – for several months.

Second, they assert that this entire debacle stems from a problem at the top….

8. A Problem from the Top

There is a widespread misconception that Hillels that declare themselves “Open Hillels” will have their ties severed by Hillel International. Hillel International expelling a chapter due to anti-Israel activity has never actually happened.

Even Swarthmore Hillel, one of the first and most zealous campuses to affiliate with the Open Hillel movement, was never forcibly removed from the Hillel International consortium. Rather, it elected to sever ties by an internal vote.

In the following part of their statement, Open Hillel claims that Brown/RISD Hillel is already taking steps to become “Open,” as I am sure they are well-aware that they will not experience any consequences (emphasis added):

Ultimately, the process of planning this event forced our Hillel to recognize its own lack of openness and to begin reworking its guidelines on Israel/Palestine programming. These guidelines will not be in keeping with the guidelines published and enforced by Hillel International’s in their ‘Standards of Partnership,’ which have been used time and again to silence critical Jewish voices on Israel/Palestine. In order for Hillel to maintain its integrity as a pluralistic Jewish space, the community must embrace Jews who currently feel excluded from mainstream Jewish discourse and who seek to question dominant narratives about Israel.”

This threat is not just a local issue.

According to Jerusalem Post reporter Caroline Glick, Hillel International was in on the cover-up as well. Before the event took place, up until the morning after, she and many others who inquired were told it was cancelled, and did not occur:

Glick cites Hillel Int'l

But maybe Hillel International simply didn’t know about it – maybe it was a cover-up from Hillel International by the local Hillel!

Such is not the case.

Several journalists, colleagues, and friends emailed me furious that Hillel International had lied to them after the event had taken place, telling me it hadn’t. Hillel International also considered me to be of dubious credibility, despite the fact that I have incontrovertible evidence in many forms, as well as several eyewitnesses.

Furthermore, the students who hosted the event were on record in an article in the left-wing publication NewVoices claiming that Brown/RISD Hillel had supported them in running the event and violating the standards of partnership, corroborating with my evidence:

_Hillel supported us breaking the standards_

 9. Conclusion

Anti-Israel sentiment is on the rise, especially among Jews. Hillel, the self-proclaimed “Center for Jewish Life on Campus,” sometimes is part of the problem.

At Brown University, Hillel was sponsoring an event featuring an organization whose goal is to end the state of Israel by spreading lies about the so-called “Nakba” (or Catastrophe) of Israel’s creation, and encouraging the “right of return” for Palestinians.

When a media outcry erupted, Hillel pretended to cancel the event, only to create a decoy and then host it in secret.

But little did they know I had witnessed the event and was able to prove that Hillel not only housed it, but they hosted it, provided food, and had their usual event support staff present.

The next day, Brown Students for Israel and Open Hillel both released statements admitting it happened, with the latter including photos of people watching the movie, participating in the discussion, and eating the food that I took a picture of.

This scandal has shown us the complicity that many Jewish groups have on the demise of Israel’s reputation, and that we must hold groups like Hillel accountable for creating a future generation that is ashamed of where they come from.

[Featured Image: Facebook Event Page]

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Alexandra Markus is a recent graduate of Columbia University in Narrative Medicine. She is a blogger at the Algemeiner Journal and Israellycool and is making Aliyah to Haifa in June.