Hillel Partners with Right-Wing Christian Law Firm

Working with Jay Sekulow’s organization shows a willingness to alienate LGBTQ Jewish students to fight pro-Palestine activism.

Mari Cohen
January 28, 2020
Jay Sekulow, head of the American Center for Law and Justice, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, February 10th, 2012. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

IN NOVEMBER, the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) at Georgia Tech won their fight to overturn a school decision that had found them guilty of antisemitism based on a controversy over an educational event they held about Palestine. But now Hillels of Georgia—the umbrella group for Hillels on at least 24 Georgia campuses, including Georgia Tech—is pushing back by filing a federal complaint that asks the Department of Education (DOE) to investigate Georgia Tech for antisemitism. This move follows Donald Trump’s December executive order extending government Title VI civil rights protections to Jews, which opened the door for pro-Israel groups to push the DOE to crack down harder on Palestine solidarity activism.

To handle the complaint, Hillel has chosen to retain the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a right-wing evangelical Christian organization known for its efforts to limit LGBTQ and abortion rights around the world. The partnership is an especially dramatic example of how Hillel’s aggressive tactics for shutting down pro-Palestine activity on campuses can put it in league with far-right political forces, even as the organization markets itself as a mainstream, inclusive space for campus Jews. 

The liaison with the ACLJ has raised eyebrows among Jewish leaders who have otherwise had a good relationship with Hillels of Georgia. “The ACLJ in so many ways undermines the kinds of religious freedoms that I hold dear as a Jewish man and also as somebody who has worked to ensure that our Jewish community is open to LGBTQ folks,” says Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, a Reconstructionist congregation originally founded in 1986 as a gay and lesbian synagogue. “Even just on the basis of what the ACLJ wants to do to make Christianity more formalized in our schools and in our government, it really works against the best interests of what I know Hillels of Georgia stands for.” 

Last April, YDSA Georgia Tech—one of many Democratic Socialists of America groups across the country engaged in Palestine solidarity work—clashed with Hillel when they refused to allow the Georgia Tech Hillel director, Lauren Blazofsky, to enter a “Palestine 101” educational event that they had limited to students only. After the event, Blazofsky filed a complaint with Georgia Tech accusing YDSA of antisemitism. In response, YDSA says that they allowed all Jewish students into the event, including students from Hillel who had come with Blazofsky, and only barred Blazofsky because she had expressed an intention to disrupt the event ahead of time in an email to Hillel students. After a drawn-out hearing process, which YDSA students say was opaque and disorganized, Georgia Tech’s Office of Student Integrity announced in October that it had found the group guilty of offensive conduct and sanctioned them. After YDSA appealed with the help of civil rights legal groups and rallied public support, Georgia Tech announced on November 8th that it had reversed the decision. The university did not provide any explanation for the initial finding or the reversal. 

Then, on December 27th, Mark Goldfeder, the ACLJ’s special counsel for international affairs, wrote a letter to DOE Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus about the incident. The letter announced that the ACLJ had been retained by Hillels of Georgia and asked the DOE to investigate Georgia Tech’s response to the controversy. Goldfeder, who is also a senior lecturer at Emory Law School in Atlanta, alleges that Georgia Tech engaged in antisemitism by overturning the decision against YDSA without explanation and by failing to open an investigation into claims by two Jewish students that they were verbally attacked at the event. (YDSA leadership denies those allegations and says that the two students interrupted the event repeatedly to dispute the narratives of the Palestinian speakers, and that they were asked to wait to speak until the Q&A portion.) 

“Georgia Tech’s reversal of its finding of discrimination is completely unacceptable and communicates the unmistakable message that Georgia Tech will tolerate and even protect anti-Semitism on its campus,” Goldfeder’s letter states. The letter explicitly ties the complaint to Trump’s executive order: “The problem of anti-Semitism on campuses around the country is so well-known that the President of the United States recently issued an Executive Order specifically designed to combat it.” (Earlier in December, Goldfeder had written an op-ed for The Hill celebrating the executive order.) 

The ACLJ, which is technically another name for Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism (CASE), was founded in 1990 by prominent televangelist Pat Robertson in order to serve as a counterweight to the liberal American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The group’s name and mission statement—which states that they are “an organization dedicated to the defense of constitutional liberties secured by law”—avoid explicit religious references, but their website makes it clear that the group is focused on defending Christianity from alleged enemies. “Abortion at the Supreme Court, Deep State lawlessness, scorching anti-Israel attacks, Planned Parenthood’s incessant evil, and unending persecution of Christians all seem insurmountable,” the donation page reads. “But we’re fighting back.”  

In addition to Hillels of Georgia’s complaint, the ACLJ’s recent campaigns have included defending the rights of a public school teacher to erect a nativity scene, calling on supporters to sign petitions to defund Planned Parenthood, and urging public schools to stop leading students in mindfulness and meditation exercises (which the ACLJ calls “Buddhist indoctrination”). Last year, the ACLJ blog published a legal defense of Trump’s proposed southern border wall; the post cited the Center for Immigration Studies, a group identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-immigrant hate group with white nationalist ties. While the ACLJ has been quiet in its LGBTQ-related activities since the early 2010s and appears to have removed a “traditional marriage” category from its website, it has a long history of opposing same-sex marriage rights and fighting anti-discrimination measures in the name of religious liberty. For example, a 2004 post outlining the ACLJ’s position on free speech complained that an “area where free speech rights are often cavalierly dismissed is speech opposing the radical homosexual agenda.” The ACLJ has extended its anti-gay programming overseas, with its affiliated office in Africa supporting efforts to criminalize homosexuality in Zimbabwe and Kenya. Its Russian office has supported Vladimir Putin’s legislation to ban “homosexual propaganda.” 

The ACLJ is now headed by chief litigator Jay Sekulow, who is also a member of Trump’s legal team in the ongoing Senate impeachment trial. Sekulow was raised Jewish, but in college decided that he believed Jesus is the messiah. He later became an active member of Jews for Jesus, and eventually its general counsel. In 1992, he joined the ACLJ, and has since built it into a family empire, with his son, Jared, serving as executive director. As the older Sekulow has gained prominence for his role in defending the president, he has been scrutinized for his management of the ACLJ: the organization’s board is comprised entirely of Sekulow family members, and the Sekulow family has raked in millions of dollars from donations made to the ACLJ.  

It’s not unusual for pro-Israel Jewish organizations to work closely with evangelical Christian organizations on issues related to Israel. For example, Christians United For Israel (CUFI) has been a formidable force in lobbying for pro-Israel U.S. policy, and some Jewish groups have embraced its support; last January, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington organized a summit to try to improve relations between CUFI and a local Jewish community often suspicious of evangelical Zionists’ motives. Even so, collaboration between Hillel and the ACLJ is notable, given that the ACLJ is a group that tends to characterize efforts to de-center Christmas in public life and to make religious minorities like Jews more comfortable in the US as attacks on Christianity, and that Hillels usually represent themselves as inclusive spaces for queer Jewish students. 

Hillel International has previously partnered with the Jewish LGBTQ group Keshet to work “toward ever greater LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish life,” according to a Hillel blog post about the partnership. (Keshet declined to comment on Hillel’s work with the ACLJ.) The international umbrella organization publishes blog posts celebrating Hillels that are inclusive of queer students, and even has its own Hillel LGBTQ resource guide, originally published in 2007. Locally, Hillel Georgia Tech and other Georgia Hillels have marched in Atlanta’s annual Pride parade. 

But for some students, partnering with the ACLJ calls Hillel’s inclusivity into question. “Because Hillel is the main authority for Jewish life on campus, [students are often] willing to look past particular stances Hillel has on Israel in order to have Jewish community, even if they don’t entirely agree with their stance,” says Rachel Fallon, a Jewish student at Georgia Tech. “But partnering with an organization that is so anti-woman and so conservative makes it really hard for queer students and students who are women to want to get behind an institution ready to sell out so many types of identities.”

Historically, Hillel’s support for Jewish LGBTQ groups has been contingent on those groups matching its stance on Israel. In 2017, for example, the Ohio State University Hillel severed ties with a LGBTQ Jewish group after the group co-sponsored a Purim drag show event with Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. (As a policy, Hillel does not allow partnerships with organizations that support BDS.)

Rabbi Lesser believes that the hiring of the ACLJ could be an unwitting mistake on Hillel’s part. “I used to work for Hillels of Georgia very briefly and I’ve had a good relationship with the folks there and I’m stunned and disappointed,” he says. “Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I wonder if somehow they are not fully aware of all of the things that this organization stands for.”  

Dan Finkel, Hillels of Georgia’s interim director, declined to comment for this story or provide any information on why the ACLJ was hired to handle its legal complaint. Hillel International did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment on whether the international umbrella organization is aware of its Georgia branch’s affiliation with the ACLJ. 

The alignment with the ACLJ conflicts with a typical talking point of mainstream pro-Israel groups, which often argue that their members are liberals who are unfairly ostracized from spaces on the left because of their views on Israel. For example, in November, George Washington University sophomore Blake Flayton published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he identified as a gay, left-wing, Zionist Jew and complained that there was no room for his Zionism in campus progressive spaces. The piece was celebrated online by Flayton’s campus Hillel, and newly appointed Hillel International CEO Adam Lehman praised the op-ed on Twitter. Yet by working with the ACLJ, Hillels of Georgia is demonstrating a willingness to exclude anyone uncomfortable with the ACLJ’s right-wing agenda—even as they complain that their own Israel-supporting members are excluded elsewhere. 

“[Hillels of Georgia] working with the ACLJ is another tick in a long lineage of Zionist organizations capitulating on both Jewish and general moral values to have an ends justifying the means stance,” says Ezra Goss, a Georgia Tech PhD student involved in progressive Jewish organizing on campus. “Hillel generally is pretty keen on using the talking points of being an LGBTQ friendly community . . . It’s a huge dissonance for me as a queer Jew on campus.”

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.