by Emily Strauss
EARLIER THIS WEEK, news broke that Mosaic United, Israel’s diaspora outreach program, had plans to create a database of Jewish college students in order to “micro-target” us with hasbara, pubic relations outreach. Following widespread indignation from Jewish students and community members, Hillel International threatened to cut ties with Mosaic. Under pressure, Mosaic stated that it would put the project on hold — at least for now.
As a Hillel student board member at Penn State, I learned to take unengaged students out on coffee dates and get to know them. At Hillel, my fellow board members and I learned to build relationships through listening, and to form genuine connections with our peers. By learning about our classmates’ interests and concerns, we were able to help them find opportunities to engage in Jewish communal life that related to them — or to create these opportunities, if they did not yet exist. As Jewish student leaders, we know each other best, and we are the experts on our own experiences and Jewish identities.
That is why I was glad to see Hillel vigorously oppose the database proposal. Student engagement should focus on building authentic, grassroots, and pluralistic Jewish communities on campus, not promoting the Israeli government. Mosaic United’s insistence on surveillance and digital micro-targeting undermines Hillel’s efforts to teach the value of community-building to the next generation of Jews.
The database was not the first indicator that Hillel and Mosaic’s values are irreconcilable. Whereas Hillel students work to promote a wide range of opportunities to learn about, discuss, and debate various issues in Israel-Palestine, Mosaic’s founders have stated that the program aims to combat “critical discourse” on Israel. The Israeli government department sponsoring the project, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, is led by Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, the main political voice of the settler movement. Bennett has a long record of censoring and blacklisting political viewpoints he finds disagreeable. Indeed, since Hillel launched its partnership with Mosaic in August 2016, it has increasingly censored and blacklisted its own students and barred student programming. The other two Mosaic United grantees, Chabad Lubavitcher and Olami Worldwide (Meor), are both highly involved in right wing and pro-settlement causes in Israel.
MOSAIC’S HASBARA AGENDA does not end at support for Israel. Whereas students across the country seek to build inclusive and pluralistic Jewish campus communities, Mosaic aims to promote an exclusionary vision of the “Jewish foundations of the family unit” Mosaic disproportionately funds Orthodox outreach groups that seek to “convert” Jewish students to a very particular form of Jewish expression. As dozens of students and rabbis have already pointed out, Mosaic’s vision of the Jewish family disproportionately targets LGBTQ Jews for exclusion from Hillel and the wider Jewish community. Naftali Bennett and his ministry have also made statements disparaging Reform and Conservative Jews and, interfaith partnerships, as well as homophobic and misogynist comments. While Bennett’s efforts to promote a narrow vision of Judaism may play well with his base in Israel, this approach alienates the vast majority of the Jewish students that Hillel seeks to serve.
On our campuses, Hillel staff and student leaders work hard to respond to the needs, interests and concerns of the student body. In contrast, Mosaic has demonstrated a total lack of accountability to the Jewish students and community members whom it claims to serve, and even to its own leaders and partners. Mosaic steering committee member and former Hillel president Avram Infeld claimed he had no idea about the database and subsequently resigned when he learned about it. Hillel International similarly claimed only to have found out about the project when approached by Haaretz for a statement, and quickly issued Mosaic an ultimatum. Despite the nearly universal backlash, Mosaic appears adamant in moving forward with the program. Mosaic’s display of contempt for Jewish students and community leaders demonstrates that Mosaic is not working to support Jewish campus life — rather, it seeks to use Jewish students to promote its own political agenda.
This desperate attempt by Mosaic United and the Israeli government to reach Jewish college students makes plain the widening gap between Israel and American Jews. The hasbara industry is grasping at straws now, trying desperately to prevent American Jewish college students from forming our own ideas and opinions on Israel. It is insulting to our intelligence to assume we will buy this hasbara, and insulting to our Jewish ethics. The fact that the Israeli government stoops to such tactics is a sign of desperation. It signals to us that not only does the Israeli government not seem to have scruples, but underscores their disdain for the fundamental needs and desires of Hillel students. In these political times, students are highly unlikely to have this kind of faith in anything sponsored by the state. The Israeli government is out of touch and so is Hillel if it continues to accept their money.
Hillel almost cut ties with the Israeli government over this database. We must encourage Hillel to go a step further, trust and listen to the students it claims to serve, and let us shape the culture of Hillel from the ground up. The more Mosaic United tries to impose a singular ideology, the more it creates a hostile, dissonant atmosphere for students at Hillel. Hillel needs to cut ties with Mosaic United, return the funding, and foster a space for all Jewish students.
Emily Strauss is a frequent contributor to New Voices magazine, and an occasional contributor to Jewish Currents and the Forward. She can reached at email@example.com.