Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #3: Jennifer Rubin, J Street and the Univ. of Penn. Hillel

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary only wrote three sentences this morning about J Street, and yet she got enough wrong that it's worthy of a fact check. Here's the item, the first in her daily "Flotsam and Jetsam" post on the Contentions blog:

University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel is hosting J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami. Does Hillel not know that J Street doesn’t like to be known as a “pro-Israel” organization? One wonders what those who support Hillel must be thinking.


Rubin links to this page at the J Street Web site, which has information on the launch of "J Street Philadelphia," part of a national rollout of local J Street chapters planned for next month, and says that Penn's Hillel is "hosting" J Street and its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami. The event is being held at Steinhardt Hall at the University of Pennsylvania campus, which, via a Google search, I discovered is the UPenn Hillel building. But the J Street announcement doesn't mention Hillel at all, just the building, and it's not like it's uncommon for Hillels (or any building for that matter) to rent space to an organization without actually endorsing it. (When I was a student at Duke University--and there wasn't a Duke Jewish center built yet--my fraternity used to rent the UNC Hillel House for our January semi-formal every year. I don't think anyone would have said UNC Hillel was "hosting" us or sponsoring us--we were just renting the space. And yes, I know this isn't a perfect analogy since the formal was closed to the public and the J Street event isn't, but I thought it sort of made my point anyway.)

But all the evidence above is speculative, so I sent an email to a J Street spokesperson, who responded that yes, the organization is renting the space from Hillel. Why didn't Rubin make that call or send that email to J Street? Don't know--could be laziness, or that she just wanted to stir up trouble among critics of J Street and knew that actually getting the correct information might stop her from doing that.

Rubin also isn't quite accurate on something else she writes in those brief three sentences. She says that J Street "doesn't like to be known as a 'pro-Israel' organization." But that's just not the case. Although some question whether they should be using the slogan, J Street clearly has always called itself a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" organization. Rubin is conflating J Street with its campus arm, J Street U. The Jerusalem Post reported back in October that J Street U has decided that individual chapters did not have to use "pro-Israel" in its slogan, J Street U denied it, and there was a lot of confusion and back and forth over the issue--and I'm still not really sure what the deal is. Suffice it to say that J Street U's Web site does not use the term "pro-Israel" to describe itself in its mission statement and decries polarizing voices using the terms "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestinian"--but also states clearly that "as supporters of Israel, we are firmly committed to protecting the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic homeland."

As for those of you reading this and asking, "What would be wrong if UPenn Hillel was hosting a speech from Jeremy Ben-Ami?" that's a legitimate question that is worthy of debate, but has nothing to do with fact-checking--and thus I'm not going to get into it. But you're welcome to hash that out in the comments.

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