Newly obtained emails indicate that the outspoken and controversial Rabbi Shmuley Boteach presented a highly inaccurate narrative in his recent articles condemning the leadership of NYU Hillel, TorchPAC, and Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut.
In an article which sensationally compares Fingerhut to NBC’s recently discredited Brian Williams, Boteach claimed that Fingerhut is “losing the war for Israel on campus” and that his true plan is to “vilify anyone who calls out Hillel for its inaction.” Emails between Hillel International officials and Boteach, however, indicate that the majority of Boteach’s claims are outright falsehoods.
“Here are the facts,” Boteach condescendingly proclaimed. “Hillel refused to promote the Ambassador. The excuse that they were doing their own event with the Ambassador turned out to be untrue.” He continued to claim that “[t]here was no planned event with Ambassador Prosor subsequent to ours and there was no contact between Hillel and the Ambassador’s office, a fact belatedly confirmed to me by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Hillel’s NYU director.”
In truth, sources with knowledge of the planning confirm that a conference led by the World Zionist Organization (WZO), the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and NYU Hillel was tentatively scheduled for March 8th from 11:00 AM to until 4:00 PM. WZO was tasked with coordinating details with Ambassador Prosor’s office and the Ambassador was tentatively scheduled to speak at NYU. On February 9th, due to re-appropriated funding beyond their control and “a health issue with the conference chairman,” WZO informed NYU Hillel that the event would not be happening as scheduled; Ambassador Prosor’s office was informed of the postponement as well.
In his recent article in the New York Observer, Boteach claimed that he benevolently offered to “stage one large event” with Amb.Prosor and NYU Hillel. In truth, it was NYU Hillel Director Yehuda Sarna who first posed this idea, after describing NYU’s March 8th event that he was involved in planning. “Perhaps you would want to be part of that effort?” Sarna asked Boteach in an email dated January 22nd. “That gives us some more time and doesn’t land near any other major event that we are already planning.”
Though Boteach boldly asserted that Fingerhut had a “Brian Williams moment” and accused him of lying to cover his nefarious intentions, it was Rabbi Boteach that conveniently rewrote history in this case. Initially, Boteach replied to Sarna that his organization would love to get involved with the March 9th event. “yes, of course we’d love to be involved in march. thank you,” he responded. “[T]he two are not in conflict.”
Sarna concurred that the two events were not in conflict, but explained that it would be difficult for NYU Hillel to help recruit sizeable crowds for both events:
The two events are not in conflict for thisworld, though for us they are since it is difficult to bring out a crowd twice in 3 weeks for the same speaker. We just don’t have the bandwidth to do this well, especially since I know you will want us to bring out a big crowd.
With your permission, I will email the 20 NYU Jewish student clubs and see if any of them would like to co-sponsor with you. Just so that I know when I reach out, will it be a panel discussion or just the Ambassador?”
Boteach’s correspondence then took a sharp turn. In his January 23rd response, Boteach began the process of trying to undercut NYU Hillel’s event:
This event with Ambassador Prosor was arranged by us in December. It would’ve made a lot more sense for all of us to focus on one event rather than having them compete. When was your event organized please? As far as your kind offer to help by sending out to the groups, by all means please do so. I still believe it’d be best to focus our efforts on one event rather than two.
Despite the hostile change of tone, Rabbi Sarna nonetheless diplomatically encouraged Boteach to go ahead with his February 17th event in his January 29th reply:
Sorry for the delay. Our March 8 conference on anti-semitism with the WZO and Israeli Consulate is moving forward. Looks like you decided to move forward with your event with StandWithUs, which is great. Let a thousand flowers bloom! I think the events will be different enough from each other that people will not have Prosor-fatigue.
Apparently sensing that NYU Hillel wouldn’t cave to his demands, Boteach sent an email in which he critiqued Sarna for “splitting resources” and “shortchang[ing]” Ambassador Prosor.
Boteach’s email exchange with Hillel International is equally concerning and raises questions about his agenda.
On Tuesday February 10th, Rabbi Boteach sent an email to Fingerhut with the subject line “Being critical of Hillel” warning him that he was considering going public with a critique of Hillel International for their supposed inaction. David Eden, Chief Administrative Officer at Hillel International, promptly responded requesting to chat and stated that Hillel International“would like to work collaboratively with you.”
Shmuley then dictated a reply:
As far as the critique, it is very simple. I am astonished beyond words to hear that Hillel NYU and its pro-Israel group towards that is refusing to even announce that we are hosting Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, on February 17th at the Cooper Union Great Hall, which is one of the most prestigious lecture theaters in the United States. The lecture is a direct anti-BDS message entitled “Fighting the Global Demonization of the Jewish State.” We asked Rabbi Sarna and TorchPAC whether they wanted to be our partners–they refused. I can live with that. But the fact that they refuse to promote such an important lecture when sending an email costs absolutely nothing boggles the imagination. They have offered all kinds of silly excuses, but Israel right now is deeply imperiled, and if Hillel cannot rise to the challenge of even helping to simply mention that such an important Israeli personality is coming to lecture against BDS at one of the foremost campuses in the US, not to mention the campus with the most Jewish undergraduates of any in the country, then the whole mission of Hillel must be questioned. If this cannot be remedied, we will be forced to take action. Out of my respect for Eric and Hillel, I’ve given you this heads up as you have requested. Wishing you all the best and thanking you for your time.
Eden promptly explained that Hillel International does not control the response from local Hillel directors and that Boteach’s claims were overly presumptuous:
As to NYU, the decision to partner/participate with you on your event is local decision and is up to Rabbi Sarna.
However, if you question the “whole mission of Hillel” because of the decision by a local campus then you are tarring a global organization with a thin brush. Hillel is at the vanguard of fighting BDS on campus and we are doing more and more every day. I know because I am driving our anti-BDS program.
We would hope that our partners in fighting BDS, and who are seeking our involvement with their good efforts, would understand the dynamics and not take unnecessary shots at our organization.
Boteach then replied that he was “confused” and asked if “the criticism what bothers you but not what’s happening at NYU as anti Israel forces gain dominance at the University?”
Eden, not one to cower to a bully, was having none of it:
Confused. Maybe I am confused.
You of course are free to criticize anything and anyone you want.
However, if I understand what is in play here it appears that because you have a difference of opinion with Rabbi Sarna regarding the promotion of a program you are sponsoring at NYU with Ron Prosor that you are considering criticizing the entire Hillel movement while at the same time asking Eric and our organization to appear at and possibly host your BDS conference.
On the one hand, you ask for us to work with you and on the other if you don’t get what you exactly want at NYU when you want it then Hillel is ripe for your criticism.
Am I wrong?
As to your comment about anti-Israel forces gaining dominance at NYU … well we both know that this is a tough time on many many campuses across North America where Israel is under assault. Hillel is working tirelessly with scores of programs all of the time to combat this problem across the country. Our Israel Action Program is bringing new skills and expertise to Hillels around North America to fight BDS and anti-Israel activity. I’m sure that your program with Ron Prosor is helpful, as are many other programs, but it will not stem the tide alone.
I will tell you that if you do choose to criticize Rabbi Sarna publicly regarding your program at NYU that it tells me that you are not serious about working closely and collaboratively with Hillel International to do what is right for the Jewish people and win the fight against BDS and anti-Israelism and anti-Jewish activity on college campuses across North America. It tells that you only have your self interest at heart.
I also want to be fair and honest.
Rabbi Boteach then stated he didn’t “feel this exchange is being productive” and feared that if Hillel International didn’t share his outrage at Rabbi Sarna’s choice that they then“have little common ground.” He then promptly wrote an article attacking NYU Hillel, TorchPAC, and Hillel International in the New York Observer.
Rabbi Boteach’s continuous attacks on NYU Hillel and Hillel International are troubling not only because of the outright fiction they amplify, but because they needlessly weaken the Pro-Israel community at a time when unity and strength within our community is needed the most.
The defense of Israel on all fronts is of paramount importance in 2015, and there is no greater space in which this is a challenge than on college campuses. Unfortunately, through his latest challenge of Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut, it seems that Rabbi Shmuley is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and fabricate details in order to make pariahs out of those who challenge him rather than support his fellow pro-Israel activists. Campus is bad enough without such divisive conduct and inflammatory speech.
Time and time again, Rabbi Boteach plays the victim by labeling any and all attempts to hold him accountable as a “vicious attack.” (One Twitter follower ironically offered him consolation, believing that he had been physically attacked). Despite his clear discomfort with being held accountable for his words, as with Brian Williams, truth takes precedence over preserving a veneer of a celebrity’s trustworthiness: Rabbi Boteach must be held to the standards that a leader of his stature demands.
It is unfortunate that Rabbi Boteach appears to have chosen once again to disseminate misinformation regarding what has occurred at NYU Hillel. What is of the utmost importance on campus is that pro-Israel students who seek to spread a pro-Israel message have the proper tools and resources at their disposal to do so; if he truly seeks to bolster support for Israel on campus, Rabbi Boteach should spend less time spreading misinformation about friends of Israel and more time productively aiding the campus conversation. By parroting outright falsehoods about NYU Hillel, Rabbi Boteach has unjustly tarnished Hillel’s reputation and unnecessarily divided the pro-Israel community at NYU. If students and concerned parents are misled to believe that NYU Hillel has been inactive with regards to combating an anti-Israel animus on campus, promoting pro-Israel oriented activity, there may be unforeseen repercussions that follow. Sponsors may feel compelled to pull out investment simply because of an article written by a prominent rabbi that lacked veracity.
Ironically, after publishing half-truths, Rabbi Boteach invoked the recent Brian Williams scandal. Despite possible repercussions on their profit-margin, NBC stood fast in their commitment to broadcasting the truth, and the longtime newscaster was suspended for six months after he promulgated his false narrative. In Rabbi Boteach’s case, it seems his power remains unchecked, and his event will continue on as planned on Tuesday, February 17th — with free-reign in front of the microphone.
Daniel Mael is a senior at Brandeis University, a contributor to TruthRevolt.org, and a fellow at the Salomon Center. Chloé Valdary is a senior at the University of New Orleans and a fellow at the Lawfare Project. Laura E. Adkins is a junior at New York University and the president of TorchPAC.