Exclusive Interview with Open Hillel Founder: Activist Uses Anti-Israel, Pro-BDS Electronic Intifada to “Educate” at Southern Synagogue

Lex Rofes, a founder and spiritual leader of the self-proclaimed “Open Hillel” activist group, works for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) in Jackson, Mississippi and has boasted of using the Electronic Intifada to “educate” Jews regarding Israel and of influencing at least one student to withhold donations to the  Jewish National Fund (JNF).

The ISJL, a winner of the prestigious Slingshot Award, however, has turned a blind eye to Rofes’ anti-Israel activism and teaching methods. Those methods, which include using the house organ of the BDS movement,  have turned Jews against Israel at one Mississippi synagogue – and who knows where else.

An original member of the Open Hillel steering committee, Rofes once served as a student representative to Hillel International’s Board of Directors while a student at Brown University. Although claiming to be supportive of Israel, Rofes has worked tirelessly to create and advance the Open Hillel anti-Zionist BDS agenda while an employee of ISJL.

Rofes was also among the Open Hillel leaders who condoned spying by a colleague employed by the venerable American Jewish Committee on a private conversation – a mole who was subsequently fired by the AJC when they discovered his breach of trust after being in the job for about a month.

Recently, the Electronic Intifada cited Open Hillel, which started at Harvard University, as being among the leading American anti-Zionist organizations, along with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). NGO Monitor, a leading Israel non-profit organization that tracks such groups, has come to the same conclusion.

Rofes, a 2013 Brown graduate, is disarmingly affable and articulate and works hard to appear literate about contemporary politics and Jewish observance. As an ISJL education fellow, Rofes teaches at Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi. During last fall’s Open Hillel Conference at Harvard, Rofes boasted publicly about how his lectures there have utilized the Electronic Intifada and he openly discussed the “success” of his efforts when a Beth Israel student announced after one class that she would no longer donate to the JNF.

He crowed to the crowd saying that he told her, “That’s a good thing.”

Last winter a small group of Jewish students at three small Eastern liberal arts colleges – Swarthmore, Vassar and Wesleyan – declared themselves to be “Open Hillels.” But in more than a year since those schools created a small flurry of publicity, no other college or university has joined this trio. Currently sources say that two of those schools are considering rescinding those declarations. In contrast, there are 550 Hillels in North America, and this academic year nearly 20 new colleges have asked to join Hillel International. In a recent series of blistering exposes, former Open Hillel organizer Holly Bicerano, a student at Boston University, revealed the duplicitous and deceitful behavior of her former colleagues and their organization.

During the course of reporting this story, more than 20 ISJL associates were contacted regarding Rofes’ use of the Electronic Intifada as a teaching tool and his leadership role at Open Hillel. All declined comment. Instead of supplying any kind of explanation, ISJL President Macy B. Hart issued a thinly veiled threat:

On behalf of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I am writing to demand that you cease e-mailing and calling our office regarding the civic and political activities which Lex Rofes pursues during his off hours. Lex and our other employees’ civic and political activities are strictly personal in nature. They are not a part of their employment with the Institute and are not done on behalf of the Institute.

Should you wish to discuss any of the Institute’s activities or programs, please feel free to contact me. Otherwise, we will expect you to abide by this letter and stand ready to take appropriate action as necessary.  

While Hart apparently considers Rofes’ key role at Open Hillel and his use of the Electronic Intifada at Beth Israel to be something that’s not part of his “employment” and is “strictly personal in nature,” the synagogue’s president disagrees.

Dr. Howard T. Katz, president of the 216-family Reform congregation where Rofes teaches using sources including the Electronic Intifada, believes that he was teaching as an ISJL associate. In an email, Katz insisted, “Lex is not an educator at the Synagogue. He is an education fellow [italics in original] with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life (ISJL).” He added that Rofes’ synagogue teaching was in his “capacity” as an education fellow with ISJL—specifically providing “rabbinic services, an education program, and cultural events to communities.”

Katz also noted in an exclusive interview that Rofes “needs a little history lesson” and admitted that the Ivy League graduate is “a little misguided.” He also emphasized that the synagogue raises money for Israel and “tends to be strongly pro-Israel.”

A native of Milwaukee, Rofes does not shy away from challenging the very essence of Hillel’s pro-Israel mission. At the Open Hillel Conference, Rofes claimed that Hillel originally “was not a political Zionist organization or was not a cultural Zionist organization…There was people involved with Hillel and supportive of Hillel from all sorts of different backgrounds that had various ideologies …So when people talk to you about how Hillel has always been a Zionist organization… that’s, in a very objective sort of quizzical way not true.” In one sense Rofes is correct: Hillel was founded in 1923, which was 25 years before the state of Israel was founded by a United Nations vote following the murders of at least six million Jews in the Holocaust.

To achieve its aims, Open Hillel employs questionable tactics, as Bicerano has reported. In November, the American Jewish Committee fired Danny Blinderman, an Open Hillel and J Street U leader, after it was discovered that the new employee had offered to obtain and then relay the contents of on an off-the-record call between Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut and Jewish community leaders. Rofes and other Open Hillel leaders, including Harvard’s Rachel Sandalow-Ash and Emily Unger, discussed the scheme with Blinderman in a string of emails and encouraged his actions.

Rather than alert AJC or Hillel International to this violation of trust and possibly the law, Rofes reportedly advised his friend in an email, “… you understand dynamic at your work better than any of us do. But regardless this should be a great chance, as you said, to get a sense of what he’s (Fingerhut) saying when he doesn’t know anybody from Open Hillel is listening.”

In an interview, Rofes insisted, “He [Danny] didn’t record anything… there was no recording.” Regardless of Rofes’ viewpoint, AJC found enough cause to terminate Blinderman immediately upon learning of his spying. And it was Rofes and other Open Hillel leaders, including an Ohio State law student, who egged him on.

Under Rofes’ leadership, Open Hillel works to undermine Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership in the most extreme of fashions by trying to force through the doors of a campus Hillel pro-BDS organizations and speakers that oppose the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state. These extremist groups, including JVP, which employs Open Hillel leaders, and SJP, some of whose members belong to Open Hillel, advocate economic warfare against Israel through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. They oppose, as does the Electronic Intifada, the existence of the Jewish state and have instigated an upswing in anti-Jewish activity on college campuses.

At last fall’s Open Hillel Conference, the open animosity and hostility toward Israel was on full display during a keynote address by infamous anti-Zionist academic Rashid Khalidi. After a glowing introduction by a JVP leader to a crowded lecture hall, the audience enthusiastically approved of Khalidi’s fiery anti-Zionist rhetoric with a standing ovation. Khalidi once served as spokesman for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), then classified as a terrorist organization, during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Khalidi also claimed, “Hamas, as far as I know, and as far as I’ve seen, has never attacked America, the United States, or Americans.” He also claimed that United States “support for Israel created Hezbollah.”

Rofes led a session at the conference where he discussed the “Israel literacy series” that he teaches at the Mississippi synagogue. On a recording of that session, he explained that one of the first actions he took as a member of Beth Israel was to approach the rabbi and say, “Yo, can I do an Israel-literacy series.” According to Rofes, he chose the title “Israel literacy series, as opposed to Israel-Palestine literacy series, which would have been my ideal name, because I knew that people probably wouldn’t come, or that it wouldn’t even happen.”

In a recent interview with the elusive Rofes, he discussed his teaching methodology—and his use of the Electronic Intifada, which has been called an anti-Israel “cyberpropaganda” website that is “too biased to be of much use to mainstream publications.”

Electronic Intifada features editorials by the likes of Omar Barghouti, a Qatari native, Hamas supporter, and founding member of the BDS movement, who wrote, “We are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and nothing can be done to save it… I, for one, support euthanasia.” Further enunciating his profound hatred for the Jewish state, Barghouti, who ironically earned his graduate degree at Tel Aviv University, further declared, “The two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israel conflict is really dead. Good riddance! But someone has to issue an official death certificate before the rotting corpse is given a proper burial.”

Why does Rofes use material from Electronic Intifada? To point out the bias? To show the distortions of the truth? To explain how propaganda works?

Rofes, who believes that Barghouti and others holding his viewpoints should be sponsored by Hillel and allowed unfettered access to speak within campus Hillel facilities, said, “People quote their enemies and the people they disagree with all the time because if you believe your viewpoint is better than theirs, then putting their viewpoint alongside yours is a good way to compare them and convince people to come to your viewpoint.” He added, “That’s not the point of our series. The point of our series is to have all the viewpoints.”

As part of his Orwellian logic, Rofes said he “generally” disagrees with Electronic Intifada’s “portrayal of Israel.” But when asked whether he attempts to show how its perspective is wrong he said, “I’m not trying to prove any position wrong or right… I want people to be aware of all the opinions out there so that they can choose one for themselves and they can confront those they disagree with… I’m not trying to prove any position correct or incorrect in my series.”

And on the issue of whether Electronic Intifada distorted last summer’s war with Hamas and is biased against Israel, Rofes remarked, “I’m not super familiar. I think probably, yeah. I think yeah. I think most news sources distort… Every news source is biased.”

How can Rofes claim unfamiliarity with Electronic Intifada’s mission, their bias, and their reporting of the war when he’s using it as a main teaching resource?

How is it that Rofes said during the interview that he “wouldn’t call Electronic Intifada a trustworthy news source” yet has used it to teach Jews at a Reform synagogue in Jackson, MS?

When pressed on if he provides examples the Electronic Intifada’s bias to his class, Rofes said, “I don’t provide background information on any of the news sources I use. If people are interested, I list where the quote came from, they can go to the website. They can look into it. Once again, I’m not there to prove sources right or wrong… The point of our series is to engage with the sources that are there, not to call them correct or incorrect.”

A teacher, however, is professionally obligated to inform students about the credibility and objectivity of information sources. Rofes, who says he mistrusts the Electronic Intifada as a legitimate news source but by using it gives it credibility, is not living up to a teacher’s core responsibilities.

What is most troubling, however, is that ISJL, a non-profit Jewish educational organization, refuses to comment on Rofes’ activities or acknowledge his use of an anti-Israel, pro-Hamas publication. Even if Rofes’ work at Beth Israel was unrelated to his work at ISJL, which is under dispute, a response from his employer is warranted because such behavior could potentially reflect on his fitness for employment at another Jewish educational organization.

Did Rofes use the Electronic Intifada while working at other places for ISJL?

ISJL and Beth Israel are both unwilling to accept responsibility for Rofes using a Hamas propaganda vehicle in his work. Indeed, ISJL’s silence on this matter damages its reputation with the public and its donors while permitting Rofes to leverage his ISJL affiliation in the Jewish educational world.

Rofes says that he’s conducted nine classes. Beth Israel leadership believes the ISJL educator only taught “a class or two.” The ISJL refuses to say anything.

What’s equally intriguing is how Dr. Katz and the Beth Israel synagogue leadership claim they had not heard of Open Hillel or Rofes’ prominent roll in it.

A reasonable person might ask: How can the leadership of Beth Israel be so unaware that an Open Hillel leader was using Electronic Intifada to teach there until it was brought to their attention by a reporter? Why were they also not aware that at least one person, and conceivably others, had chosen to no longer support Jewish National Fund as a result of Rofes’ classes?

And the question must be asked: What is wrong at ISJL that they are refusing to comment about Rofes’ anti-Israel teaching and political activities?

About the Author
Joel Griffith is an attorney, writer, and researcher. He is the Chair of the Washington, DC, chapter of the Young Jewish Conservatives.
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