Reports from Campus
Note: Student and faculty submissions to Campus Watch are screened for substance and tone, and are selected based upon their overall relevance to the study of Middle East studies in America. The opinions and assertions of the authors are theirs alone.
Jewish and pro-Israel students at the University of Chicago subject to intimidation and hate
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Students at the University of Chicago have organized to hold members of the University community responsible for what they feel is an atmosphere of intimidation and hate for Jewish students on campus. During the 2001-2002 academic year, students wrote numerous letters of complaint to faculty and administrators. Students held a rally on campus on April 12th to support Israel and protest the atmosphere of campus. This May, students met with administrators Margo Marshak, Vice President of the College and Dean of Student Services, Bill Michel, Deputy Dean of Students, Susan Art, Dean of Students, and others to make requests that we believe would improve the atmosphere of campus while not interfering with academic freedom. Our larger goals include the end of political indoctrination in the classroom, the inclusion of the Israeli perspective in University-sponsored panels at which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at issue, and consistent and principled behavior by administrators in response to the complaints of students, including both Arab and Jewish students.
Campus activity by Jewish students this academic year was prompted by an increasingly hostile climate at the U of C for many Jewish students coupled with failures by administrators and faculty to address student concerns adequately. As violence has escalated in the Middle East, and as emotion has intensified on campus, anti-Semitic incidents have become more frequent. By simply walking across campus, returning to their dorms, or reading their email, students can be barraged with hate speech. About four weeks ago, a visibly Jewish student was walking at night on campus when a car drove up beside him and a passenger screamed, "Death to Jews, Hitler should have finished you all off when he had the chance." On a public listserve in the Humanities this winter, during an extended tirade against Israel, a pro-Palestinian graduate student joked openly about Auschwitz. A Jewish senior was told by a University-appointed preceptor earlier this year that he couldn't be "bothered" reading her B.A. paper, as it focused on topics relating to Judaism and Zionism. In early April, a Jewish student put up a flier in her dorm to publicize a pro-Israel rally, only to find it defaced with the words, "Fuck Zionists, Fuck the Israeli pigs." Shortly after, the student found an "Anti-Zionist Manifesto" put up where the flier had been defaced; it contained 12 pages of photos of bleeding Palestinian children and concluded by claiming that the Jewish star = Nazi swastika. A complete list of incidents is available on request. These incidents are symptomatic of an increasingly alarming problem for Jewish students at the University of Chicago. Jews are being mistreated and intimidated on campus.
Such incidents are not unique to the U of C. On May 9th, 2002, Laurie Zoloth, Director of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, informed the world that her campus had become "a venue for hate speech and anti-Semitism" after she and her students were threatened during a pro-Israel rally. And on June 25th, 2002, Daniel Pipes and Jonathan Schanzer reported that across America, Jewish students are subjected to intimidation and hate speech ("Extremists on Campus," New York Post, June 25, 2002). But what is newsworthy about our campus story is that we have a larger strategy: holding faculty and administrators responsible for addressing underlying problems that help cause the current problems on campus.
What many people outside the academic world do not seem to know is that students' violent outbursts did not come from nowhere. They are only possible in an institution whose leaders—in our case, faculty and administration-- sanction and even encourage such outbursts. At the University of Chicago, anti-Semitism has been made acceptable, even fashionable, by a long process of academic delegitimizing of Israel and Judaism. Outbursts against other religions and ethnicities, including Islam, are not considered acceptable, and they occur much more rarely. Complicit in this delegitimizing are professors, students, administrators, and a host of institutional practices.
We are especially concerned about faculty involvement. We believe that faculty are misusing their authority by practicing indoctrination in the classroom. There is wide-spread belief in some parts of the University that it is legitimate to use the classroom to persuade students to accept a given set of political views without considering opposing arguments. Some professors feel it is acceptable to use the classroom to lambaste those not on the extreme left, including liberals, conservatives, the American government, and others with whom they disagree-- including those who support Israel's right to self-defense. Professors of a class on literary theory in Autumn of 2000 turned an opening seminar on writing into a condemnation of Israel. And professors in Near Eastern Language and Civilization commonly feel they can teach history by condemning Israel while never once discussing the Israeli perspective; for instance, this Spring, a professor explained the founding of Israel as a "catastrophe" with not a single redeeming quality.
Moreover, some professors are stifling dissent and nuanced discussion of issues. They dismiss critical questions and make it clear what students are "supposed to" believe. They even treat students who question professors' own ideological positions as pariahs. One student who suggested that a postcolonial theorist made an invalid argument was accused by a professor of "thinking like the oppressor." Some students are afraid to disagree with their professors' attacks on Israel because they believe grades can be affected if one disagrees with professors' political opinions. And some professors set a bad tone by failing to enforce standards of civility in their classes in general, especially by allowing students to attack students with whom they disagree. For instance, one professor did not object or show disapproval when a student raised her hand in class and remarked, "if Jews believe in ‘an eye for an eye,' they deserve all the violent retaliation they're getting." Some professors are using such tactics to make the classroom a clique of anti-Israel views rather than a locus for a critical and balanced examination of ideas.
Administrators are also complicit in the intimidation of Jewish students. When students complained that they are not able to take issue with anti-Israel opinions in some classes without being graded down, administrators have done nothing. The overseers of student organizations on campus, the ORCSA staff, have refused to get involved to show disapproval of the behavior of pro-Palestinian supporters who put up hateful signs and advertisements. They have also failed to ensure that panel discussions sponsored by student RSOs remain civil disputes, not chances to intimidate and silence Jewish audience members. Administrators were unsympathetic to student complaints and excused the talk by appealing to students' free speech. While we support free speech and do not want to censor anyone, we believe that administrators could and must do much more to express their concern over such hate speech on campus. They should start by expressing publicly that they do not approve of anti-Semitism.
The discrepancy between administrators' treatment of Muslim and Jewish students is striking. After September 11th, when anti-Muslim violence was on the rise nation-wide, University President Don Randel informed the vice president of the Muslim Student Association that the university would practice a "zero tolerance" policy toward discrimination against Muslims. Moreover, this policy was publicized in the student paper (reprint, Chicago Maroon, May 31, 2002). Similarly, this Spring, when anti-Semitism was on the rise world-wide, Jewish students felt in physical danger because of racist remarks, bullying behavior and advertising by pro-Palestinian activists, and the violent incident at San Francisco State University. Jewish and non-Jewish students complained to administration and asked for some public statement of support, and yet the University did not make a "zero tolerance" statement about possible anti-Semitic violence-- in fact, administrators made no public statement of concern at all. President Randel failed to respond to letters from concerned Jewish students this year. Many people believe that administration is hesitant to stand up for Jewish students because administrators allow themselves to be pressured by academic public opinion, which has labeled anti-Semitism as "no big deal," while taking other forms of racism seriously. (For academic acceptance of anti-Semitism, see John Brenkman's "Extreme Criticism," in What's Left of Theory (NY: Routledge, 2000.) Jews are considered by many to be "rich and powerful"—in one student's words, they "run the media"-- and thus not in need of any special concern. We believe that administrators allow Jewish students to suffer alone because they are afraid that if they oppose student and faculty anti-Israel misbehavior, they will be branded "racist," "conservative," or "reactionary." We believe it is extremely important to let it be known that we condemn racism. We believe that anti-Arab racism is deplorable; we also believe that anti-Semitism is equally deplorable. It is time for the administration to stop caving in to academic opinion and instead to behave in a consistent manner, according to principles and not fashion. Hate and intimidation should not be tolerated. The administration should announce that it will not tolerate anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic discrimination.
Institutional practices also add to the problem for Jewish students on campus. Some University-sponsored events have shown a clear anti-Israel bias. The University put on a panel after September 11th entitled, "9/11: Causes and Consequences," at which many anti-Israel panelists blamed U.S. foreign policy toward Israel for September 11th. Very few pro-Israel voices were invited. This lack of balance is completely antithetical to the idea of Chicago as a marketplace of ideas.
As a result of all of these forces, many Jewish students feel that they are not welcome in the University community. And at the same time, few members of the University community have come out publicly in defense of Jewish students' rights to feel free of intimidation on campus. The University has accepted a climate hostile toward Jews and supporters of Israel.
What is also newsworthy about our story is that we have suggested specific reforms the administration should take which would begin to improve the atmosphere of campus while not interfering with students' freedom of speech or professors' academic freedom.
1) Announce that grades should not be affected by one's political positions and that indoctrination should not be the goal of pedagogy. The university is a marketplace of ideas. Students, as well as professors, have the right to academic freedom. Students should be allowed to arrive at the best arguments, not necessarily the arguments predetermined by their professors' political beliefs. Students should not be graded down simply for disagreeing with professors' political or ideological positions.
2) Promote civility, starting with professors. Students should be treated civilly, whether they are on the left, in the center, or on the right. They should not be pressured by insults, ad hominem attacks, or other uncivil treatment to accept a given predetermined position.
3) Offer one class on campus on modern Israel that explains the Jewish/Zionist perspective. At present there are many classes on Middle Eastern history on campus, but none on modern Israel. Most classes that teach about modern Middle Eastern history demonize Israel rather than portraying it in a balanced manner.
4) When the University sponsors a panel in which many anti-Israel views are expressed, as they were in the "9/11: Causes and Consequences" series, at least one pro-Israel voice should be invited to each panel discussion. In a marketplace of ideas, many opposing arguments should be presented.
5) Sponsor and publicize a panel on the topic, "When does legitimate criticism of Israel slip into anti-Semitism?" It would help to announce that the University condemns anti-Semitism.
6) Announce that the ADL will monitor for anti-Semitic hate speech and hate crimes.
To date, we have not heard from administrators. We hope the administration grants our requests, and we will encourage students, alumni, faculty, friends, donors, and trustees to write to these administrators to urge them to take these steps, and to let the faculty and administration at all levels know that the University of Chicago must uphold open discourse and civility.
Sam Peltzman, Ralph and Dorothy Distinguished Service Professor of Economics in the Graduate School of Business, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Campus Watch contact e-mail: email@example.com