With tensions mounting on American campuses over anti-Semitism and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, hundreds of college presidents have signed onto a landmark petition calling for "intimidation-free" campuses.
But the document itself has become the subject of controversy.
That’s because the statement, released by the American Jewish Committee, specifically mentions only intimidation against Jewish students.
As a result, some university presidents have declined to sign.
For example, University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman, who did not sign, said that while she is concerned about rising anti-Semitism in the world, her campus also has anti-Muslim incidents. She believed the statement was too narrowly focused.
Coincidentally, Coleman’s university this week is hosting the second National Student Conference on the Palestine Solidarity Movement, which proclaims that "Zionism is racism" and is pushing for colleges to withdraw their investments in Israel.
In response, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha is organizing several busloads of New York-area students to drive at no charge to Ann Arbor Saturday night to attend a Sunday campus counter-rally where Amcha director Rabbi Avi Weiss will speak.
"The response has been overwhelming," Amcha’s Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld said Tuesday, noting that four buses have been filled.
Also this weekend, left-wing activist Rabbi Michael Lerner is sponsoring a conference called "Supporting Middle East Peace and Reconciliation" at Manhattan’s John Jay College, Oct. 11-14.
Beginning Friday night, the San Francisco-based Rabbi Lerner, founder of the liberal Tikkun magazine and a leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, is launching an organization called Tikkun Campus Network in an effort to promote civil dialogue between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian campus forces.
Co-chairs of the event are Susannah Heschel, chairwoman of the Jewish Studies Department at Dartmouth College, and Cornel West, a professor of religion at Princeton who recently left Harvard after a public spat with president Lawrence Summers.
The Tikkun conference will discuss "what can students and faculty do to challenge both the anti-Semitism that sometimes gets articulated as "pro-Palestinian" and at the same time reject the attempts to dismiss all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic," Rabbi Lerner said.
The interfaith conference will feature Sabbath services and workshops on the history of the Mideast struggle. One workshop is titled "Opposing the Occupation is Pro-Israel." Rabbi Lerner will also discuss plans for a national student strike the day after the U.S. goes to war in Iraq.
But the focus of the conference will be, "What steps can we take in the face of polarized factions on campuses to create a more compassionate, vulnerable and openly human campus discourse on the Middle East?"
Meanwhile, the AJCommittee continues to tabulate responses to the "anti-intimidation" petition. By Tuesday, 308 college presidents had signed; 12 said no. One president, William Chace of Emory University in Atlanta, withdrew his support, saying the proclamation was too one-sided. About 1,200 presidents have not replied, an AJCommittee official said.
The signature-gathering effort was led by James Freedman, a former president of Dartmouth, and six others including Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis; Frank Rhodes, president emeritus of Cornell; H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard; Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president of George Washington; the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame; and Emory’s Chace.
Others signers include the presidents of Wellesley, Amherst and New York University.
Most Ivy League school presidents did not sign, except for Ruth Simmons of Brown.
The petitions have been circulating among college presidents since August, when about 1,500 were sent out. The AJCommittee helped distribute and publicize the statement.
The statement says "we are concerned that recent examples of classroom and on-campus debate have crossed the line into intimidation and hatred, neither of which have any place on university campuses.
"In the past few months, students who are Jewish or supporters of Israel’s right to exist (Zionists) have received death threats and threats of violence. Property connected to Jewish organizations has been defaced or destroyed. Posters and Web sites displaying libelous information or images have been widely circulated, creating an atmosphere of intimidation.
"These practices and others, directed against any person, group or cause, will not be tolerated on campuses. All instances will be investigated and acted upon so that the campus will remain an institution devoted to ideas based on rational consideration."
It is the singling out of Jewish incidents that troubled some university leaders.
Chace said he signed the petition because of its appeal to the peaceful resolution of issues, but changed his mind after calls from colleagues who believed the petition was one-sided due to its exclusion of Muslim students.
AJCommittee’s anti-Semitism expert, Ken Stern, said by the time Chace asked that the wording be changed, 200 presidents had already signed.
"Administratively there was no way to change the statement at this point, but I agreed with the drafters that even if we could have reworked it, there was no reason to do so," Stern explained. "Arab students, indeed all students, were clearly covered by the statement as written."
Further, Stern argued that violence and intimidation was coming in one direction: against pro-Israel students.
"The same week that one of the original signers pulled out, a riot by pro-Palestinian students prevented former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking at Concordia College in Montreal," Stern said. "Shortly after, Jewish-linked property was defaced with swastikas at Colorado University.
"To have made the statement ‘even-handed’ in this environment would have not only created a moral equivalency between chair throwers and placard holders, but also would have revised the narrative of the troubling facts that gave rise to the statement in the first place."
Stern also chided the presidents who declined to sign. "I doubt that any of them would hesitate to speak out about anti-black bigotry without at the same time feeling a need to couple it with anti-white bigotry."
Wesleyan president Douglas Bennet said he was not only concerned about the statement being one-sided but about raising the subject, "where we’ve all been trying since 9-11 to establish reasoned discourse," he told The New York Times. "I thought that the letter was unwarranted and unhelpful and should be withheld."
Joan Scott, leader of the American Association of University Professors’ committee on academic freedom, said she was appalled about the paragraph on Jewish students, contending there have been far more attacks against Muslims and Palestinian supporters than advocates for Israel’s foreign policy.
- Susannah Heschel
- cornel west
- Ann Arbor
- University of Michigan
- San Francisco
- Michael Lerner
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Lawrence Summers
- Shmuel Herzfeld
- Mary Sue Coleman
- William Chace
- Palestine Solidarity
- Dartmouth College
- Avi Weiss
- Social Issues
- New York
- Staff Writer
- chairwoman of the Jewish Studies Department