The origins of the campus ad

NEW YORK, Oct. 14 (JTA) — I had quite an education this summer, helping a group of college and university presidents circulate a statement calling for an “intimidation-free campus.” The statement grew out of a discussion with five presidents about a series of incidents in which Jewish students had been victimized on a few campuses. There was concern about an increasing pattern of intimidation following the collapse of the peace process. Jewish-linked property had been vandalized; Jewish students had been taunted with anti-Semitic chants and threatened with death. On some campuses observant Jewish students were afraid to wear yarmulkes. And some Jewish students said they were steering away from certain Middle East-related courses and professors, concerned that speaking out in favor of Israel would result in lower grades. The statement on intimidation-free campuses was envisioned by its drafters as an articulation of the duty of a college president to his or her campus, out of a commitment that political debate not create an environment in which students feel uncomfortable to be who they are or to take any course. The drafters included the paragraph mentioning attacks on Jewish students to explain the genesis of the statement and to give it some urgency. The language of the statement was clear, however: The presidential guarantee of an “intimidation-free” campus applied to all groups. While many presidents were quick to sign on, others declined. Some simply did not sign statements. One — a Jewish president — did not like the word “Zionist” in the text. Others feared that signing on would be taken as an admission that there were problems on their campuses. A handful of presidents — including one of the original signers — had another concern that came to light after more than 200 of their colleagues had already joined: The statement did not specifically include Arab students. 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. Arab students, indeed all students, were clearly covered by the statement as written. And while Jewish students and supporters of Israel’s right to exist were certainly active on campus, violence and intimidation were coming in one direction. 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 University in Montreal. Shortly thereafter, Jewish-linked property was defaced with swastikas at the University of Colorado at Boulder. To have made the statement “symmetrical” in this environment would have not only created an immoral 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. After the attacks on Sept. 11, many college presidents and most human rights organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, spoke out clearly about the dangers of scapegoating Arabs and Muslims. No one demanded that those statements not be issued unless they went from the particular to the general or specifically included Jewish students, despite the fact that anti-Semitic material blaming Jews and Israel for the terrorist attacks was already circulating on campus. Yet some presidents now complain when a statement that clearly goes from the particular to the universal does not specifically mention Arabs. I have no doubt that the few presidents who declined to sign will strive to create the intimidation-free environment the statement envisions. I am concerned about what their refusal suggests. I doubt that any of them would hesitate to speak out about anti-black bigotry without feeling a need to couple it with anti-white bigotry. Why then the reluctance to mention anti-Semitic death threats, uncoupled with any other form of bigotry, as a sufficient reason to articulate a commitment to maintain a campus open to ideas and closed to thuggery?Kenneth S. Stern is the American Jewish Committee’s expert on anti-Semitism and extremism and author of “Why Campus Anti-Israel Activity Flunks Bigotry 101,” available at www.ajc.org.

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