Menu JTA Search

Anti-Israel rhetoric up at Carnegie-Mellon

A fence at Carnegie Mellon University that was covered with anti-Israel slogans recently. (Christopher Rolinson/The Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh)

A fence at Carnegie Mellon University that was covered with anti-Israel slogans recently. (Christopher Rolinson/The Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh)

PITTSBURGH, Feb. 23 —Anti-Israel rhetoric has been on the rise lately at Carnegie Mellon University, making some Jewish students feel uncomfortable on their own campus. The university has funded two anti-Israel speakers at CMU and “facilitated” a third, last week’s black power speaker Malik Zulu Shabazz, said Aaron Weil, director of the Hillel Jewish University Center. Some Jewish students are feeling intimidated and some parents are troubled by the activities, which include regular anti-Israel attacks in the school newspaper, the Tartan, and anti-Israel slogans painted on “the fence,” a real fence at the center of the campus that serves as a student billboard. “I think Jews on this campus feel very singled out. All of a sudden, Zionism has become a dirty word,” said Rachel Svinkelstin, a CMU student and president of Tartans for Israel. “All of a sudden, Israel is easily attack-able. It’s almost indefensible. It’s almost as if there’s nothing anti-Zionists are afraid to do now. “The debate isn’t about roadblocks and settlements,” she continued. “It’s about whether Israel should exist or not. It’s very upsetting.” Weil, who is in his second year as Hillel JUC director, would like to put the brakes on talk of campus hostility to Jews and Israel. “I wouldn’t use that language,” he said. “There are other campuses where that’s true. We are not San Francisco State, nor are we Columbia. “However,” he continued, “it would be true to say there’s a growing feeling of unease among Jewish students.” That uneasiness was magnified two weeks ago when Ali Abunimah, the founder of the Electronic Intifada Web site, spoke at CMU. He was followed last week by Shabazz. On March 14, Norman Finkelstein, a DePaul University professor who has accused Jewish organizations of creating a Holocaust industry for financial and political gain, is scheduled to speak. Bringing such anti-Semitic speakers does not support free speech on campus, Weil said. Instead, it clearly violates CMU’s own rules. “The university’s own bylaws prohibit incitement and intimidation, overt racism and threats,” he said. “All this occurred at the Shabazz event that took place at Carnegie Mellon University and was policed by Carnegie Mellon.” Hillel JUC supports free speech, he said, “but the Constitution, while guaranteeing free speech, does not guarantee a venue.” Michael Murphy, CMU’s director of student affairs, denied that the Shabazz speech rose to the level of incitement, though he did call it “ugly.” He said CMU is engaged in many positive efforts to promote student dialogue, including a town hall meeting Monday. The lecture series, as envisioned, “is committed to bringing in other perspectives and people of different views,” Murphy said. David Shtulman, director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Jewish Committee, was scheduled to meet Wednesday with Vice Provost for Education Indira Nair to discuss the situation. Weil also was expected to attend. “There are Jewish students who are feeling intimidated; there are Jewish students who are feeling frightened,” Shtulman said. “If one lecture by Malik Shabazz could stir this up, then there are some serious existing problems, and the university needs to get to the bottom of this.” So must the broader Jewish community, he added. “I don’t think the broader Jewish community has been adequately aware of what’s going on at CMU. I try to follow these things fairly closely and even I wasn’t aware.” It’s not just Jews who are bothered by what happened at the Shabazz event. Some members of SPIRIT, the campus organization that brought Shabazz to CMU, showed up at the JUC’s Shabbat dinner Friday to apologize for the incident and did so again at a campus town hall meeting soon after Shabbazz spoke. “They’re being very open and honest in dealing with the emotions that have come out,” Svinkelstin said. “They have been very committed, and that’s important. They’re taking responsibility.” She said Hillel JUC is planning to beef up its own program of pro-Israel activities in the coming weeks, including what she calls a “Zionism 101 ” class as well as other projects. “We’re not just taking it lying down,” she said. Despite the recent friction, Weil said there that the relationship between the university and its Jewish community is positive. “I think Carnegie Mellon is becoming a more attractive place” for Jews, he said. “We’re already in the advanced stages with Carnegie Mellon for the introduction of kosher food. These discussions have being going on for more than a year. “The university itself has a very good relationship with Hillel, utilizing what Hillel offers, as an attraction to potential students. It’s only because of these successes that the current climate is so upsetting, because this is an aberration from a normally warm climate.” But it’s a serious aberration, he added, because Jewish students are feeling increasingly intimidated by the level of the hate speech and may be slower to speak out for fear of being labeled as opposing free speech. Svinkelstin herself said she’s been attacked in the Tartan for stifling free expression. “All I’ve asked for is the right to be heard, too,” she said. That’s a bad situation for CMU, according to Weil. “You have to say hate is hate, that’s the Jewish response,” Weil said. “This is not a Jewish issue, but we are the canary in the coal mine.”

NEXT STORY