This story has been updated.
(JTA) — An event that took place at a Virginia university Thursday night to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day was scheduled to feature lectures about the legacies of Auschwitz and the intersection between white supremacy and antisemitism. There was also a planned recitation of a poem and a musical performance.
Not on the docket at James Madison University: support for the event from the school’s Jewish faculty and staff.
Dozens of them announced in an open letter that they would boycott the event, titled “An Evening Conversation on the History and Legacy of the Holocaust,” citing concerns about its appropriateness. Of particular concern, according to multiple people familiar with the situation, was a planned performance by the university’s provost, a pianist, during a segment titled “Music as Refuge in the Holocaust.”
“There was no refuge for those targeted by the ‘Final Solution,’” said the open letter, which was unsigned but said it had the support of “24 of Jewish JMU Faculty, Faculty Emeriti, and Staff.”
The letter, which the school’s student newspaper The Breeze published Thursday morning, said the planning of the Holocaust event had “disrespected and disparaged Jewish individuals, dismissed Jewish participation and failed to reflect the inclusive values that JMU purports to foster.” The letter criticized the university’s decision not to solicit input from Jewish faculty in planning its event, as well as the decision to invite the rabbi of a neighboring community to give a community address, rather than centering the local rabbi.
That rabbi, Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner of Beth El Congregation of Harrisonburg, said the event had been planned with little to no input from Jews, and that three Jews who were added to the planning committee late in the process later resigned en masse. More than a dozen Jews had been involved in planning the previous year’s event, one signer of the letter told JTA.
In an interview, Kurtz-Lendner compared the event to “a Martin Luther King observance planned by an entire committee of white people.” He said he was joining the boycott and not encouraging his congregants, who include James Madison professors, to attend. He said the rabbi listed on the original program, from a Reform synagogue about 30 miles away in Staunton, would not attend, either.
“The program looks wholly insensitive,” he said. “Instead of being a commemoration of the Holocaust, it looks like it’s turning into an opportunity for celebration.”
That idea appeared to be rooted in the inclusion of music during the event. Maura Hametz, the Jewish chair of the university’s history department, said she had successfully argued against including instrumental music during last year’s commemoration, citing prohibitions in Jewish tradition against instrumental music in times of mourning.
“Biblically we don’t use instrumental music, as Jews,” to commemorate the Holocaust, she said. “If you use the instruments, it’s a celebration.” The proposal to include a musical interlude, she said, also had a history in “medieval church music, so that doesn’t track with what is good for us.”
The belief that Holocaust commemorations cannot include music is not universally held; some commemorations have featured music written by Jewish composers as acts of resistance or remembrance. International Holocaust Remembrance Day was created by the United Nations in 2005 as a way to mourn all victims of the Holocaust, distinct from Yom HaShoah, the Jewish holiday that takes place in April and was established by the Israeli government to commemorate specifically Jewish Holocaust victims.
Still, Hametz had made the case against music last year, so when she saw that this year’s event was again scheduled to include musical selections, she said, “It did surprise me.” She ultimately decided to boycott the event and sign the open letter.
The boycott was supported by one of the university centers sponsoring the event, the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence. Its director, Taimi Castle, issued a statement to the student newspaper saying the center would “spend time reflecting on how we can support the Jewish community at JMU in addressing the harm caused by these actions.”
A James Madison University spokesperson said Thursday that the event itself was still scheduled to proceed as intended that evening. The university said it had reached out to “a spokesperson for this group” of critics and planned to hold a meeting “to gain further understanding and collectively work on a path forward.”
The provost did not play piano at the event that was ultimately held Thursday night, according to people who attended. The event also began with a statement read by the university that acknowledged the controversy, but did not apologize for it.
The episode comes amid broad questions about the role of Jews in efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in universities and workplaces. Jewish critics of the emerging field of diversity, equity and inclusion have charged that antisemitism is not always treated as similarly offensive to racism or homophobia, despite also being rooted in hatred based on identity. The Jewish open letter signers also cited a recent statewide report on antisemitism in Virginia as reason to take their concerns about Jewish representation at the university seriously.
James Madison’s Holocaust Remembrance Day event was sponsored in part by the university’s equity and inclusion office, and the associate provost for inclusive strategies and equity initiatives was scheduled to deliver opening remarks and also moderate a question-and-answer session at the event’s end.
“This event is to create an opportunity for people to learn about the lived experiences of others and honor the Holocaust Remembrance Day through educational and solemn means,” Malika Carter-Hoyt, the school’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said in a statement provided to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The statement did not mention Jews or antisemitism.
Carter-Hoyt said she hadn’t received “any notice about these concerns” prior to the letter.
“I acknowledge the letter and express compassion toward the concerns outlined by faculty,” Carter-Hoyt said. But she also defended the planning and suggested that having Jews on the planning committee had not been a specific university priority.
“Committee members were selected based on substantive expertise and commitment to the creation of an event that properly marks the occasion,” she wrote. “No one was included or excluded explicitly based on a particular protected characteristic.”
James Madison University, located in Harrisonburg, is a public college with about 21,000 students. About 1,200 of them are Jewish, according to Hillel International, which offers some services on campus but does not have a building or rabbi there. The chapter’s vice president was listed as a participant on the evening’s program, and read a poem by Primo Levi, an Italian Holocaust survivor.
Josh Shulruff, the university staff advisor for JMU Hillel, told JTA that the Hillel students wound up participating in the event because he had connected them to the organizers before learning of the objections the local Jewish community had to its planning.
“I am part of the reason they got mixed up in this mishegas,” he said. “They were in a tough spot, and they just managed it with incredible poise and professionalism.”
Shulruff also signed the boycott letter, and was one of the Jews who left the event planning committee after determining that their concerns weren’t being heard. Those Jews who left the committee had sent a private letter to the interim director of the center for civic engagement expressing their concerns about the lack of Jewish input, including the fact that the university had not engaged with the local Chabad house as they had the previous year.
He hit his breaking point with the committee, he said, when he learned they had invited the rabbi from the next town over to participate instead of the local rabbis, a move he called “blatant tokenism.”
But, he emphasized, “I don’t think this is a campus that’s overrun by Jew hatred. I think this was a case of not listening to people trying to warn them the ship was heading in the wrong direction.”
The school also does not have a Jewish studies department, despite what Hametz said had been extensive lobbying by faculty members to establish one. Alan Berger, who launched Jewish studies departments at Syracuse and Florida Atlantic universities, was billed as a keynote speaker at the event Thursday.
James Madison’s provost Heather Coltman, who was scheduled to play piano at the Holocaust memorial event and also previously worked at Florida Atlantic University, has an uneasy relationship with the school’s faculty. This week the faculty senate sought to condemn her for reportedly retaliating against the authors of a report on transparency at the school.
Frances Flannery, a professor of the Hebrew Bible who said she was the only Jewish studies professor on campus, told JTA she had signed the letter because she believed the university had taken “a giant step backwards” in Jewish relations since the previous year’s Holocaust memorial event.
“Whatever their intentions, they have failed to create a climate of inclusion and respect for expertise and Jewish experience,” she said. Multiple Jewish university staff told JTA that they wanted the university to issue a proper apology for how Thursday’s event was planned, and for the administration to promise there would be no retaliation against its critics.
While there are courses taught on Jewish topics, the lack of a separate department means that Jewish representation on campus is limited, Hametz said.
“There is no spokesperson here for the Jewish community,” she said. “There’s no central voice to say, ‘Hey, why is this happening? How is it possible that you go ahead with a Holocaust event with no Jewish people on the committee?’”