College Leaders Balance Israel and Speech

Jewish Presidents Often Find They Must Leave Loyalty Behind

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published January 17, 2012, issue of January 20, 2012.
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No Easy Answers: Jewish college presidents, like David Leebron of Rice, say they are sometimes caught between their own strongly held beliefs and the requirement to nurture a culture of diversity.
courtesy of rice university
No Easy Answers: Jewish college presidents, like David Leebron of Rice, say they are sometimes caught between their own strongly held beliefs and the requirement to nurture a culture of diversity.

As the debate about Israel rages on college campuses across America, there is one figure for whom the conversation takes on strikingly personal dimensions: the Jewish college president.

About 20 Jewish men and women hold the highest positions at universities across the country, including campuses that have become hotbeds of political activism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For these individuals, the role of president entails a constant balancing act between encouraging free speech on campus and honoring their personal, often supportive, views of Israel.


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In a series of interviews with the Forward, 10 current and former Jewish college presidents held forth on what the University of California’s Mark Yudof described as the “schizophrenia” of the Jewish college president — the moments when one’s Jewish identity bumps up against the interests of the institution. For many college presidents, the movement to boycott, divest from and implement sanctions against Israel — commonly known as BDS — represented a red line: Presidents who were previously disinclined to speak out against anti-Israel activity on campus in the name of preserving open dialogue found themselves publicly opposing the movement.

But going public on Israel had its limits. Several presidents voiced exasperation with the Jewish community’s scrutiny of campus events, preferring to mediate the Israel-Palestine debate internally. Still others described their efforts to extinguish sparks before they flared into small fires, by coaching Jewish and Muslim students in civil dialogue.

Yudof, who has run the 10-college U.C. system since 2008, is one president for whom the topic of BDS merited not only public condemnation, but also action. A self-described “strong defender of Israel” who oversees some of the most combustive campuses in America, Yudof has been alternately portrayed as a First Amendment wonk out of step with Jewish interests and an unblinking Zionist beholden to them.

In 2010, when U.C. Berkeley and U.C. San Diego students introduced bills in their student governments calling for divestment from General Electric Co. and United Technologies — two companies that manufacture Israeli military gear — Yudof felt compelled to take a decisive step. That May, he issued a statement saying that the Board of Regents would not consider BDS, since it was the board’s policy to take up divestment only if America’s government said that the regime in question was committing genocide. But for Yudof, there was a secondary reason.

“I thought there was a double standard with Israel,” he said. “It was unimaginable. Other countries were given a pass, and they were going to enforce this boycott against a tiny country in the Middle East. In my judgment, but for it being the Jewish state, it would not be on their list for a boycott.”

In the end, neither school adopted the bills.

Judith Shapiro, who served as president of Barnard College from 1994 to 2008, cited similar reasons for publicly opposing the BDS movement at Columbia University and Barnard in 2002. Her term at Barnard saw a major flare-up on the topic of Israel when Jewish alumni and community members vociferously opposed the tenure of professor Nadia Abu El Haj, contending that her book, “Facts on the Ground,” called into question the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. Shapiro took a hands-off approach in this instance, reassuring alumni that the tenure process would examine El Haj — who was eventually hired — fairly and vigorously.

But in the case of a faculty and student call for BDS, Shapiro went public. She issued a statement with Columbia President Lee Bollinger, saying that the two opposed BDS in part because it squelched public debate about the conflict on campus. The university’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing took up the question of divesting from companies that benefit from the Israeli occupation, but the proposal was ultimately rejected.



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