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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

“I felt that I needed to make a statement, because just as I don’t like making Israel so sacred that it can’t be criticized — and by the way, there is way more freedom and diversity of political views in Israel than in the American Jewish community — I don’t like Israel being singled out as a great evil that we have to focus on,” Shapiro said. “When I make a statement about something, I am not expecting everyone to agree with me, but I think presidents need to take a stand on a variety of issues.”

But for one college president, his commitment to open dialogue on campus trumped his desire to speak out against BDS. Former University of Vermont president Daniel Fogel, who served from 2002 until last July, said that his personal aversion to a divestment campaign on campus in spring 2011 was so strong that he would have stepped down if it had been implemented. “I think divestment from Israel would have been a travesty. To me it would have been an expression of anti-Semitism,” he said. “Had the university gone in that direction, I don’t think I would have continued as president.”

But Fogel said that his personal feelings on BDS should not have gotten in the way of the university’s procedures for dealing with thorny questions. When the BDS proposal made its way to UVM’s Socially Responsible Investing Working Group, Fogel began to field calls from Jewish alumni and donors who were concerned, he said, that the university was going to take an anti-Semitic position that “would have ended their relationship with the community and their support for it.” Fogel held his ground, privately reassuring donors that the university would give the BDS question a thorough review. The working group ended up tabling the proposal.

“I feel myself to be a strong supporter of Israel. And I am personally deeply offended by the idea that the State of Israel should be held to markedly higher standards than any other nation state when its survival is at issue,” Fogel said. “But that is a personal view. I don’t indulge myself in expressing my personal view at the expense of building the political capital of the university to achieve the highest possible levels of public support consistent with my fiduciary responsibility as the leader of the institution.”

Fogel wasn’t the only president to describe pressure from alumni and community members to quash perceived anti-Israel activity on campus. But not every Jewish college president welcomed such community input. Some presidents said that outsiders looking in held distorted views of the Israel discussion on campus, often seeing fires where there weren’t any.

A prime example of this phenomenon is at Brandeis University; its historic ties with the Jewish community make it the subject of special attention from Jewish organizations and individuals.

As noted in a recent Anti-Defamation League report, in the past academic year, the campus’s Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace chapters hosted Israeli Occupation Awareness Week, featuring speeches by Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist and noted Israel critic, and Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian negotiator. President Frederick Lawrence — who is widely considered a moderate on Israel in comparison with his predecessor, Jehuda Reinharz — said he was unsurprised by the Israel conversation on campus.

“If anything surprised me, and maybe it shouldn’t surprise me, it is the way in which the world and specifically the Jewish world will blow some things that happen here out of proportion,” he said. “If a group of students decide to distribute leaflets on a certain position, some people will think that the university supports that position. What it means is that the university has supported the right of students to have that point of view.

“I think we have an obligation to have a fact-based and reasonable discussion of Middle East issues that has to take place within the context of civility. I don’t feel that for Israel to come out well in a discussion, certain viewpoints have to be taken off the table. In a full and reasonable and civil discussion of the Middle East, Israel will come out fine.”

At Rice University, in Houston, President David Leebron echoed this viewpoint, saying that the Israeli-Palestinian debate on campus is the subject of outsized, critical attention in the community, particularly in the local Jewish newspaper, which often prints negative articles about biased events at Rice. For instance, the local community made a fuss about the presence of Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, on Rice’s campus. But soon after, Rice hosted Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, a favorite target of pro-Palestinian groups.

“Sometimes what happens is that off-campus people who are very issue oriented take that one event out of context and try to draw conclusions about the institution, and that is just not the way you can judge an academic institution,” Leebron said. “The idea that every time there is a speaker you don’t like you should register outrage is foreign to the concept of an academic institution. This is where a lot of the tension comes from.”

Perhaps the starkest example of outside groups involving themselves in campus life is in the use of federal civil rights law to protect Jewish students from anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity. In 2010, more than a dozen major Jewish organizations banded together to lobby the Department of Education to expand its definition of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to cover Jewish students, among other groups. Since then, there have been a handful of complaints filed with the Office for Civil Rights. Many of them originated with outside Jewish organizations.

While several college presidents expressed support for the inclusion of Jewish students under Title VI, others seemed skeptical of both the need for and the implementation of the law. University of Hartford President Walter Harrison said that while his campus is rather apolitical on the topic of Israel, he is well aware of the bitter debates at other schools — and he’s unsure of the value of Title VI.

“I prefer people at the university to try to work things out themselves,” he said.

When asked about the recent filing of a Title VI complaint at Columbia, Shapiro also questioned the need for federal protection. “The issues around blacks and Latinos are very different from the issues around Jews,” she said. “I don’t think that unless you are a serious victim, this whole victim stuff — even among groups like Latinos or African Americans, or women — is a strengthening thing to do. As far as Columbia is concerned, I hardly think that is a place where Jews should be fearful and disempowered.”

And at the University of California, where there are two outstanding Title VI complaints at U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Santa Cruz, Yudof said that while he felt “good” about the extension of Title VI, it would be difficult to prove that the students and faculty in question faced a pervasive, hostile atmosphere. “These cases have to be carefully crafted with a fact pattern that is compelling. I don’t think in either of these cases these fact patterns exist,” he said. “I think it is about people engaged in abhorrent speech on our campuses. But I am skeptical at the end of the day that with those two instances we will be found to be in violation of Title VI.”

But if some Jewish college presidents felt the need to protect their campuses from outside interference, they also expressed the desire to bolster their campuses from the inside out, taking preventative steps to avoid flare-ups. Stephen Trachtenberg, who served as president of George Washington University from 1988 to 2007, said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of lively, civil discussion on campus.

“My way of dealing with these issues — and we did have a significant Islamic population, both domestic and international — was to be proactive,” he said. “I initiated programs before there were any issues.”

Midway into his tenure, Trachtenberg asked the campus Hillel if it would volunteer to host an Iftar, or evening meal, during Ramadan. The dinner has since become a quasi-diplomatic event in Washington each year, with representatives from the Israeli and Arab embassies, kosher and halal food, and Arab and Israeli music. The only tensions that have arisen have been cultural, when some religious Muslim students preferred to sit separately, based on gender. “What we did is, we said to the students: ‘If you want to sit at an all-male table, sit at an all-male table. The only thing you can’t do is sit with just Muslims or Jews.”

Across the country, at San Diego State University, President Elliot Hirshman said he hopes to avoid the clashes that have rippled across other California schools.

“If on campus we simply leave a group of 19- to 20-year-olds to sort things out amongst themselves, I don’t anticipate things ending well,” he said. “Often what you see is that the first interactions that students have is that they are discussing the historical conflict from their personal perspectives. But what we are working on at San Diego State is to have ongoing positive relationships from students of different groups.”

If there is one common thread in the experiences of Jewish college presidents today, it is their unanimous subscription to the maxim that the remedy for hate speech is more speech. “Censorship is not the way of the People of the Book,” Yudof told Hadassah at its national conference in 2008. “If there has ever been a people in the history of humankind that have benefited from the First Amendment protections of free exercise of religion and of limits on an established state religion, which obviously wouldn’t include Jews, and have ever benefited from freedom of the press and freedom of speech, it is the Jewish people in this country. This is not a principle that we should take lightly and should seek to undo lightly.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at and on Twitter @naomizeveloff

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.