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.
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.
“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.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.