UPDATED 7 a.m. Friday
URBANA — A residence hall presentation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led to complaints of anti-Semitism at the University of Illinois, prompting a campus review and an apology from Chancellor Robert Jones.
The chancellor issued a statement late Wednesday denouncing anti-Semitism following that incident and Monday’s discovery of a swastika in the UI’s Foreign Languages Building.
“Bias and prejudice are antithetical to the educational foundations of our university and hurtful to our entire community. The idea that any individual feels threatened for expression of personal religious or ethnic identity is unacceptable,” Jones said in the email.
The Sept. 25 presentation was based on the Palestinian perspective, and student groups aligned with Israel and Palestine had very different reactions Thursday to the chancellor’s statement.
In his mass email to campus, Jones said a student raised concerns about “anti-Semitic content” at a staff development program for residence hall advisers, which included 11 RAs and one full-time Housing staff member. It was part of a program to help students learn to share “diverse perspectives that lead to new understanding,” he said.
“Instead of fostering dialogue, it incited division, distrust and anger. The program allowed our students to enter an extremely challenging and potentially volatile situation without the preparation, training, education and professional oversight they needed to succeed. This is inexcusable and unacceptable. This is a failure to our students, and that is my responsibility,” Jones said.
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The chancellor’s email didn’t include details about the presentation.
But it was later shared online, titled “Palestine & Great Return March: Palestinian Resistance to 70 Years of Israeli Terror.”
It made a distinction upfront between anti-Zionism, opposition to the state of Israel or its actions, and anti-Semitism, the stereotyping or persecution of Jewish people.
It presented the history of the conflict from Palestinians’ perspective, showing maps of their dwindling territory since 1948, and photos of Palestinians crowded into Israeli checkpoints and the miserable living conditions in Gaza.
It also equated Israel’s actions with apartheid in South Africa and 1940s-era Jim Crow laws in the United States and showed photos of “martyrs” for the Palestinian cause.
Housing Director Alma Sealine said one of the RAs at the meeting was concerned and shared his views with another student who used to live in the building. That student then filed a complaint, she said.
The presentation was one of many given by multicultural advocates, who share information on topics related to diversity and inclusion as part of an ongoing staff development program, she said.
They play an important role in educating residence hall staff about “the identities students bring to the residential experience,” from race relations to body image to feminism to LGBTQ issues, she said. The goal is to do it in a safe environment where people can ask questions or respectfully disagree.
In this instance, she said, “it would be important for them to also talk about what is the Israeli viewpoint as well,” she said. “Some individuals don’t feel that that happened.”
Housing has followed up with all of those who were at the event as well as the person who filed the complaint, Sealine said.
“We’re working on some additional training for our staff and making sure that our multicultural advocates are not perceived as experts on any given topic. And we also make sure that we take the time to identify all sides of an issue,” she said.
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Jones said the campus is:
— Instituting anti-Semitic training for all full-time housing staff, resident advisers and multicultural advocates by the end of the semester.
— Launching an “immediate, full review” of the hiring, training and professional oversight and management of resident advisers and multicultural advocates.
— Commissioning an external review of UI Housing’s multicultural educational programs “to help us identify and to implement best practices based on leading national peers.”
He also promised the campus would continue to track incidents of anti-Semitism, racism, bias and prejudice on campus.
“We will always recognize the rights of those on the campus to safely and freely express their perspectives and opinions. But we will also be ready to condemn statements and actions that violate our shared values and seek to demean, intimidate or devalue others in our community,” he said.
“I apologize to all of our students and to our community. This university promises an experience that prepares students to live, work and lead in a multicultural, diverse and international society. We did not live up to our obligations in this case.”
UI Professor Bruce Rosenstock, who teaches a course on the history of anti-Semitism for the Jewish Culture and Society Program, applauded the chancellor’s efforts to increase staff knowledge about that topic. But he also hopes it includes “diverse views about the state of Israel.”
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Jewish organizations on campus welcomed the chancellor’s statement.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel of Illini Chabad. Anti-Semitism has been an ongoing challenge, he said, from swastikas to vandalism of Chabad’s outdoor menorah in years past.
But the UI chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine was disappointed by the chancellor’s statement, saying it “demonizes a student presentation on Palestine” and equates the concept of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. The group demanded that any training make a distinction between the two.
“We firmly believe that everyone has the right to criticize the unjust actions of a state, and we wish to highlight the difference between what students in the Palestine movement are often accused of perpetuating, as opposed to what they are actually fighting for,” the group said in a statement signed by a dozen other student organizations.
“Students for Justice in Palestine unequivocally condemns anti-Semitic violence, such as the reported swastika on the Foreign Languages building. We extend our solidarity to Jewish students on campus who are impacted by this violent anti-Semitism. SJP is committed to the struggle of ending all forms of discrimination,” the statement said.
It also said the role of multicultural advocates is to help raise awareness about marginalized groups, and information about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is “well within” that scope.
But the Illini Public Affairs Committee, a group that works to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Israel, said it was inappropriate to “push one-sided political messaging” about a complex topic at a mandatory staff meeting.
The group’s main grievance was that the presentation labeled Israel as a terrorist nation and “as a result did not facilitate any sort of conversational pieces of information for both sides of this very complex political debate.”
Illini PAC said the multicultural advocates are supposed to generate “productive conversation” on cultural issues, noting that the Housing website says they should serve as role models “by confronting acts of intolerance and hate, encouraging dialogue among students, and working toward the creation of truly inclusive communities.”
Instead, the incident created a “hostile environment” for residents based on their national origin or identity, the group said.