URBANA — A mass email denouncing anti-Semitism at the University of Illinois prompted fireworks at the annual meeting of the faculty Monday.
Chancellor Robert Jones dropped his prepared remarks to talk publicly with critics who had met with him earlier in the day, arguing that his email was an overreaction to a presentation to residence-hall advisers last month on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In the process, Jones clarified the details of the incident, saying it involved a student who heard the initial presentation from a Palestinian-American student and decided to share it with others.
“In the process of that, some things were said that were highly inappropriate that really created an unsafe environment, not only for people from Israel or Jewish students, but also Palestinian students,” he said.
The references to the anti-Semitic content were directed at those statements and a couple of slides that were problematic, he said.
Jewish organizations maintained that the presentation, “Palestine & Great Return March: Palestinian Resistance to 70 Years of Israeli Terror,” was anti-Semitic.
But Professor Bruce Rosenstock, who teaches a course on the history of anti-Semitism for the Jewish Culture and Society Program, said the Palestinian-American student who prepared the original presentation was in his biblical Hebrew class. He said he knows her well, had never heard her disparage Jews and has no reason to believe she harbors religious or cultural anti-Semitism.
He said he shared it with colleagues at the UI and elsewhere who study Israel and Palestine, and the majority agreed it did not contain anti-Semitic content, although “a couple were critical of it in other ways.” One scholar took the opposing view, arguing that anyone who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel is anti-Semitic because “it calls into question the right of all the Jewish people to have a state of their own,” he said.
Rosenstock said there is no legal definition of anti-Semitism in Illinois that is binding on the university.
He called on Jones to issue another mass email saying that “you were not endorsing any particular definition of anti-Semitism to be the new standard of this university.”
“You’re wading into very controversial waters. You do not have the support of most academic scholars in Jewish studies, almost all of whom are opponents of the boycott movement but don’t believe it is anti-Semitic,” Rosenstock said.
'I will speak out as well'
Jones said the email was not meant as a statement of what constitutes anti-Semitism at the university.
He said he’s worked hard for the past three years to “support the voices of every part of our community.” That includes defending the right of Students for Justice in Palestine and others to express the Palestinian perspective, he said.
“But when things are created or said or done that create an unhealthy or unsafe environment, I will speak out as well,” he said.
Jones said issues related to discrimination had been far too frequent this semester, referencing a noose left in a residence-hall elevator last month and reports of at least four swastikas found on campus in recent weeks, though some appeared to be old.
“Folks, we have a problem as a community,” and finding a solution requires honest dialogue, Jones said.
The chancellor said Rosenstock’s student, who is a multicultural advocate for UI Housing, had given the presentation to other advocates and resident advisers on Sept. 23 based on her “lived experience.” Another student who heard it was so moved that she decided to repeat it herself without the appropriate context and understanding, he said.
One slide in the presentation talked about Palestinian “martyrdom,” Jones said, a problematic and highly charged term that is interpreted differently by the two sides in the conflict. The student also essentially equated all Israelis with terrorists, he said.
Rosenstock said martyrdom was used in the presentation to refer to people killed in a Gaza freedom march, not suicide bombers, which he said he would not defend.
UI student Dumia Ghanimah, whose cousin was killed by Israeli defense forces, told Jones that martyrdom is used by Palestinians, so the dead aren’t just referred to as “victims.”
Jones said that issue is part of the “slippery slope” involved in the issue, even for scholars.
“We should not be putting our students in a position where they’re not ... trained to deal with such complex and sensitive issues,” he said, which is why he took responsibility.
'White supremacists are getting really bold on this campus'
Rosenstock asked why Jones sent out an email to 40,000 people before the incident was fully investigated and for linking it to the swastikas, which are “far more dangerous.” The email also didn’t mention the Yom Kippur shooting in Berlin the previous day by a far-right extremist that killed two people, said Rosenstock, who is Jewish.
Jones agreed the email could have been framed differently. But he said the UI was also criticized when it waited to talk about the noose incident until after the investigation was completed.
UI student Drake Materre, a central organizer for two black student groups on campus, demanded that Jones send out a mass email explaining that he wasn’t “painting the pro-Palestinian movement with a broad brush of anti-Semitism,” which he called dangerous to students.
“White supremacists are getting really bold on this campus,” he said.
Jones pledged to meet again with the students, representatives of the Jewish community, Palestinian faculty members and specialists on the Middle East. He has also agreed to work with Rosenstock in preparing training programs for housing staff on the issue.