For Jews on American college campuses, it has been a troubling spring. In California, two student government candidates had their Jewish identities challenged by fellow students. And here in Connecticut, an attack on a philosophy professor has brought the problem of antisemitism in higher education to our doorstep.
In February, members of the Undergraduate Students Association Council at UCLA began questioning judicial board candidate Rachel Beyda with the words: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community…” After Beyda defended her candidacy and left the room, they held a long discussion about her potential impartiality on matters of controversy and proceeded to vote her down. Only after an intervention by the council’s faculty advisor was the vote reversed.
This month at Stanford, student senate candidate Molly Horwitz visited the leadership of the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) and was presented with the question: “Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?”
“If SOCC had wanted to know how I felt about divestment, they could have asked that,” Horwitz later wrote. “What made me so distressed was not that SOCC had asked me about divestment, but that they had thought my Jewishness might make me a poor Senator. There are Jews who support divestment, there are Jews who do not take a position and there are Jews who are against divestment. My involvement in Hillel, my praying in synagogue, my love of the Hebrew language, my study of Talmud, my celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah and Purim and Passover have nothing to do with divestment.”
Meanwhile, at Connecticut College, a slow-motion witch hunt has been conducted against philosophy professor Andrew Pessin.
Last August, at the height of the Israeli military operation against Hamas in Gaza, Pessin posted a comment on his Facebook page comparing Israel to the conflicted owner of a rabid pit bull who keeps the dog in a cage. “Gaza,” he wrote, “is in the cage because of its repeated efforts to destroy Israel and Jews.”
In February, sophomore Lamiya Khandaker, chair of Diversity & Equity on the student government executive board, wrote a letter to Pessin protesting his comment. In immediate response, he apologized and removed the offending post.
That should have been all there was to it, but internet trolls don’t know when to stop. Two weeks later, Khandaker published her letter in the campus newspaper (“I am infuriated, repulsed and depressed”), which in turn let loose a firestorm of angry letters, retractions, apologies, and more angry letters. With the accusation of racism hanging in the digital ether, Pessin took a medical leave of absence.
That could also have been all there was to it, but some college presidents don’t know when to stop. On March 25, President Katherine Bergeron convened a community open forum to discuss free speech and principles of community. She began by referring to Pessin’s deleted Facebook posting. As Cindy Mindell reports in this week’s Ledger, Bergeron opened the forum by first defending the principle of free speech, and then in the same breath throwing Prof. Pessin under an academic bus: “I was, quite frankly, surprised and disappointed by the language.” It was a profile in pusillanimity.
All of these recent incidents need to be placed in context. What we are seeing is the presence, increasing no doubt, of communities of campus activists for whom the Israel-Palestine conflict is a central concern – a concern that has led directly into antisemitism. Under the circumstances, what’s critical is for others on campus to make it clear that this is unacceptable. At UCLA, for example, not only did the faculty advisor quickly make it clear that the questioning of Rachel Beyda was unacceptable but the behavior was at once condemned in an editorial by the school newspaper.
Unfortunately, the Connecticut College administration did not behave so well. As President Bergeron has subsequently indicated, she read the post hurriedly, out of context, and reacted without having a discussion with Pessin. In fact, while what he wrote was strong and easily misinterpreted, it fell well within the bounds of acceptable discourse, on campus as well as off. That was the lesson that should have been taught.