Performative Actions Must Stop

Students at Sarah Lawrence College are protesting the lecture of Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief of The Forward. Will the college’s administration have the courage to stand up against this attempt to cancel a legitimate speaker?
March 28, 2024
Photo by Bruce Yuanyue Bi/Getty Images

In the wake of the Hamas attack on October 7, hatred toward Israel continues to rage on college and university campuses around the country. Some schools are holding true to their values about open inquiry—such as Vanderbilt University arresting anti-Israel students who disrupted the school’s functioning. Unfortunately, most are failing, including Columbia University, which is now investigating a vocally pro-Israel professor. This week, Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County New York, has the prefect chance to live its stated values about embracing difference and diversity of views with a visit from Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief of The Forward, who will be giving the school’s 2024 Adda Bozeman Lecture.

There are planned protests and a clear response to them that the school should take. I suspect, however, that the school will not show real leadership, but will keep silent and continue its long tradition of performative statements over lived values.

According to the school’s announcement, Rudoren “will discuss the role of American media in shaping U.S. perceptions and politics towards the Middle East,” and the school has framed her talk by stating that: “The current war in Gaza is also a war for and against media coverage. The very language used to describe the events—”war,” “conflict,” “genocide,” Israel and Gaza, Israel and Palestine, Israel and Hamas—is contested and has different political and legal implications. How to describe and contextualize the attack of October 7 remains controversial.”

But what is truly sad here is that none of Rudoren’s critics intend to listen to her remarks and debate or question her.

Under Rudoren, The Forward—one of America’s premier Jewish news platforms—has been ideologically open to a wide range of viewpoints notably since October 7th when Hamas brutally attacked Israeli civilians. The site has published heterodox pieces such as “Both the Israeli and Palestinian governments should be obligated to recognize the other’s right to statehood.” In response to the chaos and violence that has erupted on campuses nationwide with the Israel-Hamas war, Laura E. Adkins, former op-ed editor, wrote, “If you are a Jewish (or Palestinian) Harvard, MIT or Penn student or alum and have strong feelings about what’s happening that you want to turn into an op-ed, please reach out to me. At The Forward we are particularly invested in sharing first-person perspectives of how national debates affect the people who have to live with the consequences.”

Nonetheless, the students affiliated with the “Justice for Palestine” movement at Sarah Lawrence saw a Jewish speaker, one with clear Jewish commitments and a prominent professional connection to Israel who left a prominent position at The New York Times (which has not been a supporter of Israel) to work at the Forward, and declared “RUDOREN YOU’RE NOT WELCOME HERE.” They called her an “American liberal-Zionist” who, along with the College “have blood on your hands.” The College must respond to this behavior, for not only is this anti-Israel hatred in opposition to the school’s stated principles of creating “unimpeded opportunity to actively and fully participate in the educational experience,” but also it runs against the pedagogical goals that have been given intense focus at the school of late which includes the theme of “Difference in Dialogue.”

The College has proudly declared a commitment to dialogue “to explore some of the most contentious issues facing our society.” The school believes in promoting and advocating for “opportunities for connection, conversation, interaction, reflection, and reasoned disagreement, the events in this series bring into dialogue two or more interlocutors from contrasting points of view.” The school asserts that “opportunities for probing the most challenging issues of our day from a variety of vantage points are at the heart of a Sarah Lawrence education and a reflection of our commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence.”

Will the College actually live up to its lofty stated goals and ideals here? Given the school’s silence when  addressing anything involving Jews and the Title VI complaint, I suspect that the school will not lead here in any way.

In addition to trying to cancel a legitimate speaker and an alternative point of view, the students are holding both a demonstration and an alternative event during the lecture itself. In both cases, as long as the events do not shut down the Bozeman lecture or prevent the speaker and community from speaking, such action is absolutely fine. But what is truly sad here is that none of Rudoren’s critics intend to listen to her remarks and debate or question her. Instead, students would rather make uncontested claims and ignore higher education’s core value of open inquiry.

What the Sarah Lawrence Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) would rather do is plan an event during Rudoren’s talk with speakers who themselves have been published in The Forward  and have been “the force behind the … Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism … [and] stands in solidarity with the Hamas terrorists who murdered babies and grandmothers.” This runs directly against the “big think” thrust of Sarah Lawrence and the College’s purported push toward inquiry: If so many have issues with Rudoren, then question her and her views and flush out the differences and points of view. Instead, they hope to simply ignore alternatives and compel students to attend a different, one-sided event.

The College and its leadership could and should respond here. They should invite all students to hear Rudoren and then attend the other event if they wish. While I think that the views of the SJP event are disgusting and dangerous, if Sarah Lawrence were truly committed to dialogue, it would take the lead here and educate students about real viewpoint diversity and show the community how to listen and engage across difference. Parallel programming does not advance education, and performative programing toward speech and difference needs to be called out as the fraud it is. Sarah Lawrence College has a chance to exemplify its purported values toward speech by making a strong statement about the Bozeman lecture.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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