If Universities Truly Want to Pursue DEI, It’s Time to Include Jewish Students

Legislation has already been proposed in Congress to rescind federal funding from universities that allow antisemitism on campuses.
September 29, 2023
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This new academic year, as universities across America trumpeted their commitment to the pursuit of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), for many Jewish students, this otherwise laudable goal has become entirely devoid of meaning, with the campus turning into a hotbed of antisemitism, Jew hatred and exclusion.

According to the ADL, in the last year, antisemitic incidents across the US reached record highs, with antisemitic activity reported on college and university campuses surging 41%.

Although these statistics should sadly not come as a surprise to anyone, what is staggering is the extent to which university administrators and leaders are willing to excuse and turn a blind eye to antisemitism, all in the name of the sacred pursuit of academic freedom and free speech.

When in January this year, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we called out the University of Michigan for refusing to condemn a group of students who called for an “intifada revolution,” the University justified their refusal to act by responding that “[o]ne of our most important values as an institution – one we teach and model in and out of the classroom and one that is embodied in our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion – is the respect for those who have different opinions, have different life experiences, hold different world views.”

In this particular case, the “different world view” they were calling to respect was a direct and unadulterated call for violence, placing Jewish students, faculty and staff, in harm’s way.

In August last year, when a number of registered student groups at UC Berkeley Law School passed a by-law to exclude Zionist speakers, the University excused this by claiming Zionism was merely an expression of a “political viewpoint” and therefore protected speech under the First Amendment, not the inherent and indispensable part of Jewish identity that it is. In response, we filed a Title VI claim under the Civil Rights Act, on the basis of the University condoning the wholesale exclusion of a group of students, Jewish students in this case, on the basis of their identity, national original and shared ancestry.

And then most recently, last week, during Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania hosted a ‘Palestine Writes’ literature event. Whilst a celebration of Palestinian literature and art ought to be embraced, this was mostly a festival of hate, featuring a who’s who of antisemites, extremists and even convicted terrorists.

One of the keynote speakers was Roger Waters, who has repeatedly engaged in antisemitism, including making such mendacious and racist claims about the “the Jewish lobby”. Waters is now being investigated by the German police, over engaging in Holocaust distortion, while wearing a mock-SS uniform during a recent series of concerts in the country. The US State Department has even said that Waters has “a long track record of using antisemitic tropes to denigrate Jewish people.”

Another speaker, Randa Abdel-Fattah, has previously claimed that “Israel is a demonic, sick project and I can’t way for the day we commemorate its end.”

Marc Lamont-Hill, also speaking at the festival, was fired by CNN after effectively calling for Israel’s destruction. He has also previously said that calls for Palestinians to “reject hatred and terrorism” were “offensive and counterproductive.”

Meanwhile, Susan Abulhawa, the executive director of the Palestine Writes festival, has previously expressed support for US-designated Palestinian terror groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and PFLP, describing their terrorist actions, including those which have resulted in the murder of American citizens, as “self-defense by resistance groups,” while comparing Israel to Nazis and calling for a boycott of the Jewish state.

Although Penn President Liz Magill released a statement noting that some of the speakers at the event had a “troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people,” Penn failed to take any meaningful steps in response, claiming they “fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission.”

It is inconceivable that Penn would have permitted such a festival had it promoted, say, hatred against members of the African American or LGBTQ community, and rightfully so. Yet such hatred and incitement against Jewish students is being excused and whitewashed, while their voices are being marginalized, silenced and excluded, all in the name of free speech and a perverse interpretation of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policy.

Perhaps as recipients of federal funding, universities ought to be reminded of their obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, national origin and shared ancestry, or in circumstances where universities fail to take action against the creation of hostile environments on campus. This is a point that was also reinforced in the historic May 2023 White House Plan National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism.

Indeed, legislation has already been proposed in Congress to rescind federal funding from universities that allow antisemitism on campuses.

It is imperative to recognize that, even in circumstances where antisemitic hate speech in question is protected under the First Amendment, there is still an obligation for university leaders to condemn these attacks on Jewish students, support them and underscore that their concerns are real.

In order to guide the universities to determine the kind of speech and actions that qualify as antisemitism, universities ought to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, the most widely endorsed definition of antisemitism in the world.

If universities truly want to pursue DEI, it is time Jewish students were included in this discussion and academic freedom no longer used as an excuse for Jew hatred.

Arsen Ostrovsky is a human rights attorney and CEO of the International Legal Forum, an independent NGO and global network of lawyers committed to combating antisemitism. You can also follow him on Twitter (‘X’) at: @Ostrov_A.

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