November 12, 2019

U of I Chancellor Defends Condemnation of Presentation: ‘I Will Speak Out’

Photo from Flickr.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Robert Jones defended his condemnation of a presentation shown at a Sept. 25 housing staff meeting for showing “anti-Semitic content,” stating that he “will speak out” against anything causing “an unhealthy or unsafe environment” on campus.

The News-Gazette reports that an Oct. 14 faculty meeting, Jones explained that he wrote the Oct. 9 email because he took issue with the fact that the presentation “essentially equating all Israelis as terrorists” and its use of the term “martyrdom,” arguing that it is “a problematic and highly charged term that is interpreted differently by the two sides in the conflict.”

Jones added: “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 also pointed out that the student who gave the presentation at the housing meeting had heard a Palestinian-American student give the presentation and was “so moved they decided to repeat it without appropriate context,” the Daily Illini reported.

UIUC Jewish Culture and Society Professor Bruce Rosenstock challenged Jones on his email at the faculty meeting, telling the chancellor that he had sent the presentation to various Middle East scholars and most of them didn’t view the presentation as anti-Semitic. Rosenstock also argued that the presentation’s use of the term “martyrdom” was referring to Palestinians that died during “a Gaza freedom march, not suicide bombers,” according to the News-Gazette.

“You’re wading into very controversial waters,” Rosenstock said. “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.”

Jones said that his email was not intended to establish a legally-binding definition of anti-Semitism for the university and he supports freedom of speech for all members of the campus community; however, “when things are created or said or done that create an unhealthy or unsafe environment, I will speak out as well.”

The author of the presentation, student and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) UIUC member Dunia Ghanimah, told Jones during the meeting that Palestinians prefer to use the term “martyr” over “victims” and explained that the Israel Defense Forces killed her 14-year-old cousin. Jones told Ghanimah, “We should not be putting our students in a position where they’re not … trained to deal with such complex and sensitive issues.”

The Illini Public Affairs Committee (IlliniPAC), a pro-Israel student group on campus, said in an Oct. 10 Facebook post that their “major grievance” with the presentation being shown at the mandatory housing meeting was that it “labeled Israel blanketly 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.”

SJP UIUC issued a series of demands to the university on Oct. 15, including that Jones differentiate between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and state that the presentation wasn’t anti-Semitic in any way in a new email. SJP UIUC threatened to call for Jones’ resignation if the university didn’t comply within 48 hours.

Posted by SJP UIUC on Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Indiana Israel Public Affairs Committee (IIPAC) announced in an Oct. 16 Facebook post that they stand with IlliniPAC “during their horrific campus climate at this time. IIPAC encourages everyone to have an open and productive dialogue about Israel and denounces any one-sided presentation when educating others about Israel. IIPAC reiterates IlliniPAC’s gratitude towards Chancellor Robert Jones for condemning UIUC SJP’s anti-Semitic presentation in discussing the State of Israel. IIPAC supports university decisions to train their student and professional staff about all discrimination, however, in an unbiased manner.”