NEWS

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March 3, 2009

University holds discussion with Jewish students to address recent bias concerns

U of C administrators clarified the University’s role in high-profile political events at a meeting with Jewish students on campus in response to charges of anti-Semitism stemming from a panel on Israel-Palestine relations last month.

The meeting was part of a series of smaller talks with Deans of Students Susan Art and Bill Michel, including a meeting with parents and alumni in New York City. “There’s a range of opinions on the topic of what’s been happening in the Middle East,” Michel said. “When talking on certain topics where there are such diverse opinions as there are on this campus, we need to work together to make sure everyone can express those opinions…and learn from each other.”

Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) President and third-year Hila Mehr and other students voiced their concerns February 19 in an open forum with Deans Art, Martha Rothe, Mark Hansen, and Elizabeth Davenport; Director of the Hillel Center Dan Libenson; and Rabbi Yossi Brackman of the Chabad Center. About 40 students attended the event.

Mehr said the meeting addressed what some view as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel events on campus. She pointed in particular to a panel, “Crisis in Gaza,” featuring former DePaul professor Norman Finkelstein, writer Ali Abunimah, and professor John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israel Lobby. The February 5 event was marred by an altercation between audience members and a flag decorated with the Star of David, crosses and a swastika that one attendee displayed before being escorted out of Mandel Hall.

CFI members took issue with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies’ decision to associate itself with a politically-charged event. Michel said that it’s not uncommon for an academic center to cosponsor an event with RSOs.

According to Mehr, administrators addressed event sponsorship at the meeting. “Does it mean endorsement, giving money, or putting your name on it but not supporting those views?” Mehr said, expressing her own views. “I think it’s an important debate that the whole community can have.” Though she understood the discussion to be primarily about Jewish life on campus, she said it was open to all students.

The purpose of the discussions, said Michel, was to create an environment where deans could hear directly from students and parents. Michel also said he is working with Roth, Davenport, and Hansen to rethink exactly what message event sponsorship sends.

To Davenport, when an academic center chooses to co-sponsor an event, it is simply a matter of giving money. “It doesn’t mean they endorse everything said at the event,” she explained, “though I do understand that it may feel to students as though the University itself [is facilitating the event].”

But according to Mehr, sponsorship wasn’t the only issue the group visited. “One concern was about anti-Israel and other sentiments [in the classroom] that may make students uncomfortable, and how the University plans to deal with this,” she said. Mehr cited Divinity School office 310B as an example of politics converging with academia; until recently its door was adorned with a poster of the Israel flag and the phrase, “Terrorist State Since 1948.”

“When addressing concerns like this one, we are guided by the principles highlighted in the policy on Civil Behavior in a University Setting,” Michel said. “As Elizabeth Davenport and I said…any students who have concerns about issues related to statements made by others on campus should either talk directly with that person…or con tact their area dean of students.”

Michel directed students at the meeting to the Kalven Report, a set of University guidelines on political action written to determine what action, if any, it should take in response to the Vietnam War. The report restricts the University from taking stances that could jeopardize its climate of free and balanced academic inquiry.

First-year Robert Henderson, who attended the meeting, was hoping for a more swift response from the administration regarding these issues, “given that the [Gaza event] took place five weeks ago,” he said.

“My biggest concern is an academic arm of the University endorsing events that suggest an Israel and Jewish conspiracy to commit genocide that evokes age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes,” Henderson said. “I think the issue is this is tarnishing the University’s reputation.”

Davenport echoed Henderson’s concerns. “We are a place that above all values free inquiry. And all sides of a contentious issue should be open to discussion in the classroom,” she said. “Sometimes a student may come with pre-formed opinions that they don’t want to revisit, and that might cause some discomfort there…That is not the same as being unable to express an opinion.”