College Leaders Balance Israel and Speech
Jewish Presidents Often Find They Must Leave Loyalty Behind
(Forward) -- by Naomi Zeveloff --
As the debate about Israel rages on college campuses across America, there is one figure for whom the conversation takes on strikingly personal dimensions: the Jewish college president.
About 20 Jewish men and women hold the highest positions at universities across the country, including campuses that have become hotbeds of political activism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For these individuals, the role of president entails a constant balancing act between encouraging free speech on campus and honoring their personal, often supportive, views of Israel.
In a series of interviews with the Forward, 10 current and former Jewish college presidents held forth on what the University of California’s Mark Yudof described as the “schizophrenia” of the Jewish college president — the moments when one’s Jewish identity bumps up against the interests of the institution. For many college presidents, the movement to boycott, divest from and implement sanctions against Israel — commonly known as BDS — represented a red line: Presidents who were previously disinclined to speak out against anti-Israel activity on campus in the name of preserving open dialogue found themselves publicly opposing the movement.
But going public on Israel had its limits. Several presidents voiced exasperation with the Jewish community’s scrutiny of campus events, preferring to mediate the Israel-Palestine debate internally. Still others described their efforts to extinguish sparks before they flared into small fires, by coaching Jewish and Muslim students in civil dialogue.
Yudof, who has run the 10-college U.C. system since 2008, is one president for whom the topic of BDS merited not only public condemnation, but also action. A self-described “strong defender of Israel” who oversees some of the most combustive campuses in America, Yudof has been alternately portrayed as a First Amendment wonk out of step with Jewish interests and an unblinking Zionist beholden to them.
In 2010, when U.C. Berkeley and U.C. San Diego students introduced bills in their student governments calling for divestment from General Electric Co. and United Technologies — two companies that manufacture Israeli military gear — Yudof felt compelled to take a decisive step. That May, he issued a statement saying that the Board of Regents would not consider BDS, since it was the board’s policy to take up divestment only if America’s government said that the regime in question was committing genocide. But for Yudof, there was a secondary reason.
“I thought there was a double standard with Israel,” he said. “It was unimaginable. Other countries were given a pass, and they were going to enforce this boycott against a tiny country in the Middle East. In my judgment, but for it being the Jewish state, it would not be on their list for a boycott.”...
Fogel wasn’t the only president to describe pressure from alumni and community members to quash perceived anti-Israel activity on campus. But not every Jewish college president welcomed such community input. Some presidents said that outsiders looking in held distorted views of the Israel discussion on campus, often seeing fires where there weren’t any...
At Rice University, in Houston, President David Leebron echoed this viewpoint, saying that the Israeli-Palestinian debate on campus is the subject of outsized, critical attention in the community, particularly in the local Jewish newspaper, which often prints negative articles about biased events at Rice. For instance, the local community made a fuss about the presence of Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, on Rice’s campus. But soon after, Rice hosted Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, a favorite target of pro-Palestinian groups.
“Sometimes what happens is that off-campus people who are very issue oriented take that one event out of context and try to draw conclusions about the institution, and that is just not the way you can judge an academic institution,” Leebron said. “The idea that every time there is a speaker you don’t like you should register outrage is foreign to the concept of an academic institution. This is where a lot of the tension comes from.”
Perhaps the starkest example of outside groups involving themselves in campus life is in the use of federal civil rights law to protect Jewish students from anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity. In 2010, more than a dozen major Jewish organizations banded together to lobby the Department of Education to expand its definition of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to cover Jewish students, among other groups. Since then, there have been a handful of complaints filed with the Office for Civil Rights. Many of them originated with outside Jewish organizations...MORE...LINK
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