More than 300 university presidents, including GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, recently endorsed a statement calling for “intimidation-free campuses” that would prevent future anti-Semetic attacks among college students. The statement, which stemmed from attacks against Jewish students on college campuses in recent months, caused at least one president to withdraw his support because of its “lack of inclusion” of other racial and religious groups.
A group of seven current and former presidents drafted the statement. James O. Freedman, former president of Dartmouth College, led the group.
A full-page ad sponsored by the American Jewish Committee stating that practices of intimidation “directed against any person, group or cause will not be tolerated on campuses” appeared, along with the names of the university presidents who signed the statement, in Monday’s New York Times.
“In the past few months, students who are Jewish or supporters of Israel’s right to exist – Zionists – have received death threats and threats of violence,” according to the statement.
Trachtenberg said GW has not had serious incidents of anti-Semitism in the past few years, and he plans to include all religious and ethnic groups in promoting an “intimidation-free campus.”
Seven San Francisco State University students were referred to the district attorney for investigation in May following a hate crime against Jews at a campus pro-peace rally. In September pro-Palestinian students mobbed Jewish students while reportedly screaming “Hitler should have finished the job” and “Get out or we will kill you.”
Last month, violent pro-Palestinian protesters stormed a building at Montreal’s Concordia University, causing former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel a scheduled speech there.
“The statement applies to all people,” Trachtenberg said. “It’s important to point out that while this ad focuses on Jews, it is equally important to protect the rights of any race or religion.”
He said he recently proposed an initiative to Muslim and Jewish community leaders on campus, including a gathering for the Muslim holy days of Ramadan next month. Because Muslims fast during the days, Trachtenberg said he wants to invite all students to discuss the role of fasting in the culture and to participate in the traditional “Iftar,” when Muslims stop fasting.
Some presidents said the focus of the statement is too narrow.
While the University of Michigan has experienced both anti-Semitic and anti-Arab incidents in the past few years, President Mary Coleman chose not to endorse the statement. In April, a student vendor at a conference supporting Palestinians sold materials denying the Holocaust, and a Pakistani student was physically assaulted in a hate crime.
“(She) looked at the letter and felt that on our campus, while there may be incidents against Jewish students, there have also been (threats) against Arab students,” university spokeswoman Julie Peterson said.
She said Coleman would be happy to sign a broader statement that included more groups, but “it would not be representative of our student body if only the concerns of Jewish students were represented.”
William Chace, president of Emory University and a member of the seven-person statement organizing committee, requested that the statement be revised to include more groups, but his request was turned down by the AJC because 250 presidents had already signed the statement by that time, Trachtenberg said.
Chace wrote in an e-mail that he had no comments about his withdrawal, but he is “opposed to any form of religious bigotry and/or intimidation.”
Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz, also on the committee, said the statement focuses on Jewish students because the committee was unaware of other groups that have been “broadly intimidated” on college campuses.
“There was no point in talking about other groups,” he said. “If you were to talk about other groups, where would you stop? Which would you include?”
Reinharz also noted the statement was initiated because of specific actions toward Jewish students, not because the committee “just woke up one morning” and decided to instate it.
International Affairs professor Walter Reich said the statement should focus on the attacks on Israel and on Jews because those groups have been targeted the most recently.
“The violence has been not only verbal but also physical, has consisted of attacks on persons who have expressed support for Israel, has been not only anti-Israeli but also anti-Jewish and has involved the effort to stifle the free expression of views,” he said.
It addition to Trachtenberg, Freedman and Reinharz, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame, Frank T. Rhodes, former president of Cornell University, and Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert were among the initial signers.
Universities at which the presidents did not endorse the statement include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Tufts and Wesleyan universities.
Some students and officials said the statement is a positive step toward promoting tolerance.
“I’m thankful that we don’t have to face these issues, but I respect (Trachtenberg’s) efforts to dissolve intimidation for colleges across the country,” said sophomore Ian Kandel, co-president of the Student Alliance for Israel at GW.
But some students said that while there are not feelings of tension on campus now, Trachtenberg’s statement might fuel problems.
“Just focusing on one group is not fair,” said junior Amna Arshad, president of the Muslim Student Association. “This kind of action puts a label on people and only adds to the tension.”
Trachtenberg said the statement is not limited to discouraging intimidation against Jews.
“The statement encompasses all faiths and all religions by citing a specific example,” Trachtenberg said. “It’s impossible to have an academic community unless people feel they can speak their minds freely.”
-Julie Gordon contributed to this report.