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January 24, 2020 2:04 pm

After Controversies, University of Illinois Housing Staff Receive Antisemitism Training

avatar by Shiri Moshe

The Alma Mater statue at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Photo: ilovebutter / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Some 1,000 staff and paraprofessionals at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are receiving antisemitism training, following several recent campus controversies.

The Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF), also known as the Jewish Federation, was invited by the university to provide the trainings between January and February to its housing department, which includes dining and facilities staff, resident hall advisors, multicultural advocates and supervisors, according to JUF.

The program was first acknowledged in an October email sent to the campus community by UIUC Chancellor Robert Jones, who promised “anti-Semitism training for all full-time Housing staff, Resident Advisors and Multicultural Advocates.”

His commitment followed news that a mandatory training session for some housing staff had included a presentation titled “Palestine and the Great Return March: Palestinian Resistance to 70 Years of Israeli Terror,” which was prepared by a member of the anti-Zionist group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

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In his October email, Jones acknowledged that “concerns were raised” about “anti-Semitic content” in that presentation, and also denounced the recent appearance of a swastika on campus.

SJP strongly objected to Jones’s email, and successfully pushed the UIUC student government in October to pass a controversial resolution that rejected equating antisemitism and anti-Zionism, which was strongly opposed by UIUC’s Jewish student community.

“This resolution was written without Jewish input,” one Jewish student leader said at the meeting where the resolution was adopted, before more than 400 Jewish students walked out in protest. “Not a single Jewish cultural house was consulted, and yet it purports to speak for the campus community.”

The resolution’s message was nonetheless reaffirmed in a campus-wide email sent in December by the student government president, who said that while the “epidemic of antisemitism on this campus is horrific,” antisemitism and anti-Zionism should not be conflated, lest “Pro-Palestinian students” be “mislabeled and harassed as antisemitic due to their beliefs.”

SJP called this email a “victory.”

Anti-Zionism — understood as an ideology that opposes the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination in the Levant — has been condemned as antisemitic by many Jewish groups. Campus and professional activists involved in Palestinian advocacy have often faced criticism for endorsing the denial of Jewish rights by calling for a Palestinian state to replace, rather than be established alongside, Israel. Examples of antisemitism recognized by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) include, “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”

Emily Briskman, assistant vice president of JUF’s Israel Education Center, told The Algemeiner this week that the antisemitism training conducted by JUF seeks to educate participants on “what historical antisemitism sounds like, a little bit about Zionism, anti-Zionism, and when anti-Zionism crosses the line into antisemitism.”

“It’s designed to be an exploration and an understanding for the audience members of a little bit about what Judaism actually is, because it’s a bit of a mystery for the non-Jewish community,” she added.

John Lowenstein — executive director of Hillels of Illinois, which operate under JUF’s umbrella — said, “It was completely non-political and it did not delve really in any way into the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict other than to say that if you deny the right of Jews to self-determination and you’re calling for the destruction of the Jewish homeland, that in and of itself is antisemitism. Whereas if you want to criticize the government of Israel … feel free, as we do in this country to criticize the government, whether you agree or disagree.”

“I think across the board the training was very well received,” he continued. “The vast majority of participants came with an open mind and appreciated the perspective that the training provided.”

“Universities generally do a good job on trainings in areas of bias or hate with regards to national original and sexual orientation,” Lowenstein said. “Some universities are quickly catching on they also need to train on religious bias.”

He applauded the university “for tackling what is a very challenging issue at U of I and most other major campuses,” adding, “We are really appreciative of Chancellor Jones’ leadership.”

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