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November 13, 2020 11:54 am

Complaint Alleging Antisemitism at University of Illinois Prompts Diverging Responses From Faculty

avatar by Jon Victor

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A controversy around allegations of widespread antisemitism at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has prompted faculty to weigh in on the debate in two conflicting open letters distributed last week.

The letters were issued in response to a complaint filed with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in March, in which two Jewish students accused the University of Illinois’ leadership of not doing enough to address a “poisonous atmosphere” of antisemitism on campus.

A summary of the complaint was made public in late October by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a nonprofit that advocates for Jewish civil rights.

The complaint alleged, among other things, that some Jewish students had mezuzahs removed from the doorframes of their rooms and apartments; that swastikas were drawn in various locations on campus; and that objects were thrown through the windows of two Jewish fraternities.

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In response to the complaint, a group of around 60 faculty members distributed an open letter to the University of Illinois’ chancellor, Robert Jones, last week, expressing support for his administration and contesting the complaint’s claim that his efforts to address antisemitism on campus were inadequate.

“We believe that your administration has consistently opposed antisemitism and has supported efforts designed to curtail the spread of racism of all forms on our campus,” the faculty members wrote. “We do not believe that the incidents listed in the complaint can reasonably be described as an ‘unrelenting campaign of anti-Semitic harassment,’ given the diverse nature of the incidents and their dispersion over a four-year period.”

That letter prompted a second group of 16 faculty members to write a separate letter denouncing what they said was an effort by the signatories to undermine students’ complaints of antisemitism.

“We trust students to recognize their own experiences of antisemitism, and the systems in place to adjudicate such accusations of a hostile climate on campus,” the second letter said. “Students are entitled to file grievances about their encounters and a fair legal process to consider those complaints on their merits.”

In addition to the Department of Education, the complaint was filed with Higher Learning Commission, the University of Illinois’ accreditor, which said in August that the allegations in the complaint “do not indicate substantive noncompliance” with its regulations.

On Nov. 5, a university spokesperson told The Daily Illini, a student newspaper at the University of Illinois, that the university had not been contacted by the Office for Civil Rights about the complaint.

In an email to The Alegmeiner, Alyza Lewin, the director of the Brandeis Center, condemned the faculty letter that opposed the complaint.

She said that by treating Zionism merely as an unpopular viewpoint on campus, the faculty were limiting students’ ability to express an important part of their Jewish ethnic identity.

“Jewish students’ expression of support for the Jewish homeland grows out of their ethnic identity as Jews, and the deep historic connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel,” Lewin said.

The University of Illinois’ student government has been active in promoting anti-Israel initiatives. In September, the student government passed a resolution that called on the university to divest from companies including Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, for what it said was complicity with human rights violations against Palestinians. The resolution was widely condemned by pro-Israel groups, who said the measure would fuel antisemitic sentiment on campus.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which was involved in drafting the resolution, did not respond to an email requesting comment for this article.

Cary Nelson, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois, who signed the letter in support of the Jewish students, said he was shocked that faculty were dismissive of student accounts of their experiences.

“Hostility toward Israel at UIUC has gradually morphed into hostility toward students who count Zionism as central to who they are,” Nelson said. “It’s no longer just a political confrontation but an intensely personal one.”

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