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February 28, 2023 3:46 pm

Brown University President Denounces Antisemitism and ‘Boycotts Against Any Country’


avatar by Dion J. Pierre

Brown president Christina Paxson at Brown’s 250th anniversary celebration in 2014. Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia Commons

Brown University president Christina H. Paxson earlier this month denounced antisemitism and “boycotts against any country,” an implicit reference to the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement.

“We reject calls to use our endowment as a tool for political advocacy,” Paxson said on Feb. 19 during a speech delivered at the 2023 Hillel International Israel Summit, a gathering of students and leaders with interest and expertise in Israel. “Doing this would be antithetical to freedom of expression and the advancement of knowledge.”

Paxson explained that she often experiences “pressure to choose sides,” with both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian advocates voicing concern when speakers from either camp speak on campus, but the university, she emphasized, cannot choose and is obligated to promote free expression so long as it does not promote hate. She then turned her attention rising antisemitism across the US.

“In the history of humans, antisemitism stands as one of the most longstanding and pernicious forms of discrimination,” she continued. “At colleges across the country, we hear Jewish students share that they have been subject to antisemitism. These incidents can be glaringly egregious, such as a swastika scrawled on a campus wall. They can also be subtle. Perhaps a casual remark from a classmate that Jews are part of the ‘wealthy elite,’ or that Jewish students who criticizes Israel’s policies are ‘the good Jews’…Any and all of this is unacceptable.”

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Addressing the exclusion of Jewish students from progressive clubs and movements, which notably happened in Feb. 2022, when SUNY New Paltz student Cassie Blotner was expelled from a sexual assault awareness group for supporting Israel, Paxson  affirmed the right of Jewish students participate in fighting discrimination and inequality. She also called for “defining the gray zone between criticism of Israeli policies that are not antisemitic, and anti-Israel expressions that reflect and normalize anti-Jewish behavior.”

On Monday, J-Street U Brown criticized the content of the speech and accused the Hillel summit of lacking “progressive voices.”

“We hope that President Paxson and others at last weekend’s Israel summit will join us…in condemning annexation and violence against Palestinians, and stand up for democracy and human rights for everyone,” the group told The Brown Daily Herald in a note written by its executive board.

Twenty-three percent of Brown University’s students are Jewish, according to Hillel International. Antisemitic incidents there, and at a nearby school, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), have traditionally spurred emphatic responses from the university.

When, in November, an antisemitic note threatening Jews was found at a Hillel center serving both campuses, the university said “any act of religious intolerance, including antisemitism, is entirely unacceptable and a direct affront to the ideals of inclusion and sense of belonging.” Antisemitic symbols had appeared on the campus grounds before, including in 2020, when a swastika was graffitied in Brown’s Hegeman Hall, and in 2017, when it happened at a gender neutral bathroom at RISD, being drawn, according to the Brown Daily Herald, using human feces.

Paxson has a history of opposing the BDS movement on campus. In 2019, she rejected a referendum, in which only 27.5 percent of undergraduate participated, calling on the university divest its endowment of companies believed to be “complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine.”

Explaining her decision, she said, “We shouldn’t, in most cases, take political positions.”

In Dec. 2022, The Algemeiner asked Paxson to comment on the Graduate Labor Organization of Brown University’s passing a referendum imploring school officials to endorse BDS and give students “oversight of the university’s investments.” The request was not immediately returned.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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