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February 28, 2023 12:58 pm

Over 100 Academics Urge U Chicago to Stop ‘In-Person’ Protest of Israeli Veteran’s Course


avatar by Dion J. Pierre

Cobb Hall at the University of Chicago. Photo: Dion J. Pierre.

Over 120 academics from universities across the US have issued a letter calling on the University of Chicago to prevent Students for Justice in Palestine’s “in-person, disruptive” protest of a course taught by retired Israeli Defense Forces General Meir Elran.

A controversy broke out at the university on Feb. 2 when, according to the Chicago Maroon, SJP attempted to gain entrance to Cobb Hall — a building where Elran was teaching —but were allegedly “obstructed” by administrators and the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD). The students were attempting to protest his course, “Security, Counter-Terrorism, and Resilience: The Israeli Case.”

In a statement to The Algemeiner sent on Tuesday, the University of Chicago described the incident differently, explaining that “there was a brief delay of less than three minutes that allowed time for a Dean-on-call to speak with the students.” After, SJP “held a protest of approximately 15 minutes in a hallway outside of the classroom.” The group, according to multiple witnesses, also had previously succeeded in entering the building and standing outside the door of Elran’s classroom while chanting “Terrorist!”

“Simply put, these protests are meant to intimidate,” said the signatories of the letter, which was organized by the Academic Engagement Network, a nonprofit that promotes academic and intellectual freedom. “Respectful debate and even criticism of a course and its content are welcome, but the protests that are designed to demean an instructor and intimidate students are not acceptable.”

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The letter added that “when protests disrupt teaching and learning they should be treated as violations of campus policy and antithetical to the core academic principle of open intellectual exchange.”

SJP’s actions continued an effort to boycott what the group last year called “sh*tty Zionist classes,” which has targeted classes including Israel Institute visiting professor Meital Pinto’s “Multiculturalism in Israel” and Stephanie Kraver’s “Narrating Israel and Palestine through Literature and Film.”

Elran became the focus in January of SJP’s ire, which called his course “nothing less than the incursion of Israel’s military complex onto the university’s campus.”

In Monday’s letter, the professors urged University of Chicago to publicly condemn SJP’s academic boycott, citing the centrality of Zionism to Jewish identity, academic freedom and open inquiry, and student safety.

“We believe that it is only through such forceful and unequivocal responses that campuses can remain vibrant spaces for learning, dialogue, and growth,” they continued.

University of Chicago’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter has previously attracted controversy for its rhetoric about Israel and Zionism. Last May, the group lobbied the incoming Undergraduate Student Senate to issue a joint statement that said, “From the river to the sea, USG supports a Palestine that is free.” The slogan, commonly used by Palestinian nationalists, calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that would replace Israel.

The group’s escalating tactics may necessitate posting University of Chicago Police Department officers outside any building Elran is in while on campus, AEN executive director Miriam Elman, who also warned that similar demonstrations could take place on other campuses, told The Algemeiner on Tuesday.

Elsa Cukierman, a second year University of Chicago student, said  that the tension between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian factions on campus is rising and creating an unsafe learning environment. She called on the university to live up to its reputation as a campus that fosters dispassionate dialogue on complex issues.

“I think we need professors in the humanities and social sciences who come from both sides of the ideological spectrum,” she said. “In one class, we had to agree to that Israel was this terrible entity before proceeding to the main discussion, and I didn’t even say anything because humanities grades especially are largely based on your aligning with certain beliefs.”

In its correspondence with The Algemeiner, the University of Chicago affirmed its dedication to free speech and academic freedom.

“These values have been consistent throughout our history,” a spokesperson said. “While differences of opinion over course material may arise, the university defends the freedom of instructors to teach any course that has been developed through our faculty-led curricular processes, and the ability of students to enroll in their course of choice.”

“As part of our commitment to free expression, the university fundamentally committed to upholding the rights of protesters to express a wide range of view,” he continued. “University policies make it clear that protests cannot disrupt the university’s operations or the ability of people in the university to carry out their work.”

The university also said that SJP did not block access to Elran’s course, which “proceeded as scheduled.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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