Muddying the waters: University’s dubious response to campus antisemitism

Screenshot captured from the Academic Engagement Network’s website outlining their goals of protecting Jewish and Zionist students

By Stick Gershick

If you were on campus last semester, you might remember a rash of antisemitic graffiti around campus. Alongside announcements that security services had responded to such antisemitic vandalism, President Crawford announced that our university would be entering into a partnership with the Academic Engagement Network (AEN) as part of an effort to “eliminate hate activity on campus” and “address antisemitism.” As a Jewish student, I’m interested in the political nature of Jewish organizations on college campuses. I decided to look into the organization. According to the mission statement on their website, AEN is a non-profit dedicated to “[opposing] efforts to delegitimize Israel.” I’m concerned about this framing of the fight against antisemitism and our university’s relationship with AEN. AEN recently attacked the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) for their condemnation of the Israeli government’s repression of academic freedom in the West Bank.

  Further investigation of AEN reveals that a plurality of the organization’s activity consists of hurling flak at any critics of Israel in academia. MESA, a coalition of respected scholars which routinely works in defense of academic freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, especially in Egypt and Iran, includes both Israeli and Palestinian members and isn’t a remotely antisemitic organization. Discussing apartheid or rightfully condemning infringements on academic freedom is not remotely the same thing as real violence against Jews. Attacking groups like MESA, as AEN has, and conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitic acts like the graffiti we saw last semester pollutes and delegitimizes the word “antisemitism”, making it more difficult to fight hate. AEN’s purpose and stated goal is to fight antisemitism specifically by controlling academic discussion of Israel. 

  The University is planning to have faculty attend AEN-led workshops — the content of which is unclear — and to allow AEN to review University policy. I recognize that the administration wants to portray the institution as one which takes a strong stance against hate activity on campus. To the University’s credit, this commitment to combatting antisemitism also includes providing positive educational and informational resources about Judaism, such as Chaplaincy-led tabling on Rosh Hashanah. 

  However, the University should be cautious about who we partner with. When we associate ourselves with an outside organization, our campus culture and academic environment are influenced by that association. In that way, we’re influenced by all the political biases and goals of whatever organization we work with. Do we really want to be affiliated with a group that seeks to dominate and control academic discussion? “If our administration starts to get involved with these outside groups, they’re working with political forces who are trying to hijack our campus discourse in pursuit of the interests of a foreign country,” IPE Professor Brad Dillman said. “There’s something profoundly disturbing about that.” If the University of Puget Sound absolutely must associate with an outside organization as part of an ongoing effort against antisemitism, why not get in touch with Temple Beth El, a local synagogue? Even if AEN was interested in promoting a fair discussion regarding Israel, the terrible presence of antisemitic vandalism at the university is a separate issue from Israel’s “correct” representation in the classroom. As far as I’m aware, Puget Sound classrooms haven’t been particularly critical of Israel. Even in God, Guns, and Oil: IPE in the Middle East, discussion of Israel was far from central to the curriculum — let alone serious misrepresentation of the country. If the University’s goal is to fight hate on campus, what is achieved by working with AEN? It’s unclear how this partnership will reduce or eliminate antisemitic vandalism, and it invites other problems into the mix.