by Hillel of Colorado Executive Director Daniel W. Bennett, September 1, 2022
While Hillel staff put its finishing touches on welcome-back-to campus programs last week, we were shocked into action by an incident that could endanger the very students Hillel is here to protect. That morning I received multiple phone calls and e-mails directing me to a Jerusalem Post article featuring a statement made by Nader Hashemi, Director of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies’ Center for Middle East Studies, suggesting that Israel’s security agency, Mossad, is likely to blame for the assassination attempt on Salman Rushdie at Chautauqua, NY on August 12, 2022. Many of those who contacted me were outraged, as Hashemi had (inadvertently or not) hit upon an age-old antisemitic trope of falsely blaming and scapegoating Jews for intervening in international affairs in manipulative and violent ways for nefarious gains. I remain careful not to ascribe motive to Hashemi, but was deeply concerned, for statements such as this can put our Jewish students – who already face unprecedented campus antisemitism across the country – at further risk.
Hillel of Colorado began immediately to focus on multiple fronts.
Our Hillel staff has worked tirelessly over the years to build alliances with our universities’ department heads and administrators, so we leaned on those relationships at DU: I spoke multiple times with Korbel’s Dean Fritz Mayer; met with Vice Chancellor Mary Clark; and corresponded with Chancellor Jeremy Haefner who was out of town. Stressing that the university needed to exercise its own First Amendment right and denounce Professor Hashemi’s statement as potentially damaging to our students, my Jewish communal colleagues and I were optimistic that DU would condemn it, especially since these DU leaders have been and continue to be trusted partners in working hard to make the university a safe place for Jews and other minorities.
But DU’s statement, while correct, needed to say more, to point out that professors – while free to espouse personal and professional theories – should speak carefully, understanding that scholars need to model for students a higher standard, one that teaches that with an academic platform comes great responsibility, that freedom of speech is never absolute, that words can, and in this case are likely to be used by the uninformed or by people uninterested in truth, to wonder…or even to believe that Jews conspire behind the scenes to do political harm. Intentional or not, Hashemi’s words, especially unchallenged, makes the world more dangerous for Jews – and, I maintain, for us all.
Meanwhile, I began working with the leaders of the Mountain States Anti-Defamation League, JEWISHcolorado, and the Jewish Community Relations Council; later we were joined by the leaders of the Rocky Mountain Rabbis and Cantors and the Mountain States American Jewish Committee. Our local Jewish communal partners know that Hillel is best suited to take the lead on our campuses, and they are always there for our Hillel students providing valued training and resources, and as a support for me and our Hillel staff. We issued our joint press release on August 25th. Hillel is grateful for our colleagues’ rapid and united response. It’s so important to know that our community is here for us, now and always.
Why we are disappointed in DU’s response
I know – from common sense and from my conversations with DU leadership – that there are lines in the sand, things professors cannot say without the university saying much more than they did this time. I’m sure they have reasons they did not say more. But if academic freedom and freedom of speech is not limitless at DU, and First Amendment rights are not so broad as to protect speculation that could be dangerous, why not say more in this case? While I firmly believe that DU wants to try to do the right thing, university leaders seem not to understand that Hashemi’s statement does, indeed, cross a line, how the deep historical reverberations of Hashemi’s assertion – again, intended or not – make his statement dangerous, why Jews feel its echoes so deeply, why to be safe we all need a better statement than university has provided.
We aren’t paranoid: Jews are still scapegoated today as we have been countless times in the past eight centuries or more, from being falsely accused of poisoning wells in the Middle Ages and even causing the Black Death, to organizing a fictional cabal seeking political, fiscal, and ideological domination and power over entire nations through currency manipulation (in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an outright forgery popularized in Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent and a libel still published and quoted today by antisemites), to a member Donald Trump’s reelection campaign including fevered denunciations of the historically wealthy Jewish family, the Rothschilds, as well as Jewish philanthropist George Soros; to Jewish space lasers, Jewish control of Hollywood, or secret Jewish domination of our mass media.
The tropes are ancient, and every time a such an assertion goes unchallenged, the world gets more dangerous for Jews – and, I maintain, for all of us.
Hillel is tasked with combatting campus antisemitism while assuring that our students – who are on the front lines – have the tools they need to defend themselves appropriately in college and throughout their lives. Hillel must also teach that Jews have allies everywhere, and our job is to grow those alliances. But keeping our Hillel students physically, emotionally, and Jewishly safe isn’t easy in the face of increasing campus antisemitism. Hillel was proactive:
- Hillel and our Jewish community spoke our truth to DU administrators who – though DU’s response falls short of what we’d hoped for – listened to us and respected our viewpoint. We have all pledged to continue to work together toward common goals.
- Together with our Jewish community we called attention to this incident, and I will continue to do so through this blog and future statements; stay tuned.
- Hillel staff will continue to meet with and advise students who need our support, many of whom – with our backing – will have more to say on this matter after classes resume at DU later this month. Several are discussing actions they hope to take on campus, as well.
- I met yesterday with Professor Hashemi, and we have a second meeting scheduled in a few weeks. I remain hopeful that our meetings will lead to positive outcomes for the university, for our broader Jewish community, and – especially – for our students. Again, please stay tuned.
- Hillel will take the lead on organizing a campus program after the Jewish Holidays that will face this and other such issues head on open. We will open it to the broader community, so stay tuned and please plan to attend. Our Jewish students are our future – and they need everybody’s support.
Hillel has been here when:
- a student faces an antisemitic slur or swastikas are carved on his dorm room door, OR
- students are excluded from events because they aren’t woke enough to condemn Israel as a colonial empire, OR
- bullies threaten a student with a yarmulke walking on campus, saying Hitler didn’t finish the job and they would, OR
- placards appear on campus on 9/11 claiming that the attack on the Twin Towers was an Israeli plot, OR
- one of our universities fails to call a professor’s ungrounded speculation false, to expose it as potentially harmful.
Hillel will always:
- ASSURE OUR HILLEL HOUSE is a safe space. Here students find mentors with whom to process and learn. They find the joy of our ancient and constantly renewing tradition. They find each other while becoming inheritors of our People’s proud past.
- ASSIST OUR STUDENTS TO FIND THEMSELVES IN ISRAEL and when they return from travelling there with Hillel help them process a broad range of feelings and thoughts. At Hillel, though their evolving, individual relationships with our Homeland, they discover how to make our People’s 4,000-year-old tradition their own.
- EMPOWER STUDENTS TO FIND THEIR VOICE, to learn to build alliances with peers, campus affinity groups and university faculty and administrations willing to stand with them. Here they learn to combat the manipulations and provocations they face about Israel and Jewish history. They internalize the best of Jewish values and grow to stand unapologetic and united.