Campus Protests

Jewish leaders worry that university presidents are appeasing anti-Israel protesters — at any cost

Hillel vice president: ‘No university can exist if rules violators are rewarded with financial incentives, while students who do abide by the rules are not similarly rewarded’

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

EVANSTON, ILLINOIS - APRIL 25: Protest signs hang on a fence at Northwestern University as people gather on the campus to show support for residents of Gaza on April 25, 2024 in Evanston, Ill. The university's president struck a deal with protesters acceding to several of their demands, a deal that is being slammed by Jewish leaders.

As universities around the country strike various deals with anti-Israel protesters to quell the turmoil on college campuses — including giving protesters a seat at the table regarding investment decisions — Jewish leaders fear that even these largely symbolic concessions could further poison the atmosphere for Jewish students.

Negotiating with protesters sets up a climate in which “Jewish students — who are not violating rules —- are being ignored, bullied and intimidated,” Mark Rotenberg, vice president and general counsel of Hillel International, told Jewish Insider. “People who violate university rules should not be rewarded with financial benefits and rewards for the violation of university rules,” he continued. 

Shira Goodman, senior director of advocacy at the Anti-Defamation League, echoed that the series of deals struck all “ignore the needs of Jewish students increasingly at risk of harassment and intimidation, or worse, on campus.” 

“It is critical to acknowledge the facts on the ground,” Goodman said. “For days and in some cases weeks, anti-Zionist protesters have openly violated school policies and codes of conduct by erecting encampments that have provided cover for students to fan the flames of antisemitism and wreak havoc on the entire campus community… The protesters’ aim and impact on many campuses has been to intimidate and alienate Jewish students for whom Zionism and a connection to Israel is a component of their Jewish identity. They must be held to account, not rewarded for their conduct.” 

The nationwide “Gaza solidarity encampments” began on April 17 at Columbia University. On April 29, Northwestern University set the precedent for conceding to some of the protesters’ demands when its president, Michael Schill, reached an agreement with the activists to end their anti-Israel encampment, in which protesters camped out and engulfed campuses for weeks. 

The protesters — most, but not all, of whom were students — took over buildings, blocked access to throughways, vandalized school property and chanted intimidating, antisemitic slogans while calling for an end to Israel’s war with Hamas and demanding that institutions cut ties with the Jewish state.

The deal at Northwestern complied with several of the students’ demands. These include allowing students to protest until the end of classes on June 1 so long as tents are removed, and to encourage employers not to rescind job offers for student protesters. The school will also allow students to weigh in on university investments — a major concession for students who have been demanding the university to divest from Israeli corporations. 

The Anti-Defamation League, StandWithUs and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law joined together to slam the strategy and call for Schill’s resignation after the agreement was announced. But a handful of schools, including University of Minnesota, Brown University, Rutgers University and University of California, Riverside followed suit — giving into the demands of encampment protesters in an effort to shut them down. 

While all of the agreements center around divesting from Israel, resolutions at each school look different. At Rutgers, a proposed deal reached last Thursday includes divesting from corporations participating in or benefiting from Israel; terminating Rutgers’ partnership with Tel Aviv University; accepting at least 10 displaced students from Gaza; and displaying Palestinian flags alongside other existing international flags on campus. Eight out of the 10 demands were met, while Rutgers students, faculty and alumni continue to push for the two not yet agreed to — an official call for divestment as well as cutting ties with Tel Aviv University.

At Minnesota, meanwhile, protesters packed their tents after a 90-minute meeting with Jeff Ettinger, the school’s interim president. A tentative deal was reached, which could include divestment from companies such as Honeywell and General Dynamics, academic divestment from Israeli universities, transparency about university investments, a statement in support of Palestinian students, a statement in support of Palestinians’ right to self-determination and amnesty for students arrested while protesting (nine people were arrested on campus on April 22). 

In a statement to students and faculty,  Ettinger wrote that coalition representatives will be given the opportunity to address the board of regents at its May 10 meeting to discuss divestment from certain companies. Public disclosure of university investments would be made available by May 7. Ettinger also said that the administration has asked university police not to arrest or charge anyone for participating in encampment activities in the past few days, and will not pursue disciplinary action against students or employees for protesting. 

Rotenberg, who was general counsel of University of Minnesota for 20 years before coming to Hillel, told JI that he is working on a statement objecting to the settlements, which will be addressed to the school’s board of regents. 

“I am hopeful that this is not a trend,” Rotenberg said. “No university can exist if rules violators are rewarded with financial incentives, while students who do abide by the rules are not similarly rewarded,” he continued. “That’s an upside-down world and it cannot be acceptable for individuals who violate university regulations to be given the benefits while our students’ voices are not heard.” 

Rotenberg expressed ire over universities’ lack of consulting with Jewish faculty or students ahead of making the agreements. At Northwestern, seven Jewish members of the university’s antisemitism advisory committee stepped down from the body last Wednesday, citing Schill’s failure to combat antisemitism while quickly accepting the demands of anti-Israel protesters on campus.

“Any meeting with the board of regents at University of Minnesota that relates to these issues, must include Jewish voices — voices of the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community who identify with and support Israel,” Rotenberg said. 

“There are many ways to enforce university time, place and manner regulation that do not involve rewarding violators,” he continued, applauding the University of Connecticut, University of Florida and Columbia University for shutting down encampments while “eliminating the dangers of disruption and violence, without rewarding the violators.” At Columbia, for example, officers in riot gear removed demonstrators who had seized Hamilton Hall and suspended students who refused to dismantle their encampment.

Not all efforts to strike deals have been successful. At University of Chicago, for instance, negotiations to remove encampment tents from the campus central quad were suspended on Sunday, after protesters reached a stalemate with the university president, Paul Alivisatos.

“The Jewish community is right to be outraged,” Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, told JI. “You don’t capitulate to groups that are in violation of reasonable restrictions by giving into demands. That is not moral leadership… the right statements are not negotiations with rule violators, but rather say that free expression is a core value but you have to abide by university policy in doing that,” she continued, noting that she has observed a “trend with private universities being more able to weather the storm, as well as just doing better than some of the public universities.” 

Like Rotenberg, Elman singled out Minnesota for its “disheartening” snub of Jews. 

“Their statement [on encampments] had nothing to say to the Jewish community,” Elman said. “Nothing condemning the rank antisemitism on display, in rhetoric and calls for violence against Israeli citizens. How can you not even in one paragraph of your statement condemn how antisemitism has infused these protests?”

In a statement to JI, Jacob Baime, CEO of the Israel on Campus Coalition, called on university administrators to “clear the encampments, equally enforce existing policies, and protect Jewish students and their friends and allies,” without capitulating to “supporters of Hamas.” 

Experts said that it’s too early to know whether or not the concessions offered are merely symbolic — Brown, for example, plans to wait until October for its corporate board to vote on a proposal to divest from Israeli interests, as per its negotiation with protesters. But already, according to the ADL’s Goodman, administrations that have made deals “[incentivized] further rules violations and disruption and normalized antisemitism on campus.” 

Goodman cautioned that as universities try to restore order during finals and graduations, more may strike similar deals. “Administrators may see this as an acceptable solution to resolve the current situation on their own campus… It will also be interesting to see how they determine whether protestors who committed no further code of conduct violations comply and what happens if they do not comply.” 

Rotenberg warned, “The Jewish community has ample reason to fear when people take the law into their own hands and who, after being warned, decide to violate the norms of their community and then get rewarded for doing so.” Going down that path, he said, is “marching down the road to authoritarianism.”

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