Chicago fire

Northwestern’s antisemitism committee in disarray after Jewish members step down

Northwestern senior Lily Cohen: ‘It appears as though breaking the rules gets you somewhere, and trying to do things respectfully and by the books does not’

Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu via Getty Images

Students and residents camp outside Northwestern University during a pro-Palestinian protest, expressing solidarity with Palestinians with banners in Evanston, Illinois, United States on April 27, 2024.

Seven Jewish members of Northwestern University’s antisemitism advisory committee who stepped down from the body on Wednesday blasted university President Michael Schill for his failure to combat antisemitism while at the same time quickly acceding to the demands of anti-Israel protesters on campus.

Announced in November, the committee’s members were named in January. The body has not yet put forth any public recommendations, nor has Schill adopted any policies from the committee. The seven members who resigned criticized Schill for the agreement he reached on Monday with the anti-Israel protesters who had built an encampment on campus and for not consulting members of the antisemitism committee during the negotiations. 

“It appears as though breaking the rules gets you somewhere, and trying to do things respectfully and by the books does not,” Lily Cohen, a Northwestern senior who stepped down from the President’s Advisory Committee on Preventing Antisemitism and Hate on Wednesday, told Jewish Insider. “I am hoping that this is really the last straw that President Schill needs to see in order to really do something. But I can’t say that I have a whole lot of confidence that he will, because it feels like it feels like if he wanted to do something, he’s been given plenty of opportunities to do it.” 

The university is “disappointed” that some members of the committee chose to step down, Hilary Hurd Anyaso, Northwestern’s assistant vice president for communications, told JI in a statement. “Our commitment to protecting Jewish students, faculty and staff is unwavering. The University has no tolerance for antisemitic or anti-Muslim behavior.”

The home page of Northwestern’s main website still features a banner declaring “Combating Antisemitism,” with a link to the announcement of the task force members. But the committee members who resigned said university leaders never took its charge seriously.

“Students at Northwestern must be able to walk through campus without hearing hate-filled speech or experiencing harassment for their religious or political identities and commitments,” Northwestern Hillel Executive Director Michael Simon said in an email to the campus Jewish community announcing his resignation from the committee. “I accepted my appointment to the Committee last fall with the expectation that we would make a good-faith effort toward achieving these goals. Over time, it has become apparent that the Committee is not able to do so.” 

Dr. Philip Greenland, a professor of cardiology at Northwestern’s medical school and an Orthodox Jew, turned on his phone on Tuesday evening after Passover ended and saw more than 400 unread emails in his inbox and a message from Efraim Benmelech, the committee’s co-chair, asking to meet at 9:15 p.m. 

“After the discussion, the seven people who had joined together on this call agreed that they would each independently resign from the committee,” said Greenland, who chose to step down after learning how Schill had disregarded the antisemitism committee when he negotiated with the protestors — particularly because antisemitism had been so apparent among the protesters, which Schill acknowledged in a Tuesday video.  

“My rationale was, ‘You asked us to be on this committee. We’ve been investing our time in this committee. It seems to have a purpose that you say exists. And then at the critical moment, you decide you don’t need us. You don’t need to talk to us. You go off on your own, and you make your own decision,’” said Greenland. “He might have minimized physical confrontation with the protesters, but he didn’t make the campus safer, in my opinion, for Jewish students.” 

Some Jewish students who walked past the encampment were told that Zionists were not welcome there, said Cohen. A flier with a picture of Schill, who is Jewish, with horns appeared at the encampment, along with a poster showing a star of David crossed out with an X. The antisemitism committee attempted to write a statement condemning the antisemitism exhibited at the encampment but was unable to agree on what to say.

“If the committee that was created to prevent antisemitism cannot even decide on whether or not to speak up about antisemitism, I have no faith in its ability to protect Jewish students or to take any substantive action to change the environment for Jewish students on campus,” Cohen added.

When Schill named members to the antisemitism committee in January, he also announced that its scope would be broader than just antisemitism and would also encompass “other forms of hate including Islamophobia.” That approach raised eyebrows among some Jewish Northwestern affiliates. “If you really want to fix the problem, why conflate it with other issues that are going to prolong trying to find a solution to it?” Mike Teplitsky, a Northwestern alum and the president of the Coalition Against Antisemitism at Northwestern, told JI in March

“There were definitely Jewish students, alumni, parents, etc., when the committee was announced who immediately wrote it off, said it’s too little, too late, it’s performative, whatever. And I was very adamant that we have to give it a chance and see,” said Cohen. “I felt like maybe it was, really, a good faith effort to take a step in the right direction. So I waited and I saw, and I think the committee ended up proving the skeptics at the beginning right.”

The other committee members who stepped down were Efraim Benmelech, one of the committee’s two co-chairs and a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg business school; University trustee Paula Pretlow; Martin Eichenbaum, an economics professor; and Daniel Greene, a history professor. 

Three Northwestern students sued the university on Wednesday, alleging that it had committed a “breach of contract” by not shutting down the encampment sooner, contrary to campus policies, and by letting a hateful environment flourish among the protestors. 

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), who is a Northwestern graduate and represents the Chicago suburbs, told JI the deal that Northwestern struck with members of the encampment was “reprehensible” and “unfortunate.” Schneider said he had discussed his concerns about the deal with Schill directly.

Schneider said he was told that Northwestern would not cut business ties with Israeli businesses, but the school’s public statement doesn’t reflect that. “The president hasn’t clearly articulated the principles under which Northwestern is operating,” Schneider said. “You need to be very clear and he has so far remained silent. I hope that changes.”

The Illinois congressman said he’s fully supportive of the idea, which came as part of the deal, of creating a Muslim house or other space on campus, adding that he’d happily write a check to support such a center. But Schneider objected to the decision to call this Muslim-centric space the Middle East North Africa (MENA) House. Such a name excludes all of the other religious groups that have lived in the region for thousands of years, Schneider said, and “effectively validate[s] this false premise, dangerous premise of the anti-Israel protesters that Jews are settler colonialists who have no right to be in this region and Israel has no right to exist.”

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