Religion

Judge backs Christian group in dispute with University of Iowa

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Judge says university cannot deny recognition because of antigay rules. But decision says main flaw at Iowa is inconsistent enforcement, not the rules themselves.

Authors discuss their new book on religion in American higher education

Authors discuss new book about the diversity and strength of religion in academe -- as well as some of the tensions.

Eastern Orthodox Church Leader Sues Princeton

A spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church is suing Princeton University to regain possession of three Byzantine-era texts in Princeton’s collection, The New York Times reported. The university received the texts as a gift from a trustee and alumnus who bought them through a German auction. The lawsuit claims that the texts had been stolen from a monastery in Kormista, a village in northern Greece, during World War I by Bulgarian guerrilla forces. In a statement, university officials said they had full confidence that the texts in question were not stolen.

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Antireligious Bias in the Academy

They meet in secret. If you asked them whether that was true, they would say, of course not. If you ask the time or date, they will share some, but not all, of the information. People of all races, religions and orientations are welcome, as long as they have been invited. They don’t advertise online or with fliers. It’s word of mouth only.

This is the life of Muslim students on liberal campuses all over the United States today. Often they are some of the most popular students on the campus. You will see their pictures in admissions catalogs and their names in leadership positions. Those who are international students are often happy to tell you what country they are from and what it’s like to be an international student. But if you ask them if they are religious, they will likely tell you “no” or “not really.”

In fact, their religious practices vary widely. Some are entirely secular, seeing their identity as a cultural one. Some celebrate only on the big holidays like Ramadan. Some pray once a day or week, and some pray five times a day every day. But they all identify as Muslim.

The meetings themselves are quite sweet and innocuous. They make chai and catch up on where they are with their schoolwork and love lives, talk about being homesick and how much sleep they are or are not getting. It’s like any other gathering of college students, except that they are afraid to let the campus at large know about it.

Some of those concerns can be attributed to the atmosphere of the country at large, President Trump’s travel bans and the stereotype of every Muslim as a terrorist. Yet progressive college campuses have denounced such things. Many have pledged to fight racism within and without, have declared themselves sanctuary campuses or, at least, have insisted that they will do all that they can to support all their students. So where’s the disconnect?

The disconnect lies at the intersection between race and religion. Liberal faculty members, administrators and students frequently express their desire to address racism, even if how they actually practice doing so may be imperfect, poor or nonexistent. But when it comes to religion, they may openly roll their eyes, question the validity of its existence even in classes dedicated to its study or simply leave it out entirely in discussions of diversity and difference.

The trouble is, however, that you can’t take the Islam out of Islamophobia.

Secular liberal institutions would like to believe that Islamophobia happens only at religious campuses. They decry racism and critique Christian hegemony, excluding themselves from any responsibility for Islamophobic attitudes and practices. But to commit to addressing issues of racism while leaving the structure of religious dismissal on secular campuses intact does not allow Islamophobia to be addressed. In fact, it allows it to flourish and spread.

When faculty members at one institution perceived administrators responded more vehemently to violence in France than violence in Lebanon, they raised the alarm of racism. They dismissed the vigil for Lebanon that the office of religious life led and accused it of being an afterthought. But students from France, Lebanon and many other countries attended that vigil, while faculty and staff members were notably absent. Understandably, those students questioned the faculty and staff’s professed indignation and did not feel supported by them.

When an accepted student at another college contacted current students to ask what the atmosphere on the campus was like, whether they should come, the first question that student received was, “Do you wear a hijab?” And they heard that if they were willing to practice their religion less visibly, then yes, it would be a great institution to attend. If they were not, they should think about going elsewhere. And where is that elsewhere? Where is that place where students can access an education without having that which is most sacred in their hearts delegitimized and disrespected?

The intensification of harassment based on visible religious practice is not limited to Muslims. Jewish students who wear kippah, tallith and tefillin are also subject to a range of negative responses, including not only scornful comments but also physical attacks. Students who would be horrified to think that they were promoting anti-Semitism do not see their behavior as problematic. Because their comments and actions are directed toward the person’s religious practice rather than their ethnic identity, it is socially acceptable in the wider campus community.

Indeed, antireligious bias is not only socially acceptable but also treated at times as an educated response to the existence of religious violence in the world. Obviously, that approach ignores all the human rights movements grounded in religion. It neglects the peace and justice and communal care grounded in religions. It disallows for addressing religious fundamentalism on its own terms. In a vicious twist of irony, it encourages an atmosphere to flourish in which it is acceptable to look down upon one group of people. It’s just a different group of people -- and in this case, one that crosses race, culture, gender, sexuality, class, ability and nationality. Antireligious bias actually contributes to the continuation of misunderstanding, ignorance, division, oppression and violence.

Higher education and our country as a whole are at a crossroads. Incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have risen across the world and on our campuses. White supremacists have openly marched on the streets, chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” This is not a time when we can afford to allow our biases to go unchecked. Allowing such antireligious bias to exist only advances the cause of white supremacy.

This spring, at a progressive liberal arts campus, an open Muslim prayer service was held for the first time in its history. Students of different races, faiths, genders and sexual orientations attended, as did staff members from student life and the dean of the faculty’s office. People were free to join in or just be present. Afterward, the Muslim students described their childhoods and what they did at home on Fridays. They talked about their religious practice and their lives. Change is possible.

Institutions of higher education have an incredible opportunity. What will we do with that opportunity? Can we address the hatred and division rife on our campuses and in our country? Can we talk across our differences? Can we create a space where we can learn and grow while simultaneously respecting each person’s race, religion, class, ability, and sexual and gender identity? Can we learn and grow if we do not?

We can bury our heads in the sand and perpetuate our biases, or we can create an atmosphere of true respect and fulfill our mandate to educate the whole human being.

Liza M. Neal was until recently the director of spiritual life at Hampshire College. She has worked in higher education for the last 14 years innovating religious, spiritual and secular student development. Currently, she is doing consultation, training and spiritual direction, both inside and outside the academy.

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Columbia U Revised Statement in Response to Tree of Life Shooting

Columbia University revised its statement in response to the Saturday shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people after an alumnus pointed out the absence of “Jews” or “anti-Semitism” in the university's statement.

The original statement, published in the Jewish Journal, included mentions of faith and identity but did not mention Jews, Judaism or anti-Semitism specifically.

“We are deeply saddened by the senseless violence at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday morning. Violence in our nation’s houses of worship is an affront to the freedoms our community holds dear. We stand strongly against these efforts to create fear and terror,” the original statement read. “For some in our community, this is a particularly frightening time as we have seen a growing number of highly visible attacks directed at faith and identity -- on worshippers and people of faith as they go through their daily lives, on groups gathered to celebrate an LGBT Latin night at Pulse Nightclub, on civil rights and anti-racist protesters in the streets of Charlottesville, and in so many other places, as occurred in last Wednesday’s shooting of two African-American shoppers in Kentucky.”

Zachary Neugut, a Columbia University alumnus, criticized the statement on Twitter on Sunday evening.

“Classic @Columbia to send an email about the #TreeOfLifeSynagogue shooting and mention anti-LGBT and anti-black hatred but not anti-Semitism,” he tweeted. “The world has gone mad, I'm embarrassed today to call myself an alumnus & regret having donated to @CC_Columbia this year. #Columbia”

Neugut tweeted on Monday that the university had reached out to apologize to him and revised their statement.

Below is the university’s revised statement.

“We are deeply saddened by the horrific antisemitic attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday morning. Violence in our nation’s houses of worship is an affront to the freedoms our community holds dear. We stand strongly against yesterday’s violent attack on the Jewish community and against other efforts to create fear and terror.

“For some in our community, this is a particularly frightening time as we have seen a growing number of highly visible attacks directed at faith and identity -- on worshippers and people of faith as they go through their daily lives, on groups gathered to celebrate an LGBT Latin night at Pulse Nightclub, on civil rights and anti-racist protesters in the streets of Charlottesville, and in so many other places, as occurred in last Wednesday's shooting of two African-American shoppers in Kentucky. Please know that you are not alone, and that you are a part of this community founded on the fundamental dignity and worth of all.”

Columbia University declined to comment on the record about the change.

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What new data say about improving attitudes toward Jewish students (opinion)

As white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, they shouted, “Blood and soil!” (a Nazi slogan) and “Jews will not replace us!” Some carried Nazi flags and wore T-shirts with Adolf Hitler quotes. Such expressions and sentiments, wrote staff writer Emma Green in The Atlantic, are physical reflections of a white supremacist ideology, one in which Jews “hover malevolently in the background, pulling strings, controlling events, acting as an all-powerful force backing and enabling the other targets of their hate.”

Although the anti-Semitism in Charlottesville was shocking to many Americans, it was anything but for American Jews. A 2013 Pew Research study found that 43 percent of Jewish Americans agreed that Jews face a lot of discrimination, while 15 percent reported being called offensive names and facing social rejection for being Jewish in the year prior. The Anti-Defamation League reported that, in 2017, 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents took place across the United States -- a 57 percent increase from 2016. And after the events in Charlottesville, anti-Semitic acts spiked by 182 percent across the country, according to a November 2017 report.

American colleges and universities in particular saw an 89 percent increase in anti-Semitic acts last year, according to the ADL. People drew swastikas at numerous campuses, while Jewish students reported incidents of harassment, bullying and assault. The issue became so prevalent that the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held a hearing to discuss it. They recommended the U.S. Department of Education adopt a clearer definition of what constitutes harassment toward Jewish students, to ensure that future investigations into anti-Semitic acts are easier to conduct.

Given such increasing reports of anti-Semitism on campuses, it is time to better understand the attitudes that non-Jewish students have toward their Jewish peers, and how such attitudes might be improved.

Enter the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study, or IDEALS, a national investigation of how experiences with worldview diversity (i.e., interactions with other religious, spiritual or nonreligious beliefs) are shaping students’ attitudes about their campus climate, their own spirituality and other worldview groups. Research teams led by Matthew Mayhew at Ohio State University and Alyssa Rockenbach at North Carolina State University are conducting this multiyear study in partnership with the Interfaith Youth Core. Through IDEALS, we have surveyed the same cohort of students across 122 colleges and universities at the beginning of their first year (fall 2015) and the end of their first year (spring 2016), and we will sample those students again at the end of their senior year (spring 2019).

Findings from students’ first-year experiences revealed that those who described themselves as being “highly appreciative” of Jews rose 11 percentage points from the start of college (53 percent) to the end of their first year (64 percent). A highly appreciative attitude, according to the study, suggests an understanding of the positive contributions that the group in view (in this case, Jews) makes to society. That understanding, in turn, strengthens students’ goodwill and respect toward that group and improves the likelihood that students will continue learning more about it.

The study also raises the question of what college experiences contribute to appreciative attitudes. Previous research revealed that having educational experiences that provoke self-reflection on one’s assumptions, interfaith engagement with students of other beliefs and informal experiences interacting with diverse peers all contribute to students’ appreciation of Jews. Additionally, the presence of a Jewish student organization (e.g., Chabad, Hillel) also positively influenced appreciative attitudes toward Jewish students. The research further found that campus climates perceived as divisive and insensitive toward religious differences can lead to less appreciative attitudes toward Jews, suggesting the power of campus climate to promote or hinder perceptions of worldview others.

These findings dovetail with a promising report from Pew Research in February 2017, in which participants were asked to rate religious and nonreligious groups on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from zero to 100. Warmness toward Jews rose four points, from 63 to 67, from 2014, making them one of the most highly rated groups in America. For those who said they had personal connections with Jews, their rating was even higher at 72, compared to 58 for those who did not. Those findings strike general agreement with the 78 percent of students in the IDEALS sample who perceived their campus as welcoming toward Jews.

How, then, do we reconcile startling neo-Nazi hatred with findings reflecting increasingly positive and welcoming attitudes toward Jews? It depends, perhaps, on how one interprets these data. Some people may frame the findings as more positive, choosing to interpret increasing anti-Semitic behavior as a series of isolated incidents. Others, however, see these trends and wonder: What social conditions would need to change for Jews to be rated higher on the feeling thermometer? What about the one in five students who didn’t see their campus as welcoming toward Jews? Carefully considering such conflicting narratives, we hope, can illuminate pathways toward productive action -- especially among those charged with leading productive exchanges concerning religious and worldview diversity. As IDEALS research continues, we hope to uncover the practices and mechanisms responsible for helping students move from curiosity to interest, from tolerance to appreciation, and ultimately from thought exercise to responsible action.

Such action is not trivial. Given their small numbers in the United States and historical persecution on a global scale, Jews are highly vulnerable to the attitudes and behaviors of others. Encouragingly, our research presents an overall picture of colleges and universities as educational spaces where students from all worldview backgrounds can explore the beliefs of others, including Jews. Though religion and worldview are often forgotten about in diversity initiatives, IDEALS is finding that consciously and intentionally addressing worldview diversity in productive ways can have a significant impact on how different groups in American society feel about one another. We hope programmatic and policy responses to such findings contribute to a future in which anti-Semitism is no longer tolerated on campuses or, indeed, in American society.

Matthew J. Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration at the Ohio State University. Benjamin S. Selznick is assistant professor at James Madison University, School of Strategic Leadership Studies. Kevin Singer is a Ph.D. student in higher education at North Carolina State University. Alyssa N. Rockenbach is professor of higher education at North Carolina State University.

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Study shows drop-off in new college students' exposure to other religions

Students interact less with peers of different faiths and traditions once they enter college, a new study finds.

Forms of anti-Semitism are steadily increasing in higher education (essay)

This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms that are essential to reporting and commenting on the topic.

The white supremacist participating in the “Unite the Right” march who claimed that Charlottesville, Va., is “run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers” clarified that anti-Semitism and racism are the hateful intersectional bedfellows of the so-called alt-right. The events in Charlottesville should make it harder to deny that white Jews as well as people of color, immigrants, Muslims and LGBTQ people are the targets of those who clamor for a white ethno-state. The omnipresence of Nazi symbols, the chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” along with the intimidation and threats leveled against a synagogue in Charlottesville, make it clear that anti-Semitism is a real and contemporary danger.

But not all forms of anti-Semitism are as crude and explicit as those on display in Charlottesville earlier this month. Soft forms of anti-Jewish sentiment are steadily becoming part of our culture, even and especially in higher education. And sometimes the most seemingly ordinary academic rituals unwittingly reveal the slow creep of anti-Semitism or, at the very least, an imperviousness to that particular form of hate and ignorance.

For instance, although I’m a literary critic by trade, I don’t generally read catalog changes all that closely. Nor do I usually consider them a canary in the coal mine. But a curriculum discussion that started last year about an Introduction to Judaism course at my Texas liberal arts college, Southwestern University, is beginning to look like a harbinger of a disturbing academic and national trend: the disappearing Jew.

Catalog changes are usually pro forma. By the time they reach the faculty at large, all invested parties have been consulted, and we simply approve the list of changes at a spring faculty meeting. Although I regularly teach Jewish literature and film courses, I had no idea that Introduction to Judaism was on the chopping block until an email that listed catalog changes showed up in my inbox.

University rules about the catalog, budget cuts and personnel changes were all offered as reasons for this curricular change once I started a public discussion about it. Ultimately, the elimination of this course ended up being deferred.

Except, apparently, it wasn’t. Through what has been framed as a bureaucratic mishap, the faculty decision not to delete the course was not officially communicated to the records office, and the course was deleted from the catalog. When the issue came up for discussion again this year with the curriculum committee, the religion department affirmed its unanimous decision to get rid of the course. Since the course had already been mistakenly deleted from the catalog, it wasn’t considered a catalog change, so it wasn’t reported to the faculty at large.

So now the following introductory religion courses are regularly offered at my national liberal arts university: Introduction to Christianity, Introduction to Islam, Introduction to Hinduism, Introduction to Buddhism and Introduction to Native American Traditions. I celebrate the religious diversity of such course offerings, but it eludes me that Introduction to Judaism no longer has a place at this multifaith table. Academically, it simply doesn’t make sense. As one alumna put it, “How do you study Abrahamic traditions without Judaism?” Another affirmed that her study of Judaism was essential to her understanding of Christianity and Islam. Teaching Christianity and Islam without Judaism in the mix is curricular supersessionism. Although I’m not surprised that replacement theology is advocated by hate groups such as Vanguard America, it’s chilling to discover that progressive academics are, perhaps unintentionally, developing their own brand of replacing Jews.

When this curricular saga first started, it seemed like a local story. My inquiries to the American Academy of Religion and the Association of Jewish Studies confirmed that the disappearance of Intro to Judaism courses was not a thing. However, I now think that the disappearance of Introduction to Judaism on my campus is mirrored by extracurricular activities on college campuses across the country as well as by events in the public square. And it is precisely that mirroring that makes this curricular change so troubling.

To be sure, this story is indicative of many pernicious trends in higher education: the whittling away of the humanities, the weakening of substantive faculty governance, hyperspecialized faculty members with diminished commitments to general education. Yet, to focus solely on those trends would be to erase Jewish specificity. And such erasures -- or attempted erasures -- are becoming increasingly common.

Take, for example, the debacle at Brown University last spring around Janet Mock, a transgender activist and writer of color. Her talk, sponsored by many social justice organizations on campus, including Moral Voices, a Hillel-affiliated program, became a flash point for student activism against Israel, even though the program had nothing to do with Israel. Nonetheless, a student petition issued an ultimatum: either the Jewish organization’s sponsorship of the event had to go or the event had to be canceled.

Another recent example: at the University of Madison, a legislative discussion and vote on investment ethics took place on Passover despite Jewish students explicitly notifying the student council that such scheduling would erase their voice and despite the fact that the vote would normally have happened at a subsequent meeting. That vote has now been voided, and members of the council who sought to change rules with the effect, if not the intention, of excluding Jewish participation are required to issue a letter of apology. That letter must include knowledge about Passover, which is basic Jewish literacy.

And, of course, before Charlottesville, this hot anti-Semitic summer featured the Chicago Dyke March, whose perverse version of intersectionality resulted in the expulsion of women who had the chutzpah to carry Jewish pride flags and refused to declare that they were not now nor had ever been Zionists.

Jewish erasure is, at times, being modeled at the very highest levels of government. Using inclusiveness of suffering as its rationale, the White House’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day did not contain the J word. A commemoration of a historical event fundamentally committed to a Judenrein world managed to free itself of reference to Jews or anti-Semitism.

The disappearing Jew is a significant but not the only component of a well-documented rise in anti-Semitism. During the presidential campaign, Jewish reporters were harassed and some even received death threats. Jewish cemeteries and religious institutions have been desecrated, and public figures such as Thomas Lopez-Pierre, a candidate for New York City Council, feel empowered to politically mobilize the stereotype of “greedy Jewish landlords,” most recently through the multiple parentheses -- called echo marks -- that neo-Nazis use to denote Jews online. FBI hate crime statistics indicate that Jews are the most frequent targets of religious bias crimes, while hate crimes against Muslims have increased exponentially. Diverse and inspiring alliances between Jewish and Muslim communities are being forged against such a backdrop of hate.

This is the larger cultural context in which my university, which prides itself on its commitments to social justice, is deleting Introduction to Judaism from the course catalog and our curriculum. One of the latest rationales for this curriculum change is a dearth of qualified people to teach the course. I do wonder what the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas, a mere 30 miles from my campus, might have to say about that. Ironically, some of the same faculty members and administrators who are making this “no qualified people” argument would rightly suspect institutionalized racism and sexism if a curriculum focused only on straight white male subjects was deemed lamentable but necessary because of a lack of qualified faculty members to diversify offerings.

Like most colleges and universities these days, my liberal arts institution touts innovation and efficient use of resources. Yet I would argue that no religious studies program should be eliminating the study of Judaism, in part because of its status as a historic and living tradition in its own right, in part because it is foundational to other, equally important internally diverse religious traditions, and in part because of the current climate of rising anti-Semitism. When Jews are invisible in some contexts and hypervisible in others, socially responsible institutions of higher education should be promoting Judaic and Jewish literacy rather than practicing curricular triumphalism.

Helene Meyers is professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University in Texas. The author of three books, most recently Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness, she is currently at work on a project about Jewish American movies. (Southwestern University did not comment in response to efforts to contact them about information in this opinion piece.)

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The Disappearing Jew

Growing number of religious universities offer two-year degrees

A handful of religious universities are now offering two-year degrees, with a goal of work-force development and serving more low-income students.

Samford gives up $3 million in Baptist funds amid dispute over pro-gay group

Avoiding rebuke of conservative donors, Samford declines to give LGBTQ-oriented group recognition, but gives up funding from Alabama Baptist State Convention.

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