Two events at Brown University last week have unsettled Jewish students. First, a lecture having nothing to do with Israel was called off after students petitioned the lecturer to refuse to participate in any event co-sponsored by Hillel, as the lecture was to have been. Then anti-Semitic and homophobic graffiti appeared in a residence hall that includes a Jewish fraternity and a coed fraternity that is home to gay and lesbian students.
The events haven't been linked, but both have frustrated many Jewish students, and both resulted in emails to the campus by President Christina Paxson. She has invited the lecturer back to campus and said that any student group, including Hillel, would be welcome as a co-sponsor.
The Brown incidents come at a time of growing debate nationally over whether some campuses have become hostile to Jewish students. Many on campuses say that increased activism for the Palestinian cause, much of this activism highly critical of Israel, should not be confused with anti-Semitism. Institutions such as Vassar College have been accused of tolerating anti-Semitism because of some campus visitors' lectures, and have answered back that traditions of academic freedom -- not hostility to Jewish students -- explain those visits.
But there have been events that extend beyond criticism of Israel's policies. These incidents include swastika graffiti at several campuses, a professor at Oberlin College posting anti-Semitic images on social media and an incident in which a student at the University of California at Los Angeles was almost denied a position in the student government over the suggestion by the panel interviewing her that her Jewish faith might interfere with her duties.
On many campuses, events related to the Israel-Palestine conflict have been sources of tension, but at Brown the event that set off a controversy last week had nothing to do with the Middle East. It was a planned lecture by Janet Mock, who appears on college campuses and elsewhere to talk about her experiences as a transgender person of color.
Mock was invited to Brown by Moral Voices, a group that is part of the Brown-Rhode Island School of Design Hillel and that picks themes related to social justice for programs through the year. Violence against LGBTQ people is the theme for this academic year's programming. The planned lecture by Mock was co-sponsored by Queer Alliance, the LGBTQ Center, Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, Sexual Assault Peer Educators (SAPE), Brown Center for Students of Color and RISD’s Office of Intercultural Student Engagement.
Mock canceled shortly after a petition drew support for its demand that the event either exclude Hillel sponsorship or be called off. The petition charged that "Hillel as a corporation has consistently defended and even advocated for the Israeli state’s policies of occupation and racial apartheid. Israel’s violent policies center on colonialism, ethnic cleansing and genocide of native Palestinians." The petition also cited Hillel's policy of not hosting events involving advocates of boycotting Israel.
Finally, the petition said that the activities of Hillel in bringing a transgender speaker to campus were part of a strategy of "Israeli advocacy organizations (like Hillel) … engaging in pinkwashing, a strategy that tries to improve Israel’s image and rebrand it as a liberal, modern and ‘hip’ country. By shifting the focus to a very narrow definition of LGBTQ rights (exclusively for queer Israelis and not for queer Palestinians), Israel uses pinkwashing to deflect attention from Israel’s colonization and occupation of Palestine and the violence that is being carried out against Palestinians." (The lecture was not expected to focus on Israel.)
The organizers of Moral Voices responded with a statement in which they said that the petition appears to call for the exclusion of Hillel -- the primary organization for supporting Jewish students on campus -- from all activities.
"We were shocked and deeply saddened to see a petition launched requesting that Ms. Mock reject Moral Voices’ invitation due to its affiliation with Brown RISD Hillel," the statement says. "We, the MV leadership, are neither equipped for nor invested in arguing the merits of Brown RISD Hillel’s Israel/Palestine-related programming. This petition does, however, make us ask: Given that Hillel is the center for Jewish life on this campus -- with a mandate to support the interests and meet the needs of a very diverse constituency of Jewish students on College Hill (ranging widely in their political, religious and cultural inclinations) -- does simply engaging in a Jewish space render one unfit to do justice work?"
In a statement issued Sunday, Paxson said, "Brown is strengthened by the expression of a full range of views on difficult and even divisive issues. However, while we cannot and should not prevent any member of our community from signing a petition, it is counter to Brown’s norms and values for expressions of dissent to be targeted at a student group because of its religious affiliation."
The second incident involved graffiti saying things like "Holocaust 2.0" and various slurs in a residence hall that is home to many Jewish and gay and lesbian students.
Paxson issued a statement in which she pledged that the university would make every effort to find out who vandalized the building, and to punish the offenders.
"By now, many of you have heard about the hateful instances of homophobic and anti-Semitic graffiti vandalism discovered in Marcy House last night," she wrote on Saturday. "I write to you today to express what I know, undoubtedly, so many of us across campus are feeling -- frustration, distress and outrage that an act perpetrated by a sole or small group of individuals has threatened the deep-rooted commitment to creating a just, diverse and inclusive community that we share at this university."