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Tweets and an Incident at Knox

College considers how its Jewish students and faculty members are treated.

April 23, 2018
 
Image of a teal Star of David

A faculty member's tweets -- and an incident that followed debate about them -- have set off discussions at Knox College about whether Jewish students and faculty members face hostility at the Illinois liberal arts college.

A Jewish student saw the tweets by Kwame Zulu Shabazz, visiting instructor of Africana studies, and asked the college to investigate. While the college was doing so, a Jewish faculty member who was involved in the campus discussion about the tweets (and who has not been identified) found an anti-Semitic image had been slid under her office door. The college is investigating that incident as well and is condemning the incident but not the tweets. Students and faculty members have been urging the college to take the situation seriously and to speak out clearly against anti-Semitism.

Among the tweets that have been questioned are one in which Shabazz responded to another person's tweet about hip-hop and film depictions of black life by referring to "Jews pulling the strings for profit." In others, he compared the actions of Israel's government to Nazis -- but he referred to "Jews" rather than the Israeli government. He also alleged "evidence of overwhelming" Jewish intent to harm others in the Middle East because "Yahweh explicitly commands the Jews to annihilate entire peoples."

Shabazz did not respond to requests for comment, although his email address is now forwarded to his department chair, who also did not respond. (Update: Shabazz contacted Inside Higher Ed after publication, and his comments appear in the comment section below, posted by the moderator.)

Jewish students have said they find it alarming that a faculty member can make remarks about "the Jews" that are based on anti-Semitic tropes. Jewish students (who make up about 5 percent of students at the college) have held several meetings on campus with other student groups, but the meetings haven't left the Jewish students feeling that their concerns are understood.

Jonathan Schrag, a junior who is co-editor in chief of the student newspaper, The Knox Student, wrote an essay there in which he described the frustrations of Jewish students.

"When Jewish student leaders went through the proper channels to discuss the tweets, they were told to instead blame themselves, as they have not done enough to help oppressed groups on campus," Schrag wrote. "For many Jewish students, it has felt like they were being told that the oppression they face is not notable because there are groups facing harsher realities. It is absolutely true that the black community faces more oppression and hate than the Jewish one, on this campus, nationally and internationally. However, recognizing and acknowledging the oppression of another group does not cheapen or detract from the oppression you face, nor does it give that group the right to do whatever it pleases. In other words, by condemning the dangers Jews inevitably face, one does not imply that the oppression of other identity groups is justified or less significant, whether by individuals who are Jewish or not." [Schrag says that by "proper channels," he meant going to the professor, not to the college administration.)

David and Jennifer Bunde, who are co-advisers to the Jewish student group at Knox (where he is chair of the computer science department), responded jointly via email to questions posed by Inside Higher Ed.

"We do not believe that the faculty member [who made the tweets about Jewish people] was intending to be anti-Semitic; we believe that he was trying to call out injustice on behalf of people of color the world over," they wrote. "Unfortunately, the language used in some of his tweets played into age-old stereotypes. We do not think he understands that Jewish students, faculty, and the wider community found his words hurtful and dangerous."

The Bundes added, "We understand that the focus of this faculty member’s work is exposing the suffering of black people in America and elsewhere in the world. We, and many of the people we have spoken with, are disappointed at his refusal to modify his language in order to avoid stereotyping while advocating for Palestinians and black Americans. This has been a difficult situation for many in the community."

Jewish students have worked together to communicate their concerns, they said, adding that they were "very proud" of them.

As to the "hate mail" left under the door of a Jewish professor, they said that it was "deeply troubling, and evidence that anti-Semitism still exists in our community. We believe that only by joining together can we fight discrimination and injustice of all kinds."

Megan Scott, vice president for communications at Knox, forwarded a statement that said the college was investigating the tweets and the incident and was committed to an inclusive environment for all students, including those who are Jewish.

She noted that the faculty handbook at Knox has language that seeks to balance academic freedom with faculty responsibilities. The handbook says that when a professor “speaks or writes as an individual, one must be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but a special position in the community imposes special obligations … Hence, one must make every effort to be accurate, must exercise appropriate restraint, must show respect for the opinions of others, and must make every effort to indicate that the individual is not speaking for the college.”

The incident comes at a time when other colleges have been speedy to condemn the tweets of some professors.

Asked why Knox wasn't condemning the tweets as anti-Semitic, Scott said via email, "It is not the college’s practice to follow the personal social media accounts of its faculty or staff members. The tweets in question were first brought to the administration’s attention through a bias report filed by a student. As an academic institution, we must maintain an unwavering allegiance to the constitutional rights of members of our community, particularly the freedom of speech that is essential for unfettered academic inquiry. However, the college does have an obligation to and a process for investigating bias incidents reported to us and addressing the extent to which a hostile environment or violation of our policy has occurred. Under our protocol (here) and in response to the student’s report, an initial assessment by the college’s bias incident team began and is ongoing."

Scott also noted that the tensions at Knox are not unique.

Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League reported in February that 2017 saw 204 anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses, an 89 percent increase from the previous year.

Just last week, Syracuse University suspended a fraternity after a video emerged of an initiation ritual in which students used slurs about many racial and ethnic groups. On Friday the university announced it would expel the organization permanently. The video showed the fraternity oath to always hate black and Latino people (using slurs to describe them) and "most importantly the fucking kikes."

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