U. Chicago student government demands elimination of Israel, but University administration refuses to take stand on Israel/Palestine war

June 2, 2021 • 11:30 am

I’ve been at the University of Chicago for 35 years now, but never have I felt so alienated, at least politically, from the student body.

As the Chicago Maroon (our student newspaper) reports, the incoming University of Chicago Undergraduate Student Government (USG) released a statement in conjunction with the blatantly anti-Semitic organization Students for Justice in Palestine, a statement you can find at the paper’s link below or read here (click twice to enlarge to readable size):

It is clear that this statement is calling for the obliteration of Israel as a country, not just University “divestment” from Israel. SJP wants Israel gone, as does BDS, as evidenced by the statement “From the river to the sea, USG supports a Palestine that is free.” This is our student government calling for the elimination of Israel. (Note the dissing of the “ideology of Zionism,” another sign of anti-Semitism.)  And although the statement decries the deaths of Palestinians, there’s not a word about Hamas’s rockets and the first strikes by Palestine. This is hypocrisy of the most blatant kind, combined with arrant ignorance and an adherence to an ideology and history they know nothing about. The combination of SJP and our student government is particularly toxic. Really, students: are you willing to say this publicly that you want the state of Israel wiped off the map?

Now, however, the student government is having second thoughts, and is planning to vote about whether to retract this statement and even apologize to the University’s Jewish community (which, by the way, has never called for the obliteration of the Palestinian territories). From the Maroon:

USG will vote this week on a resolution to retract a statement released last Friday in support of Student Justice for Palestine (SJP) and to issue an apology to the UChicago Jewish community from the members of incoming USG involved in the creation of the statement.

. . . The resolution, introduced Monday night, greets an already-tense campus embroiled in debate over Israel-Palestine relations. The same night the statement was released on Twitter, a group of Jewish students reported that as they returned from a service at UChicago Hillel, a passerby drove by them and “repeatedly yelled out ‘F*ck Jews.’” In the days following the release of the SG statement, seven Jewish groups on campus signed an open letter by UChicago Hillel addressed to the incoming student government. The letter accused the incoming student government of using antisemitic language, saying “Student Government unequivocally rejects Jewish people’s right to self-determination.” Like the resolution, Hillel’s letter called for USG to retract the statement and extend an apology to Jewish students. Additionally, a group of 452 students, parents, alumni, and faculty signed a petition in opposition to the USG statement and requesting a retraction and apology.

It’s hard for me to accept that the student government is, in effect, not only anti-Israeli, but anti-Semitic, which, as I said, is what’s really behind the call for condemning Zionism and “freeing Palestine”.

In a response issued yesterday by President Zimmer and Provost Lee, “Campus discourse and international conflict,” the University administration affirms its neutrality in this issue but condemns bigotry on all sides, which is in accordance with the Kalven Report, one of our founding principles that affirms official University neutrality on moral, ideological, and political issues. (This issue was treated the same way by University College London in late May: a condemnation of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic bigotry along with a refusal to take sides in the controversy or to condemn either side.)

Here’s the statement:

To: Members of the University Community
From: Robert J. Zimmer, President and Ka Yee C. Lee, Provost
Subject: Campus Discourse and International Conflict
Date: June 1, 2021

We have received a number of inquiries and objections regarding a statement by the incoming Undergraduate Student Government on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is painful for many, and one that is intensely personal for many members of our community. The University of Chicago does not have an institutional position on international conflicts, in keeping with our longstanding practice against taking positions on social or political issues outside the University’s core mission. This position was developed in accord with the enduring principles articulated in the Kalven Report.  [JAC note: Decrying bigotry that may affect the working of the University does not violate University policy or Kalven; see below] As outlined in that report, the University’s position preserves the freedom of faculty and students to argue for or against any issue of social or political controversy and thus requires “a heavy presumption against” collective political action by the University itself.

One important corollary to freedom of expression on campus is that no individual faculty member speaks for the University as a whole. This is equally true with regard to student expression, and thus while Student Government representatives are elected by undergraduates, neither Student Government nor any other student group speaks for the University or for all students on any issue. As stated in its own Constitution, the mission of the Student Government (SG) is “to further the interests and promote the welfare of the students at the University of Chicago; to foster a University community; … and to represent the body more effectively before University authorities and the community at large.”

We are deeply disturbed by recent cases of anti-Semitism that have taken place in our country and across the world. These acts are deplorable and antithetical to our values, including our deep commitment to open and free inquiry, and our welcoming of people of all backgrounds.  These values compel our steadfast opposition to discrimination in its many potential forms, including rejection of anti-Semitism, anti-Palestinian bias, and other forms of bias that are also incompatible with our commitment to diversity and inclusion. The University does not tolerate violence, threats, intimidation or harassment directed at individuals or groups, as reflected in University Policy. We are committed to taking action to prevent such behavior and to address any cases that arise. Anyone who has experienced or witnessed a bias incident is encouraged to report it to the Bias Education & Support Team (BEST).

We continue to support the wellbeing of all members of our community, and to provide an environment for faculty and students to engage freely and openly on this and other issues. Our University is at its best when we treat each other with care and mutual respect, build on shared values, and come together to ensure people of all backgrounds and beliefs can thrive on campus. For those seeking additional support, UChicago Student Wellness offers undergraduate and graduate students accessible, high-quality, and culturally sensitive mental health services. The Staff and Faculty Assistance Program offers support for University personnel.

Contrast this with the statement of UCLA’s Asian-American Studies Department on the same issue, a statement of strong support for Palestine and a blanket condemnation of Israel. This is the incursion of politics into academic that should not be taking place. Have people forgotten that the mission of a University is teaching, learning, and apprehending how to think and analyze, not to engage in social engineering? Stanley Fish argued that point in his book, giving it the title “Save the World on Your Own Time.” (I’ve just read it.)

The only possible quibble I have with Zimmer and Lee’s letter is the first sentence in the fifth paragraph: “We are deeply disturbed by recent cases of anti-Semitism that have taken place in our country and across the world.”  This refers not to an issue relevant to the University’s mission, but to what’s going on in the country as a whole. Had they just said that anti-Semitic acts are “antithetical to our values and impede the University from performing its mission,” it would have been more in line with what the Kalven Report intended. But this is a minor plaint. And while it may look neutral and laudable, one can argue whether people should be disturbed by cases of anti-Semitism. Many people aren’t!

I only wish that the President and Provost had made such a strong statement about the many pronouncements of our departments that also violate the Kalven report, like those on this listWhile President Zimmer has affirmed that departments and official units of the University must adhere to the no-politics-ideology-or-morality principles limned in Kalven, many of these statements still violate Kalven. They need to be taken down pronto.

But it hurtsme quite a bit to see our own student government passing resolutions born of ignorance, hatred, and ideological conformity. I hope the SG/SJP statement gets rescinded.  (And since many donors are Jewish, this will also hurt the University in its pocketbook.)

11 thoughts on “U. Chicago student government demands elimination of Israel, but University administration refuses to take stand on Israel/Palestine war

  1. Anytime you have a conversation about Israel, the first question should be, Do you think Israel has a right to exist as a nation?

    It’s pretty clear to me that a huge number of people-in affluent countries and elsewhere– want Israel wiped out and Jews not to exist, or exist with such a reduced life that they are no longer Jews.

    I know of no topic in which “respectable” media obfuscates, lies, and distorts as much as Israel. And watching the United Nations come up with resolutions against Israel is stunning.

    You may want to read this Twitter thread regarding the NYTimes front-page article on the children killed during the recent Hamas/Israel flare-up….And the corrections made after its publishing, of which there may be more.


    1. “Do you think Israel has a right to exist as a nation?”

      A side point, but always find this question weird. Does the USA has the right to exist? Does the UK? Does China? Would be the answers different for these questions country by country? Why?
      A pointless question, countries and nations had not been founded on predetermined procedural law, like how you found a legal person, like a company or a foundation. Izrael does exist. This is our starting point now.

  2. Tragic. Why isn’t the USG under Kalven? I can understand why Hillel, or Catholic Youth, or even the Palestine group are independent student interest groups, but it seems that an entity that calls itself the U of Chicago Undergraduate Student Group is representative of the university in the same manner as the Faculty Senate and should thus be held to the same boundaries. In any case, a bit of community education in the way of a “not a debate” panel discussion might be in order with some modeling of proper decorum. Can the administration, faculty leaders, and student leaders control such an environment anymore? Glad to see President Zimmer and provost Lee take a clear public stand.

    1. At a guess? They aren’t ‘the administration.’ They aren’t employees and as the letter says, they don’t speak for the University the way a president or provost or official press release might. They are elected representatives, yes, but representatives of the people the University serves, not of the University institution that does the serving. But again, that’s just a guess.

  3. A thought experiment: run half of the UofC’s student residencies under the rules imposed on Palestinians by Hamas, and the other half under Israeli rules. I wonder which ones the students would choose to reside in?

  4. The University of Washington president issued a harmless, anodyne statement, and otherwise the
    UW has officially avoided this minefield, so far. Needless to say, student and faculty groups are
    circulating SJP-like pronunciamentos, so far to little or at least unknown effect. These declarations
    are always filled with denunciations of Israel as a “settler colonial” state. They are issued here by Seattle citizens whose anti-colonial passion never leads them to donate their own homes to the Duwamish Nation—the local indigenous inhabitants before the settler colonial city of Seattle.

    1. Indeed.

      And Jews were in the region that is now Israel way before any Arab “settler colonialists”, if they want to play that little game.

  5. The optimist in me is going to continue to hope that most of the students signing on to such statements are just naive or haven’t thought through exactly what a Palestine ‘from river to sea’ would actually entail. ‘I’m going to support his group I see as oppressed’ is maybe the depth to which they go.

    If that’s the case, hopefully the objections of the Jewish students and their allies will start a much-needed conversation about how this isn’t some fictional melodrama where the players are easily pigeonholed into good guy and bad guy.

  6. Jerry, you weren’t around to experience UC student government’s response to the Cuban MIssile Crisis and the strong negative response it got from most students.

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