On October 19, a group of Jewish students, organized by Chabad, gathered at the University of Chicago’s central “quad” to peacefully protest the Hamas attack on Israel, to show their solidarity, and to listen to a series of talks by Jewish leaders on campus. Here’s a photo, which I think is of the group, shown at the Chicago Thinker , a conservative student newspaper (there’s also an article about what happened):
As noted below in the letter to the administration from two Jewish students—a letter that was co-signed by more than 450 others—the group had requested and reserved the Quad space for five hours. That time was dedicated to creating pro-Israel and Jewish solidarity on a campus where the aggressive groups Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and UChicago United for Palestine (UCUP) not only hold loud and aggressive anti-Israel demonstrations (yes, with “From the river to the sea. . “) that sometimes violate university regulations, but also conducted sit-ins that resulted in arrests of 26 protestors and two U. of C. faculty. As the letter relates, the Jewish group requested that SJP not disrupt their meeting, and SJP agreed. But as soon as the pro-Israel demonstration began, SJP broke their promise and began to loudly disrupt it. Here’s a bit of video (this incident was witnessed and related to me by a colleague).
🧵 I have now heard from multiple @UChicago students about something that happened on campus last week. Pro-Israel students followed the rules and reserved the quad for a rally. “Pro-Palestine” students showed up and did everything they could to drown out the event, an apparent… pic.twitter.com/u5BaETKb8v
— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) October 24, 2023
The Jewish students, who were being shut down (a violation of University policy) called the relevant administrator, the Dean on Call (see the Thinker article for a photo), who apparently did nothing to stop SJP. (The students also claim that the Dean wore Palestinian colors, but of course that could be a coincidence). No other administrator did anything, and although the campus police were called, they did nothing to stop the distuption. (To be fair, campus cops can’t do anything without orders from the administration.)
Two of the Jewish students then wrote an open letter to the University administrators giving their view of what happened, and then got it signed by 45o+ other members of the University community. It was posted in public for a while, but then pro-Palestinian activists began defacing the letter by filling in the signature blanks with statements like “crocodile tears”, “may our martyrs haunt u”, “do you enjoy the sight of dead Palestinians?”, “why do u like killing children?”, “Israeli war criminal”, “proud supporter of the slaughter”, “go fuck yourself,” and, relevant to the noise, “you can’t hear anyways,” and “use noise cancelling ear pods”, and “genocide is deafening, huh?”
In light of the hate and obscenity, the pro-Israeli students had to take their letter offline, and it’s no longer publicly accessible. However, two of the students who wrote the letter (see below) gave me permission to reprint it in its entirety. I have to say that it’s a polite letter, but ends with a demand—absolutely proper in my view—that SJP and other groups be required to follow university policy on the conduct of demonstrations, and that deans be required to enforce that policy. This dean apparently did nothing, as detailed below.
Here’s that letter, and thanks to Ms. Ross and Ms. Elkin for allowing me to publish it:
An Open Letter to the University of Chicago’s Administration
On Thursday October 19th, we planned a gathering in support of Israel and the University’s Jewish and Israeli community members. With the ongoing war, we felt it was important to come together to stand with Israel. We planned to have several speakers, among them undergraduate and graduate students and our community’s spiritual leaders (Rabbi Yossi Brackman of Chabad, Hannah Auerbach of the Orthodox Union JLIC, and Rabbi Anna Levin-Rosen of Hillel). Our vision was to organize an event to bring all Jewish and pro-Israel students together, peacefully.
In preparation for the event, we booked the main quad circle through Student Centers from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. Though SJP had been protesting daily in the quad circle for the entirety of the week, we had no intention of asking them to leave. Despite the fact that we had reserved the space, we did not care to make any issue of their continued presence. We spoke to one of their student leaders at 10:00 am to inform him of our planned gathering at 12:00 pm. In our conversation, he assured us that he would discourage anyone on the quad with SJP from interfering with our event. Additionally, we reached out to Chris Burpee, director of Student Centers, beforehand to ensure that our reservation would be enforced given the possibility of SJP trying to demonstrate in the same space.
Even after all of our preparation, including a civil discussion with members of SJP prior to the event and a reservation for the space, SJP and others protesting with them completely disrupted our event. They encroached on our gathering in the main quad circle and used their megaphone to lead chants, drowning out our student and faculty speakers. SJP created a hostile environment for our community, and obstructed our authorized use of a University space as well as our freedom of speech.
We were further shocked and disappointed by the University’s failure to uphold its own policies. We spoke to Dean-on-Call Shevy Booze as the rally was escalating, and she made clear that her presence at the event fulfilled her responsibilities in this capacity. Speaking as though she was reading from a script, she told us that University policy required her to inform members of SJP of their violation. She said she would do this, and nothing else, because she was not the one charged with enforcing the policies. According to the Protests and Demonstrations Policy, the role of Deans-on-Call is as follows: “In instances of disruptive behavior or violations of University policies, the Dean-on-Call will respond and provide direct instructions to stop disruption, if it is safe to do so.” Ms. Booze and the other Deans-on-Call failed to provide us or anyone with direct instructions to stop disruption.
Furthermore, many students thought that Ms. Booze was in fact protesting with SJP. She stood amongst members of SJP, dressed from head to toe in the colors of the Palestinian flag. Additionally, her name tag was hidden behind the lapel of her coat, making it nearly impossible to identify her as any member of University staff or Dean-on-Call. Taken together, all of this portrayed strong partisanship, which is impermissible from an on-duty University official. Ms. Booze not only showed a clear bias toward a specific RSO, but she actively turned a blind eye to SJP’s violation of University policy and turned her back on at least half of the students in attendance. This is completely unacceptable.
The other Deans-on-Call present informed us that UCPD [the University of Chicago Police Department] are the only ones authorized to enforce the policies. After some time, UCPD arrived. However, they did nothing to uphold the policies because they had not been authorized to do so. Chris Burpee, with whom we corresponded in order to book the space, was also in attendance but unable to intervene. It is unclear to us why none of the present members of University staff or administration enforced University policy to protect our group; the fact that this was allowed to happen at all is appalling.
SJP has violated the Chicago Principles and the Protests and Demonstrations Policy. According to University Statute 21, SJP’s actions qualified as disruptive conduct. Furthermore, SJP obstructed our freedom of speech, yet University officials have done nothing to address this misconduct.
Outside of our disrupted event, SJP has repeatedly violated the noise level policy in their demonstrations. From 10:00 am to 3:00 pm every weekday beginning on October 16th, SJP has been protesting in the main quad circle or “occupying the quad” (without booking the space for a demonstration) and chanting from a megaphone. Per the policy, loud noise is only permitted on the main quad between 12:00 pm and 1:00 pm and after 5:00 pm. SJP’s chants can be heard through classroom windows all day, in clear violation of the noise level policy. The University has done nothing to address this misconduct. [JAC: This appears to be a deliberate failure to enforce University regulations.]
According to the Chicago Principles, the University “has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” Why hasn’t the University upheld its policies on free speech and disruptive conduct? Why hasn’t SJP been subject to disciplinary measures for breaking University policy?
We demand action to rectify the events of last week and to prevent this from happening in the future. We implore the administration to address SJP’s many violations of University policy and pursue disciplinary action, as per said policy. Lastly, we look to you, the leaders of our institution, to address the partisanship and inefficacy of University staff and administrators tasked with upholding UChicago’s own regulations.
Talia Elkin, Class of 2025
Eliza Ross, Class of 2024
+ more than 450 other signers
I should add that a group of faculty, including me, signed a separate letter to the administration about the rule-violating disruptions. On my part, the most reprehensible act of SJP (but one which is absolutely in character with the aggressive nature of that organization) was the shouting-down of the Jewish leaders’ speeches that resulted in drowning out their words. Almost as problematic was the failure of the University, in my view, to prevent a violation of the University speech regulations. According to the students, they did nothing to make SJP stop their disruption. Is it any wonder that the Jewish students here feel that they are unsupported?
Eventually, after the letters were sent from the faculty and from the group of pro-Israel students headed by Talia Elkin and Eliza Ross, the President of the University responded with a public statement (below), underlining the importance of allowing people to speak. I’ve bolded the important bit of President Alivisatos’s response to the University below (to go to it, click on the headline)
Dear Members of the University Community,
The Chicago Principles protect the voice of each and every member of our community, inviting all to listen and to engage in a collective dialogue. The sum of this dialogue, noisy and fraught though it may sometimes be, is a kind of gift that we offer to each other through our considered participation. I write to remind you that the inheritance of our university’s environment of free expression comes with serious responsibilities.
This is particularly true during times marked by intense disagreement when individuals in our community are experiencing profound grief and struggle. In moments such as these, the ability to speak freely across difference is more important than ever. At the University of Chicago, your voice is protected.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the gifts we are endowed is that we are called to approach even the most difficult conversations with humility, and to see the humanity in other persons with whom we may disagree very deeply. No human being is just a symbol, and I hope that you will be skeptical of any call to objectify persons as merely an expression of a concept. The University is a community dedicated to opening the door to seeing others with compassion and learning to reason together. The Chicago Principles keep the door open.
Ours is a culture built upon a fundamental commitment to place evidence, reason, logic, and rigor over authority, tradition, ideology, or dogma. The University can only achieve this vision when the questioning of ideas and opinions flourishes. As president, I honor the longstanding precedent that authority does not establish truth for the totality of the institution; rather, it is the imperative of individuals within the University to seek truth without being limited by authority. This institutional neutrality is essential to vesting freedom of speech in our faculty members and students.
In addition to the gifts of free inquiry and expression, together we have important responsibilities for practicing and protecting the University’s speech environment. In the classroom, faculty and instructors strive to develop in students the skills of reason, of learning how to know, not what to know, rather than seeking to impose an ideological view or limit the expression of student viewpoints. In this way, students become equipped with the intellectual resources to deconstruct and reject faulty ideas when exposed to them.
Protests and demonstrations are an essential part of our culture of free expression, and within the University are protected as essential venues for truth seeking. History is full of examples where protests have helped to shape new understanding in society, disrupting prior convention. Provided you are complying with the University policies on protest and demonstration, you may join in congress with others in protest and express your views.
In any venue, no member of our community may shout down or seek to prevent the protected expression of those with whom they disagree. You may not tear down a poster. You may not seek to intimidate or threaten another person, or prevent them from hearing an invited speaker. These are egregious offenses against our community. We have policies and processes for guiding community norms, reporting instances that require investigation, and disciplinary action when needed. Our Dean of Students in the University will share more about those policies and processes with students later today.
Our environment of free expression is a gift, and I urge each of you to honor and utilize our gifts responsibly so that we may all deepen our understanding.
So that is indeed a response, and a good one, though it fails to explain why the University didn’t do anything to stop SJP’s disruption described above. The statement is also a promise to use disciplinary action against those who violate the speech regulations. Did that happen to the SJP members who disrupted this gathering? Not that I know.
While the pro-Palestinian demonstrators who violated the speech rules appear to have gotten off for a while, eventually the University took action about later protests, permitting University police to arrest 26 protesting students—and two faculty members—who occupied the admissions office. (These students were members of members of the group UChicago United for Palestine, or UCUP.) We won’t know their names, but that’s not important. What is important is that University policy seems to prevent us from learning what punishments, if any, were levied by the University. Were the students expelled, given temporary leave, or punished in some lesser way? It’s vital that the nature of the punishments handed out by the University become public, for you can preserve freedom of speech only by deterring those who would disrupt it.
One recent development: the UCUP group appears to have given up sit-ins for the nonce and are now following around groups of prospective students and their parents, disrupting the “prospie” (prospective student) tours of campus by telling them that the University of Chicago supports genocide. That tactic is legal, I suppose, but the administration, as well as the prospective students and their parents, can’t be happy about it. Who would want to send their kids to a school where they see such mishigass? And that, of course, is what UCUP wants—to put pressure on the administration. But it won’t work. Like out institutional neutrality policy, we also have a politically neutral investment policy.
A plaint, a few questions, and a comment.
While the administration did acknowledge receipt of the faculty letter we sent, what did the Jewish students get from the administration? Bupkes, I was told. There’s simply no reason that the administration couldn’t have responded to Elkin and Ross’s letter by saying at least, “We received your letter of XX. Thank you for your interest in our community and for contacting us.”
Of course we all got the President’s statement and pledge to enforce the speech regulations, but that leads to other questions, including “Will the students really be sanctioned by the University beyond their arrest, for is “criminal trespass to real property,” in Illinois a Class B misdemeanor? Why are the pro-Palestinian students so angry and aggressive compared to the pro-Israel students, most of whom are Jewish?
And a personal comment. For only the second time in my life have I felt distress about being Jewish (as I said, the only other time is when a group of kids beat me up in junior high because I was a “dirty Jew”). I’m not scared, but I’m concerned, and especially concerned for the Jewish students, who are frightened (see here for one example). Somehow the University has to create a climate in which Jewish students are not intimidated while at the same time preserving everybody’s right to free speech.
In the end, the administration should answer the students’ letter above, just to let them know that their narrative and feelings were at least received, read, and considered. And I expect the University of Chicago to strictly enforce the rules governing speech, including not disrupting classes with loud chants or megaphones, not sitting in buildings, not blocking access to buildings, not ripping down posters, and not shouting down others trying to exercise their freedom of speech.
I wanted to put the students’ letter above on the record, because it doesn’t seem to appear anywhere else. Thanks to Ms. Ross and Ms. Elkin, who took the time to express their feelings civilly, allowed me to share them, and yet have still gotten no response from our administration that their feelings were heard, much less considered.