UVA Needs an Antisemitism Task Force, Not a Religious Diversity Task Force

We publish here a January 5 letter from 29 parents of Jewish students at the University of Virginia to Provost Ian Baucom followed by his response. — JAB

Dear Provost Baucom,

In light of the 337% increase in antisemitism in the United States since October 7, 2023, numerous universities have formed dedicated antisemitism task forces to reduce antisemitism on their campuses. For example, Harvard, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Indiana University and University of Maryland have all established task forces or committees to combat antisemitism. NYU created a Center for the Study of Antisemitism. Those institutions join other universities that already had programs in place to address antisemitism.

Given those initiatives at other universities, and the rise of unaddressed antisemitic acts on Grounds, we were initially relieved to hear that UVA had likewise created a task force to address the current campus climate. We are disappointed to learn, however, that the focus of the task force is not aimed at addressing antisemitism but rather to “examine religious diversity and belonging.” The announcement of the initiative included a vague acknowledgement of Jewish hate on Grounds. It did not state that an objective of the initiative is rooting out antisemitism at UVA. Even worse, the entity states it will not have any recommendations until the end of the academic year. There is pervasive antisemitism on Grounds now; therefore, recommended actions are needed now.

The current hostile climate for Jewish students on Grounds necessitates that UVA establish a task force dedicated to addressing antisemitism, similar to the Black Lives Matter movement that brought to light problems specific to that community. Just as the “All Lives Matter” counter-movement invalidates the urgent issues facing the Black community, a task force that spans religious diversity generally cannot meaningfully and adequately address the tremendous problem of anti-Jewish bias, bigotry, and hatred at UVA.

Even more alarming, the announced task force includes two patently divisive participants. Both Professors Nichole Flores and Oludamini Ogunnaike signed an open letter dated October 27, 2023.  That letter asserts that Hamas’s barbaric assault, rape, torture, kidnapping, and murder of some 1,200 Israeli civilians (the majority of whom are Jews) needs to be viewed “in the context in which Oct 7 occurred.” Professor Ogunnaike signed a Daily Progress letter to the editor dated November 22, 2023 that stated that alleging antisemitism is a “political ploy”. Those are not the expressions of individuals who, according to UVA’s announcement, can participate in “meaningful engagement.” We do not understand why those individuals were considered reasonable choices.

The name (and ostensible focus) of the task force, along with the selection of such individuals as members, suggests there is a gap in the administration’s understanding of: (1) the scope of Jewish identity (including the connection between Jewish identity and the ancestral Jewish homeland of Israel); (2) the various forms that attacks against that identity (i.e., antisemitism) can take; and (3) the urgent need for an initiative that is laser-focused on addressing the anti-Jewish climate that is growing on Grounds.

Indeed, Jewish hate incidents on Grounds continue to occur. In direct contravention of state law, students wear masks to intentionally obscure their identities while they harass and intimidate Jewish members of the campus community, chanting for the ethnic cleansing and annihilation of Jews. A University-funded student group whitewashes the atrocities of the rapists, torturers, and murderers that target Jewish civilians and attempts to justify their actions by calling them “resistance fighters.” Professors Tessa Farmer and Fahad Bishara organized a ‘Teach-In’ that took place in a university lecture hall, where one speaker said, with regard to the atrocities of October 7, 2023, “You can debate the morality of it blah blah blah.” Professor Bishara, in response to a comment that the ‘Teach-in’ was one-sided, said at the event, “I never said that any of us had to be academic.” Posters properly posted at the law school bringing attention to Jewish hostages abducted by rapists, torturers, and murderers were ripped down by a UVA student who, to our understanding based on an email from the administration, received nothing more than a lecture for such conduct even though it blatantly violated campus policies. Jewish students have told us that they are afraid to report antisemitic incidents on Grounds because they fear they will be directly targeted if they speak up. Permitting members of the campus community to harass and intimidate Jewish students with such hate and prejudice is inexcusable on an American university campus.

Other universities are identifying antisemitism unambiguously and fighting it now. Penn’s task force is specific to antisemitism. University of Pennsylvania stated that it “cannot and will not be a comfortable or uncontested space for antisemitism.” The Columbia task force is also dedicated expressly to fighting antisemitism:  “The Columbia Task Force on Antisemitism was created . . . to address the harmful impact of rising antisemitism on Columbia’s Jewish community and to ensure that protection, respect, and belonging extends to everyone.” Harvard explicitly states its task force was created “to combat antisemitism in our community,” “will develop a robust strategy for confronting antisemitism on campus,” and “will implement a robust program of education and training for students, faculty, and staff on antisemitism broadly and at Harvard.” The antisemitism that exists on Grounds necessitates equally decisive treatment.

We hope you will create a dedicated task force, with qualified, unbiased members, to combat antisemitism at UVA. We believe that step is essential to uphold President Ryan’s commitment to make all students feel they belong regardless of religious faith.

Sincerely,

Names of signatories withheld by request.


Dear Ms. Pearl,

Thank you for reaching out to me with your concerns about the University’s task force on religious diversity and belonging that was announced last month. While the task force is not focusing exclusively on antisemitism, that issue is central to its work. We take antisemitism very seriously at UVA and will not tolerate it in our community.

In charging the group at its initial meeting, I explicitly instructed members to assess the record of reports of antisemitic incidents and incidents of other kinds of religious bigotry at the University dating back to at least 2017 and to develop recommendations for institutional follow up based on what they learn. I also asked them to assess the University’s engagement with the leaders of Jewish, Muslim, and other religious communities and recommend how we can deepen those relationships, and to examine our educational offerings on minoritized religions, including the history and impact of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of religious bigotry. The group will provide recommendations about how to strengthen those opportunities and offerings, as well as other recommendations for curbing ignorance and fostering respect for the full spectrum of religious faiths and backgrounds at UVA.

In giving the task force those charges we are rededicating the University to supporting all the students and members of our community, across every religious affiliation, consistent with our core values and with Governor Youngkin’s call that we all recommit ourselves to the fundamental truth that “hatred, intolerance, and antisemitism have no place in Virginia.” As we know from Thomas Jefferson’s crucial work as the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and as Governor Youngkin has further reminded us: “Virginia is the birthplace of the freedom of religion in America, and protecting the community centers and houses of worship of the Jewish people is paramount. But this commitment extends to all religions, including those of the Muslim faith, who are increasingly concerned about backlash.” President Ryan, I, and all UVA’s leadership entirely agree and are committed to doing everything in our power to honoring those truths, and to safeguarding all our students and members of the UVA community.

As I hope you are aware, the task force includes Rabbi Jake Rubin, who has been a trusted advisor for the Jewish student community at UVA in his role as executive director of the Brody Jewish Center. Though he is taking on a new role with Hillel’s national organization, Rabbi Jake has generously offered to remain an active member of the task force as he transitions to his new job and to help us make connections with others from UVA’s Jewish community. Other task force members include Jewish faculty and students and those who bring varied expertise and experience to the work. Professor Ogunnaike serves as a faculty advisor to the Muslim Students Association (there is currently no Imam in Charlottesville) and Professor Flores is an expert on the experience of minoritized religious groups, particularly Catholic/Latinx communities. Their inclusion on the task force is intended to help the group explore issues of religious diversity and belonging holistically, without diluting the focus on pressing issues that have become more urgent since the brutal Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza and the broader region.

Dean Acampora is leading the group and will convene them regularly throughout the spring semester. We are prepared to act on any urgent recommendations from the group while also giving them the time they need to complete their charge and make longer-term recommendations. This is a high priority for President Ryan, for me, and for the entire University leadership team, and we will work closely with Dean Acampora as the group’s work progresses.

Even one incident of antisemitism is too many, and we encourage students to report any incidents through our confidential Just Report It system. Several of us on the University leadership team including President Ryan have been meeting with Jewish and Muslim students to talk about their experiences on Grounds since early October, and these students have not indicated that there are unreported incidents among their friend groups. Still, we understand the concern that some may be hesitant to come forward. We will continue to find ways to meaningfully engage with Jewish and Muslim students, and to respond to all matters brought to our attention while the task force develops recommendations for enhancing the experience of Jewish and Muslim students, faculty, and staff, and those of other religious faiths and backgrounds at UVA.

While we critically examine the University through these lenses, we will also continue to learn from others outside the UVA community. Antisemitism is not isolated to our Grounds, and we must learn from what we see elsewhere. In late December, Brandeis University’s Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies released a report called In the Shadow of War: Hotspots of Antisemitism on US College Campuses. I just received it and will read it carefully, as will other University leaders. The findings in the report (attached) are based on survey data about perceptions of antisemitism that were collected from approximately 2,000 Jewish undergraduate students at schools with significant Jewish populations after October 7. While it is heartening to see in the report that UVA did not fall into the groups of institutions with the highest or even above-average perception of antisemitic hostility since that time (according to the study, UVA fell in the “below average” measure of the student-respondent’s perception of antisemitic hostility) we will not tolerate antisemitism at any level on our Grounds. We will continue to work to foster a welcoming culture in which every member of our community both understands and feels how much we value their presence and contributions.

Thank you again for writing and for your concern for our students.

Sincerely,

Ian Baucom

Provost

1 2 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

2 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jen Hans
Jen Hans
1 month ago

George Soros who wants America to be communist would love this! Soros is behind it he porn in the schools. And of course there would never be hostility towards Christian’s