More than a year since the public became aware of the situation at Northeastern University (NEU), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of New England has written privately to university President Joseph Aoun, urging him to investigate reports of anti-Semitism on his campus – including complaints that NEU Professors intimidate and bully students who express support for Israel.
In their letter, ADL Board Chairman Jeff Robbins and N.E. Regional Director Robert Trestan cited a detailed report compiled by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) that was based on extensive interviews with Jewish students at Northeastern. My organization, Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), originally brought the situation at NEU to light with a series of op-eds in The Advocate and a video-based campaign, informed by student complaints.
The ZOA report reveals a vast institutionalized bias at NEU. It includes disturbing, painful descriptions by students of openly anti-Semitic lectures and about the treatment students receive when they respectfully challenge Northeastern professors whose lessons seem more like unalloyed Palestinian talking points than scholarly investigations of the Arab Israeli conflict.
To some Jewish students, it might sometimes seem that no one on campus comes to their defense. Examples and incidents abound. The students describe how the administration vigorously promoted a campus-wide talk by former Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa, who is well known (or asily discoverable on Google) as a vicious anti-Semite, homophobe and misogynist. Mufti Gomaa told his Northeastern audience that Judaism oppresses women and that Israelis slaughter babies. Jewish students were doubly shocked when they discovered that Northeastern Provost Stephen Director, instead of rebuking Gomaa, thanked him in a public letter for his "thoughtful" presentation.
Professor Denis Sullivan, whom ZOA identifies as a chief anti-Israel ideologue on campus, had arranged the talk. For years, Sullivan has been the Director of the Middle East Center at Northeastern, where he propagandized against Israel with his biased curriculum that included reading lists, guest lecturers and films designed to demonize Israel and its Jewish and Christian supporters. Jewish community members who see Sullivan's lectures against Israel are shocked and angry. Yet surprisingly, Sullivan – the man the ZOA says who most bullies and intimidates Jewish students at NEU – has been befriended by some Jewish faculty there and was even invited to be a faculty member in the Jewish Studies Department.
Lori Lefkowitz, head of Jewish Studies, had been a defender of Sullivan, and Sullivan was even invited to lecture to the Jewish community at her husband's synagogue. According to the ZOA report, Sullivan told a Jewish student to rewrite a paper in which she challenged his positive view of Hamas. He told her that her sources were not sufficient and threatened to give her a bad grade. She did not rewrite her paper. She got a bad grade. Yet a Jewish lecturer at NEU, who was formerly the head of Boston's American Jewish Committee, publicly defends Sullivan to this day.
The ZOA reports that a Jewish girl, taking a seminar in the role of religion in the Middle East proposed to write a paper on how schools in Turkey, under the Islamist leader Erdogan, were reversing generations of secularism and now basing much of public education on Islamic teachings. The Professor, Turkish-born Berna Turam, berated the Jewish girl in the class, calling her "Rachel" (not her name) several times throughout the semester – despite multiple corrections. The students compared this to a racist teacher calling a black student "Leroy." At one point, her co-op advisor told her to leave the class and take shelter in his office because Turam would not stop yelling at her. The girl feels she cannot wear her Star of David necklace on campus.
Under the guise of academic freedom and free speech, and with the approval of NEU's administrators, some of Northeastern's professors feel free to peddle the most discredited and fringe anti-Semitic theories. For example, Economics Professor Shahid Alam promotes the anti-Semitic myth that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of the Turkic Khazar people, not of the ancient Hebrews. Because they are not a Semitic people, they have no right to a homeland in Israel – which should belong to true-blooded Semites like the Palestinians (who, by the way, include Muslims from Arabia, North Africa and the Balkans). This myth is extremely popular among the neo- Nazi movement that believes in "blut und boden," the Nazi racist concept of "blood and soil." When Alam told students that they should be proud to be called anti- Semites, Michael Armani, Senior Vice President for External Affairs (and himself a Jew) justified this as an exercise in "academic freedom." Armani tried (unsuccessfully) to block our screening of "Northeastern Unbecoming" to the Jewish community on the North Shore.
After years of being promoted by its faculty, anti-Israelism taught at NEU has caught on. A main source of anti-Semitism among students today is the university's Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. When WBZ reported on anti-Semitism at Northeastern last week, several SJP leaders took to social media to trash the report and link it online. Soon, the online article became inundated with comments like "Jews are the most evil group to exist and deserve to be exterminated once and for all," "Throw them into the ovens," "Clearly, you are a Joo and you need a shower" and "Holocaust: the biggest lie of the century." Writing to a fellow anti-Israel activist on Facebook, Northeastern Law School graduate and Bostonbased attorney Andrew Pappone reacted by saying that "at least the commenters on the article seem to be on the right side so far."
The response to offenses against Jews and Judaism by administration officials has been shamefully inadequate. After the third attack on Northeastern's Chanukah menorah in as many years, President Aoun denounced the act euphemistically, condemning "prejudice" in general; but he never described the attacks for what they are: anti-Semitic. But when it comes to other minority groups, President Aoun pulls no punches. After someone left a racist comment on the answering machine of a black Professor at NEU, President Aoun rightly condemned the incident as racist.
Meanwhile, complaints by Jewish students are treated dismissively by NEU officials: Dean Uta G. Poiger publicly embarrassed a Jewish student who explained – at a meeting specifically called to build civility on campus – that Jewish students had been harassed and ridiculed on campus. A student who met with the administration seeking support and change to the hostile environment was told that Northeastern's new kosher kitchen and increased police security outside the Hillel building were constructive steps. Imagine! Instead of dealing with the incitement, the school touts its failure by admitting the need for increased security for Jewish groups – which s not requ red for any other groups on campus.
It has been years now and the complaints of Jewish students at NEU have generated no public action by mainstream Jewish groups. We hope the ADL letter, and the TV appearance by an ADL official, mark a turning point. It is clearly time for the Jewish community to come together and with a coordinated effort support the students.
Boston's Jewish leaders should put aside differences and parochial interests, and instead work together to change the situation at Northeastern. There is something for every Jewish group to do: We need to educate and organize our Rabbis and our professionals … lawyers, doctors, businessmen.
A united Jewish community must call for an end to unequal treatment of Jewish students. Everyone knows what would happen at NEU if one black, or gay, or female student feared to give any indication of his or her affiliation. Can you imagine if a Muslim religious symbol were harmed? We should demand that Jewish students be treated equally – as any other group. The same should apply to the world's only Jewish state, which should be treated the way other countries are presented: with academic integrity. Singling out the only Jewish state for actions committed by most nationstates is a kind of racial profiling that cannot be tolerated.
APT has serious concerns about the university's ability to conduct an unbiased investigation. Experience has shown that the university faces enormous pressure from powerful interest groups, which are not reluctant to press for their own interests – faculty, leftist activists, so-called "human rights" groups, anti-Israel groups, radical Muslim groups on campus – all of which assertively promote and defend the politicizing of the campus against the Jewish State. My organization also has no faith that Aoun, who has been silent on anti-Semitism on his campus – will vigorously investigate his own institution.
The Jewish community must now stand in solidarity with our students.
Charles Jacobs is President of Americans for Peace and Tolerance (www.peaceandtolerance.com).