Syracuse University in New York responded on Tuesday to reports that students might receive credits for interning with a local organization that promotes boycotts of Israel, saying the arrangement did not imply that the university endorsed the group.
The controversy surrounding the Syracuse Peace Council (SPC) emerged after an SU student, Justine Murray, attended an off-campus event it hosted last month, in which some SPC members claimed that the US-designated Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas did "a lot of good"; denounced Zionism, a diverse movement that supports the Jewish people's right to national self-determination, as racism; and claimed that fighting such "a racist ideology and sometimes with violence might be the answer for some people."
The SPC — listed as one of 14 "internship sites" available to SU students majoring in Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition, each of which offers three credits and a letter grade — has also endorsed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The movement says it seeks to redefine Israel "as a pariah state" until it complies with international law, while critics — including major Jewish groups in the United States and globally — denounce it as discriminatory in its tactics and objectives.
Michele Wheatly, SU provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, reaffirmed the school's rejection of boycotts targeting Israeli academia in a statement on Tuesday, and acknowledged that "inflammatory comments about Israel and Palestinian groups were made by several speakers" at the SPC event, which was not sponsored by the university.
"According to our records, no Syracuse University students are currently interns with this organization and only two students have completed internships with the Syracuse Peace Council, the most recent in 2014," Wheatly stated.
She reiterated the university's anti-discrimination policies, which reject antisemitism and discrimination based on national origin or political affiliation, and the school's support for "the principle of academic freedom."
"[Students] may choose to participate in internships at private and nonprofit organizations that advocate for many different points of view," she added. "Providing credit for experiential learning does not imply that the University endorses any organization outside of its ability to provide an internship, but we support the desire to seek new knowledge and create perspectives based on scholarship and research."
Miriam Elman — associate professor of political science at SU and the new executive director of the anti-BDS Academic Engagement Network, who has called on the university to cease granting credits to students interning with the SPC — appalauded the provost for condeming the group's offensive speech and rejecting the academic boycott while underscoring the school's commitment to free inquiry.
"But it is disappointing that the statement stopped short of characterizing the inflammatory comments of SPC members and speakers for what they were — specific expressions of antisemitism," she told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. "The statement also implies that student internships with the SPC happened only in the past. Yet, as recently as last semester, there was at least one student who interned with the organization as part of a three-credit course. Based on this statement, its unclear whether these internships will be discontinued."
Separately on Wednesday, the Syracuse chapter of the Jewish campus group Hillel said it was "deeply concerned" by news that the SPC "made anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements at an event they sponsored in the Syracuse community."
"Comments related to using violence against those who identify as Zionists and delegitimizing Israel's right to exist because 'Jewish people can live anywhere' is not only an erasure of thousands of years of anti-Semitism and persecution, but contributes to an environment where Jewish and pro-Israel students do not feel safe or welcome on campus," Hillel warned.
The group said it was "working closely" with university leaders to ensure that Jewish and pro-Israel students felt safe and supported.
"Jewish life on campus is strong and vibrant," Hillel asserted. "Jewish students should not have to hide their identity in the classroom or fear inequitable treatment."
A representative for SU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.