CHAMPAIGN — A student government resolution distinguishing anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism, and chiding administrators for failing to prevent bigotry on campus, prompted a mass protest and vigil at the University of Illinois.
About 600 supporters and opponents of the resolution packed the Illinois Student Government meeting for Wednesday night's vote, which had been moved from the Illini Union to a larger space at the Activities and Recreation Center to accommodate the crowd.
The amended resolution, approved on a 29-4 vote with four abstentions, calls on Chancellor Robert Jones to retract part of an Oct. 9 mass email on anti-Semitism — including a section citing concerns about "anti-Semitic content" at a controversial housing presentation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The resolution condemns anti-Semitism, including swastikas cited in Jones' email. But it also condemns the chancellor for conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, or opposition to a Jewish state.
Sponsor Bugra Sahin said conflating the two terms is dangerous for groups that oppose anti-Semitism but have a First Amendment right to criticize the state of Israel.
"Criticism of a state is not anti its people, or religion, or ethnicity," he said.
Pro-Israel student organizations and leaders of Jewish cultural centers had complained that the sponsors did not work with the Jewish campus community on the resolution or its definition of anti-Semitism.
"Only the Jewish people have the right to define antisemitism," Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel of Illini Chabad and Illini Hillel Executive Director Ezra Cohen wrote in an email expressing solidarity with students who protested the vote.
The resolution's authors said they did consult with some Jewish students and at least one Jewish group before drafting it.
Co-author Bugra Sahin said the group "reached out to many more" this past week, including Jewish students in leadership positions in mainstream Jewish organizations and Zionist Jewish students.
Almost all of them supported the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and expressed "no concern" over the resolution's primary message — to condemn "the dangerous conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism" and the administration's failure to take action to prevent "actual racism on campus," he said, including swastikas, racial slurs, a Holocaust denier on the Quad and references to pro-Palestinian students as terrorists.
A committee meeting to review the measure was also moved from Monday night to Wednesday night to avoid a Jewish holiday, he said. It was approved by the committee with at least four Jewish students present, he said.
The resolution took its definition for both terms from the Oxford English dictionary, Sahin said. Pro-Israel groups prefer a much broader definition for anti-Semitism.
"The resolution was not aiming to nor trying to define anti-Semitism, which can be felt by different Jewish students in various ways," he said.
The two sides disagree about whether the housing presentation itself was anti-Semitic. The chancellor has said that a student giving it equated all Israelis with terrorists.
Student leaders said 300 to 400 Jewish students and supporters attended Wednesday's meeting, some carrying an Israeli flag, along with at least 250 people supporting the resolution. Some people had to wait outside because the room was full, said Illinois Student Government President Connor Josellis.
UI student Lauren Nesher, president of the pro-Israel IlliniPAC, spoke for the protesters, reiterating their view that it's not right for one group to "define what makes another marginalized group on campus feel unsafe," said student senator Ian Katsnelson, who is on IlliniPAC's executive board. The students then left en masse before the vote to protest the fact that they were "not included in the conversation."
Others spoke in favor of the resolution, which was supported by a more than a dozen student organizations, Jewish Voices for Peace and faculty from Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, Sahin said.
The Jewish students held a candlelight vigil on the Ikenberry quadrangle "in remembrance of all the victims globally of anti-Semitism," Katsnelson said, with speeches and a reading of names of recent victims, including those killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting a year ago.
"Our message was delivered," Katsnelson said. "We stood in solidarity as a Jewish community to show that we were not being heard, and that Jewish voices definitely need to be consulted in regards to anti-Semitism on campus."
Sahin said the protests didn't reflect what the resolution was about — namely, creating "a safe environment for all students with a variety of political ideologies."
"Painting anti-Zionism with such a broad brush of anti-Semitism does the exact opposite by putting the Palestinian students who share their experiences in danger and trivializes the emerging and violent anti-Semitism worldwide," Sahin said.
Josellis said it was important to hear all viewpoints and further dialogue with the chancellor and students on both sides is crucial.
"It's clear both sides are incredibly passionate," he said. "Hopefully. we can really point that energy to a thoughtful dialogue and at the end of the day, we can get to some sort of understanding of where each side is coming from."