Jewish Students Unsure Of Next Steps After Meeting With UMN Administration

A day after anti-Israel students met with University of Minnesota administrators with a list of demands for taking down their tents on Northrup Mall, a group of Jewish student leaders had their turn Thursday morning – but are still unclear what concrete concessions they got from the University. 

Students representing Minnesota Hillel, Chabad, and Jewish fraternities Alpha Epsilon Pi and Sigma Alpha Mu, met with Interim President Jeff Ettinger, Provost Rachel Croson, Vice President Mercedes Ramirez Fernandez, Dean of Students Katie Jackson, and General Counsel Doug Peterson. 

Several of the students, as well staff from Hillel and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas spoke at a press conference Thursday at Minnesota Hillel. In the meeting, the students said they laid out many concerns, particularly about the language used both in speech and graffiti that had been chalked repeatedly on campus.

“While our concerns were certainly heard, and they empathized with us there was not a whole lot of action steps going forward in that specific regard because, well, I guess I actually don’t know why,” said Alex Stewart, a junior at the university and the student president of Minnesota Hillel. “The university also has free speech and can make statements condemning all of these things being said, and basically the response was, that’s not how public university works.”

Several questions directed to the University of Minnesota were not answered.

Halle Wasserman, a sophomore at the U and an incoming vice president at Chabad on campus, said part of the conversation was about how it’s a thin line between freedom of speech and hate speech.

“How do we go from there and make sure that the campus is a place where all students feel welcome, and that they shouldn’t have to hide their identity or their religion?” she said. 

The language Stewart talked about included “Glory to the Resistance” and “globalize the intifada. The Arabic word Intifada translates to “uprising” or “shaking off, and has been used to describe periods of Palestinian protest against Israel, mainly in the form of violent terrorism. The First Intifada from 1987-1990 and the Second Intifada from 2000-05. 

“If one was to read through [the letter to the university community from Ettinger], as well as the agreement, it certainly takes on a tone not consistent with an administration that should be concerned about the harrowing messaging coming from the encampment,” said Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Hunegs and his deputy, Ethan Roberts, both called out one of the six points in the agreement with the protesters: thawabit. Thawabit is often referred to as “Palestinian red lines,” one of which is a right of resistance by all means available, Hunegs said.

“That line reads terrorism and October 7,” Hunegs said.

Chalk reading "Victory To Al-Aqsa Flood" on the sidewalk on Northrup Mall on the University of Minnesota campus. Al-Aqsa Flood is what Hamas called the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Chalk reading “Victory To Al-Aqsa Flood” on the sidewalk on Northrup Mall on the University of Minnesota campus. Al-Aqsa Flood is what Hamas called the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Roberts mentioned the chalk that had covered Coffman Union that had praised Hamas, which is an acronym for Islamic resistance, and praised the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), a terrorist organization. He said it was important for the university to clarify that they opposed armed resistance.

“The university is good at removing graffiti and so is the rain,” he said. “And then they enshrine armed resistance in the agreement to end the illegal encampment. What is going on here? So since they have put that in the documents, they need to clarify whatever statement they make,”

Part of the statement which was emailed to the community shortly after 7 a.m. Thursday, said: “Conversations are still planned with other student groups affected by the painful situation in Palestine.” Israel was not mentioned in the letter.

“Was that part of the negotiations with the students said that they only use the word Palestine? If they had said the word Israel would they still be on the lawn right now? This is outrageous. The community is outraged,” he said. “Are we going to have an encampment again, if President Ettinger would acknowledge antisemitism? Is that what they’re concerned about?

“It is very difficult to be a leader in this community when you follow the rules. And when the rules are broken? You get what you want. What kind of incentives are we setting up for the future?”

Roberts continued with pointed criticism of the school.

“You would have thought that the least they could do is say ‘Yeah, of course you can speak before the Board of Regents. Of course we will also agree to some concrete steps of action.’” Roberts said. “Apparently, the store was given away to get them off the lawn in time for graduation. It is shocking.”

At around 10:30 Thursday morning, the encampment on the Northrup Mall close to the Northrup Auditorium had covered a small portion of the lawn the tents, and the sidewalks and buildings,  when dry, with chalked graffiti. More than a dozen buildings have been closed since 2 p.m. Monday, April 29, and they reopened at noon Thursday. Part of the school’s concessions was to allow the protesters to speak at the May 10 Regents meeting to make their case for divestment from Israel.

“I appreciate that the disruption is gone,” Stewart said. “I don’t appreciate that they are getting rewarded for it.”

Finals at the school started Thursday, and senior Izzy Lundquist, Hillel’s vice president for external relations, said that after graduating from high school in her living room because of COVID, she was happy graduation was moving forward. But this last week was not what she hoped for.

“It’s not been a fun week. This is not how I expected my last week of college to pan out,” she said. “But it has been made so much easier by the incredible community that we have here. And I’m so thankful every day for these people.” 

Regardless of the outcome, Minnesota Hillel Executive Director Benjie Kaplan was proud of the students who met with the administration.

“[They took] a course of action that was productive, that was seeking opportunities for education and improvement of the campus climate for all, I think is to be commended,” Kaplan said. “[Especially] When we see other groups going strictly to ask for things that are good for themselves.”