Campus Antisemitism Front & Center In State Senate Hearing

There were few flashpoints in Tuesday’s Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee informational hearing on antisemitism and anti-Israel incidents at the University of Minnesota in the nearly nine months since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel. But one occurred right after the short recess midway through the hearing. 

Sen. Ron Latz, the committee chairman who called the hearing, and Jewish Community Action Executive Director Beth Gendler had a lengthy back-and-forth that provided few satisfactory answers for the senators.

“The issues that are taking place on the University of Minnesota campus is not only a Jewish issue, and to characterize it in that way to exceptionalize my community, our Jewish community in that way, actually makes us all less safe,” she said in her remarks. Gendler said that JCA doesn’t have an education portfolio, but the group works extensively on community safety, combatting hate, religious freedom, and pro-democracy work. In that lens, she said it was important to speak. 

“I am deeply troubled by assertions that one organization is the consensus voice in the community,” she said. “I would encourage suspicion when any part of any one thing claims to stand for the whole. So my ask to you as we move forward today and into the future, is to include a much more diverse perspective of Minnesota voices in this conversation. Please do not accept the false assertion that there’s consensus within the Jewish community on these complicated topics.”

Latz cited a recent American Jewish Committee poll in which 85% of American Jews said the statement “Israel has no right to exist” – the foundational core of anti-Zionism – is antisemitic. 

Jewish Community Action Executive Director Beth Gendler at a Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on June 25, 2024 (Lonny Goldsmith/TC Jewfolk).

Jewish Community Action Executive Director Beth Gendler at a Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on June 25, 2024 (Lonny Goldsmith/TC Jewfolk).

“I don’t think that there is actually a definition of Zionism, or anti-Zionism, that we can all agree on. Definitions are problematic when they are incorporated into policy,” Gendler said. “As an organization, I am not prepared to offer a definitive definition of what is or isn’t Zionism or anti-Zionism or how that how that interplays.

Gendler said she had no response to several follow-up questions from Latz, asking if JCA had an organizational position on Israel as a Jewish nation-state with a right to self-determination, the calls for the extermination of the State of Israel present at the protests on the University campus, or the content of speech at university protests that called for Intifada. Gendler said JCA “thoroughly condemned [the] act of violence” that was the shooting out the windows at Minnesota Hillel. The testimony can be seen online.

Several times, Gendler said that JCA did not take positions on international affairs, and the organization’s statement after the Oct. 7 attack was the first time it had made one.

“It was a departure for us,” she said. “We have been very clear that our mission is to organize locally, including and especially around constitutional rights and freedoms, which is why it’s important for us to promote the freedom of speech and the right to protest, even when as individual humans – as individual Jews – that are members of our organization and staff members that takes wildly diverse personal positions on international affairs.”

Previous run-in

This isn’t the first time since the Oct. 7 attacks that Latz and Gendler – two Jewish leaders in the Twin Cities – were on the opposite sides of an issue around this topic. 

At a November press conference arranged by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, Latz said: “Palestinian youth dream of the opportunity to achieve glory and even martyrdom by killing as many Jews as possible. Is it any wonder that these same children grow up and call their parents after slaughtering innocent concert-goers in a desert to brag about killing 10 Jews saying ‘Mama aren’t you proud of me?’ Who use rape as a weapon of war? Who gleefully paraded the naked body of a desecrated captive Jewish woman through the streets of Gaza, while the Gaza crowds cheered and spit on the body? We know all this from their own recordings.”

His comments drew a rebuke from a dozen of his fellow DFL senators. In a letter, they criticized Latz for using “dehumanizing, inflammatory, language, and rhetoric in his remarks about Palestinians. He recited a litany of hateful, prejudicial and demonstrably false claims, describing Gaza, as poisonous and asserting, that Palestinian youth dream of the opportunity to achieve glory, and even martyrdom by killing as many Jews as possible.”

Latz in a statement at the time that it was “unfortunate” that his colleagues were attacking his speech “by taking one sentence of my remarks out of context.” 

“The six sentences proceeding the one they are criticizing make it clear that I am not referring to all Palestinian youth, but rather the Gazans who are taught at Hamas-controlled UNRWA schools that Jews should be killed, who attend summer camps the teach young kids how to be terrorists, who play ‘kill the Jew,’ on the streets of Gaza, who watched children’s TV shows that glorify the killing of Jews, and who play on UNRWA elementary school playgrounds with plastic AK-47s,” Latz’s statement read.

In a Dec. 1, 2023 email to the JCA membership, Gendler wrote: “We were dismayed to see a member of the Minnesota Senate use language that demonized children and families in Gaza, in the name of fighting antisemitism. This rhetoric does not protect anyone from hate. Instead, it breaks down trust within our communities, inflaming antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment.”

The JCRC said that many of Latz’s claims were “demonstrably true,” citing several examples of UNRWA schools teaching a Hamas-written curriculum, videos of children who seek martyrdom, students chanting for the death of Jews, and children congratulating relatives for martyrdom.

Farewell testimony

The Tuesday hearing featured 15 speakers and spanned more than four hours. In one of his final acts as interim president of the University of Minnesota, Jeff Ettinger spent nearly an hour reading prepared remarks and taking questions from the committee.

JCRC Executive Director Steve Hunegs with UMN Interim President Jeff Ettinger before a Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on June 25, 2024 (Lonny Goldsmith/TC Jewfolk).

JCRC Executive Director Steve Hunegs with UMN Interim President Jeff Ettinger before a Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on June 25, 2024 (Lonny Goldsmith/TC Jewfolk).

“Antisemitism has no place at the University of Minnesota,” Ettinger said at the start of his prepared remarks. “We stand against all forms of hate virus including antisemitism, Islamophobia or any other bias against individual identities. We know that despite all our efforts, our campuses are far from immune to concerns of antisemitism since the Oct. 7, 2023 attacks on Israel by Hamas and the subsequent response by Israel and Gaza we have seen a significant increase in political activity on college campuses nationwide.”

While things have been less chaotic on the Twin Cities campus than many campuses around the country, many in the community have been critical of how several flashpoints were handled by the school in the past nine months. Some of those incidents include: statements on Israel made by individual colleges, anti-Israel and antisemitic graffiti on campus, the student encampments, the hiring of – and the later reversal  – Raz Segal to be the head of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Ettinger pointed to the statement the school released after the Oct. 7 attacks, which he said is the university’s official position.

“As the university’s interim president, I have publicly condemned the horrific attacks by Hamas that is the public position of the university,” he said. “None of these statements represent the position of the university as an institution our Board of Regents policy on academic freedom, academic freedom and responsibility states that faculty and academic staff have the freedom to speak or write on matters of public concern, but they also have the responsibility to ensure that when they speak, they are clear they’re not speaking for the institution.”

After the Oct. 7 attacks, the Center for Jewish Studies, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, and the Department for Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies posted their statements. Soon after, the CJS removed their statement and the Department of American Indian Studies added a statement.

The GWSS released a statement on Oct. 13, saying in part that there are “unsubstantiated claims of ‘uncivilized’ violence.” The statement was amended on Nov. 20, yet left the line about unsubstantiated claims in, even as more information was coming to light about what took place.

Sima Shakhsari, a professor in the GWSS and a member of the UMN Educators for Justice in Palestine also testified at the hearing, reiterating several times that she was there as an individual not on behalf of her department. At one point she accused Latz of profiling her because she’s a Muslim. Latz bristled at the allegation.

“I listened to everything that you said, and I appreciate you being here to testify,” he said. “But to suggest I’m profiling as I’m challenging the consequences or the substance of some what I understood you to convey is not appropriate. It’s responsive to your testimony.”

Shakhsari, after a tense back and forth, acknowledged that she signed on as an individual professor and agreed with everything said in the statement. 

Aren Aizura, the chair of the GWSS, was not at the hearing, but Shakhsari referred to a letter that was part of the hearing materials. Aizura wrote that the GWSS “follow the lead of the majority of students at UMN, who are hearing a moral call to protest what they see as an unjust and devastating war.”

Encampment problems

Ettinger said that after the arrest of nine people for illegally setting up an encampment on Northrop Mall, stickers and graffiti, some of which promoted violence, were left behind by some of the protesters.

“[They] were concerning to many,” Ettinger said, confirming that they violated university and campus policies. “We worked promptly to remove these items, and the university unequivocally condemns vandalism particularly discriminatory vandalism and defacements.”

While the encampments are illegal, Ettinger said there were several priorities in not cracking down on them: the safety of the people on campus and members of law enforcement, the First Amendment right to protest, and adherence to the policy and laws of the state. 

“The University of Wisconsin went the other route: They initially utilized police to break up a large encampment effort,” Ettinger said. “It resulted in injuries to numerous law enforcement professionals and injuries to many of the protesters and other bystanders in the area. And then by the next day, the encampment was back up again and stayed up for the ensuing week and a half.”

Latz also said he was troubled by some of the language the school used in its statement after meeting with anti-Zionist groups in early May, particularly the use of the word “Thawabit”, which is often referred to as “Palestinian red lines,” one of which is a right of resistance by all means available.

“That was a mistake by our administration,” Ettinger said, due in part to the final version of the document having been completed at 5 a.m. “They were kind of characterized by the students as their demands. We looked at them as topics. I didn’t even know what that word meant, so clearly, to repeat that word in our communication back was a mistake by the administration.”

Oren Gross, the associate dean for academic affairs and the Irving Younger Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School said in his testimony that while he didn’t agree with all of the actions by the university leadership, he appreciated their efforts under difficult circumstances. But that didn’t stop him from making a damning statement about the state of life on campus.

Listen to “What Is Free Speech On Campus?” on Spreaker.

“The University of Minnesota is no longer a safe space for Jewish students, due to the rising tide of antisemitic acts and expressions on campus by faculty, staff, and students, some of whom are in this room today,” he said. “Intentional and concentrated work is required to return the university to the welcoming place it had been and to ensure that it lives to its full potential as a place of higher learning where all belong.”

Gross said that antisemitic incidents on campuses and elsewhere have risen exponentially since Oct. 7. 

“Free speech, academic freedom and critical exchange of ideas are at the core of the university’s mission and must be strongly protected,” he said. “At the same time, incitement to violence and true threats are not protected speech.”

JCA staffer Brandon Schorsch and UMN professor Sima Shakhsari in a Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on June 25, 2024 (Lonny Goldsmith/TC Jewfolk).

JCA staffer Brandon Schorsch and UMN professor Sima Shakhsari in a Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on June 25, 2024 (Lonny Goldsmith/TC Jewfolk).

Gross referred to chants that praised “the resistance,” and signs held at a rally on campus that read, “Intifada is revolution, is armed struggle; glory to the resistance.” 

Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the JCRC, said that supporting a “genocidal, antisemitic terrorist organization at the University of Minnesota is not an issue of academic freedom. Nor can the claim be made that Hamas is only anti-Zionist and not anti-Jewish.

Hunegs pointed out the original Hamas charter in 1988, which says “Our struggle against Jews is very great and serious,” and “Judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews and kill the Jews.”

Zach Fisher, a recent UMN Law School graduate and member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said that he doesn’t know anyone who is pro-Hamas.

“The idea that anyone is ‘pro-terrorism’ or ‘pro-Hamas’ is fundamentally, respectfully, insane,” he said. “I have not met a single person in my life, going to several protests since Oct. 7., that has said what Hamas militants did on Oct. 7 was good. There is no positive statements I have heard about that massacre because it was (a massacre). There is no one denying that.”

Jewish student stress increased

Also making a final public appearance in their current role, was outgoing Minnesota Hillel Executive Director Benjie Kaplan. He testified that Minnesota Hillel had an 80% increase in Jewish students accessing Hillel programming since Oct. 7.

“According to the University’s own statistics, one-third of all reported bias incidents over the past academic year involved antisemitic or anti-Israel conduct,” he said. “For context, Jews only comprise only about 1% of the undergraduate student population at the U.”

Kaplan said that the current issues on campus are not new; looking at the Minnesota Daily archives, anti-Israel groups first appeared on campus during the Second Intifada in 2001. In 2015, Kaplan read an email from Hillel’s student leaders to the school’s administrators that read, in part: 

“‘We understand that at any university, it is important to allow various viewpoints to be represented by various student groups in order to encourage intellectual growth and foster discussion. When a student group knowingly distributes false or unverified information in order to demonize others, they are no longer participating in an intellectual discussion; they are spreading hate and fear.’ 

“‘If our University community seeks to provide a safe environment for students that also maintains student’s rights to promote their worldviews, all student groups must behave appropriately. Incitement, hatred, and the spreading of fear must not be acceptable.’”

“This message is now almost a decade old,” Kaplan said. “These students saw what was coming this year from a mile away and were asking for help.”

Representing UMN Chabad, Stephanie Iskhakov, said that antisemitism is alive on well on campus, whether students experience it or not.

“Since October 7, of last year, it has become evident and increasingly clear that many Jewish students no longer feel comfortable at the University of Minnesota,” Iskhakov said. She said that on Oct. 8 at 10:30 p.m., a UMN Chabad crisis text-line received a message from a student that they were shown a “Heil Hitler” salute as they walked by. “We believe the timing was not coincidental, and it reflects a disturbing trend increase in antisemitism.”

BDS in academia?

Richard Painter, a UMN Law School professor and former lawyer in President George W. Bush’s administration, testified that the University of Minnesota Press journal Cultural Critique rejected an article due to the author’s affiliation Israeli universities. 

“We regret to inform you that we cannot consider your submission for publication due to the journal’s commitment to BDS guidelines, which include ‘withdrawing support from Israel’s…cultural and academic institutions.’We thank you for submitting your work to Cultural Critique, and we hope for better times.”

A follow-up email from two assistant editors said that the author’s “submission was not considered solely on the basis of your current work at and affiliation with Israeli academic institutions…should you in fact not be currently employed at any Israeli academic institution, we would be glad, of course, to consider your submission.”

“This was not a mistake, this must be investigated,” Painter said. “We must find out what happened, who did it, and why. The apology was insufficient. No one can do what the editors of Cultural Critique did, which was abuse their position, abuse state resources to launch a boycott against Israel and violation of Minnesota law.”

Ettinger said that while the school and University of Minnesota Press has the academic freedom to establish editorial policies, policies are not permitted that take into account academic affiliation as a criteria. The editors acknowledged their mistake in an apology, Ettinger said.