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In failing to condemn anti-Semitism, Wellesley College has failed itself

College President Paula Johnson must present a path towards a brighter future and a resurgence of Jewish life on campus.

Tower Court at Wellesley College. Photo: Jared and Corin/Wikimedia Commons.
Tower Court at Wellesley College. Photo: Jared and Corin/Wikimedia Commons.
Gina Raphael, Chair of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) for California.
Gina Raphael

Wellesley College’s motto, Non Ministrari sed Ministrare, “not to be served but to serve,” means giving back, being a good citizen of the world and looking for ways to use the knowledge you have and the work you do to help a community that needs support. My years at Wellesley translated that motto into a call for leadership and making a difference in the world.

Non Ministrari sed Ministrare is the philosophy and guiding light that sets the tone of a Wellesley education. It has made Wellesley the leading college for women in the United States. It has been educating leaders since 1875, including such notable alumnae as Hilary Clinton, Madeline Albright, Diane Sawyer, Nora Ephron, Katherine Lee Bates and Pamela Melroy.

While the President of Wellesley College, Dr. Paula Johnson, should be commended for taking the courageous stand of calling out the college’s student newspaper The Wellesley News for its recent endorsement of the Mapping Project—which targets individuals and organizations that support Jewish life—and thus promoting anti-Semitism, she did not go far enough.

For example, the Wellesley News editorial in question also called for the “liberation of Palestine” and endorsed the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS qualifies as anti-Semitism according to the widely adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. Johnson did not address these issues or the rest of the editorial’s pervasive anti-Semitism.

Nor did Johnson address her own college’s long history of anti-Semitism. Consistent with elite East Coast colleges of the time, Wellesley had a quota of about 10% for Jewish students in the 1930s and 1940s. Wellesley also prohibited Jewish professors from teaching courses on the New Testament. It took until 1981 for a Jewish professor to receive tenure in the religion department, and only after a legal case that documented the college’s history of discrimination against Jews.

In the 1990s, Africana studies professor Tony Martin assigned his students a Nation of Islam tract that inaccurately depicted Jews as the foremost figures in the African slave trade. When challenged by historians and others, he lashed out by writing an anti-Semitic book called The Jewish Onslaught. Then-Wellesley President Diana Chapman Walsh denounced Martin’s book as divisive and offensive but did not call out Martin’s anti-Semitic behavior.

Johnson did not mention any of this in her statement on the News editorial. More than anything else, however, she did not present a path towards a brighter future and a resurgence of Jewish life on campus.

If she eventually follows the motto of Non Ministrari sed Ministrare and presents such a path, it should include the following:

  • Participation in Faculty Fellowships, a Jewish National Fund USA program that brings professors to Israel. Now in its 15th year of operation, the fully-subsidized program has brought over 600 faculty members from 130 institutions to Israel. This program opens Israel to academics from all disciplines and inspires a more open-minded dialogue on campus.
  • Participation in the Caravan for Democracy, a Jewish National Fund program that brings more than 500 non-Jewish American college student leaders from student government, as well as minority, LGBT and women’s groups, to experience Israel firsthand. This promotes a constructive discourse about Israel and the Middle East on college campuses across America.
  • Bringing speakers to campus such as writer, actress and Israeli envoy Noa Tishby, author of Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth, in order to talk about how Israel is portrayed inaccurately on the world stage. Another such speaker could be writer, feminist and activist Eve Barlow, who would explain why she stands strong as a Zionist and against anti-Semitism.
  • Building partnerships and exchanges with Jews, Arabs, Christians, Druze and Bedouins from Israel and across the Middle East. This would help Wellesley students empower women to form alliances and learn new perspectives on collaboration and understanding on campus and around the world.

Years ago, when I had the honor to serve as Chair of the Wellesley Jewish Alumnae Association, President Johnson and the college administration refused to engage with me on these topics. My calls for Johnson to create a stronger Jewish Alumnae presence went unanswered after our first conversation.

While Wellesley has become a captive of the BDS movement spreading across the country, it does have a history of strong Jewish life and acceptance. In 1976, for example, it granted former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, only the fourth female leader of any country in the world, an honorary degree.

I was privileged to serve as head of the Wellesley Jewish Students Association during my years at the college. While we were not a significant group on campus, opportunities to pray, celebrate and flourish were widely available and accepted. Wellesley went out of its way to create a small Hebrew class to encourage study of the language. It arranged for an expert at MIT to take part in an exchange program to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With one amazing middle-school daughter remaining, I hope that Wellesley College’s leadership will strive to create a vibrant place of learning that embraces Jewish life and acceptance on campus, which would befit its motto.

Gina Raphael is Chair of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) California.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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