(October 29, 2020 / JNS) The Academic Engagement Network (AEN) and Hillel International recently launched separate initiatives to address anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on college campuses. AEN’s Improving the Campus Climate Initiative (ICCI) and Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative (CCI) will engage intensively with senior campus officials about the multifaceted nature of contemporary anti-Semitism to help ensure that students feel comfortable expressing their identity on campus. The two organizations have decided to collaborate on their initiatives.
Raeefa Shams, AEN’s senior associate for communications, sat down with Mark Yudof, chair of AEN’s Advisory Board, and Mark Rotenberg, vice president of University Initiatives & Legal Affairs at Hillel International, to discuss their views about the concerns and challenges for Jewish students on American campuses; the importance of improving the campus climate for Jewish, Zionist and all students; and why they see engaging and training diversity officials as central to addressing the issue.
Q: What are the goals of AEN’s ‘Improving the Campus Climate Initiative’ and Hillel International’s ‘Campus Climate Initiative’?
Mark Yudof: The goals for this partnership and collaboration are quite bold. Both of our organizations respond when there are crises, whether at San Francisco State or the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign or Columbia University, but we also believe that being proactive is very important. What that means is reaching out to decision-makers and allowing them access to educational materials that will help them to better understand issues like Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, how even constitutionally protected speech can be hurtful, how to demonstrate moral leadership, etc. We hope that our organizations can work together on select campuses to make this happen, in particular with mid-level administrators in student affairs, equity and inclusion since we already have a history of bringing faculty, students and Hillel professionals together to address the issues. We anticipate that AEN and Hillel will be working in tandem on some campuses and independently on others.
Mark Rotenberg: The goal of our initiative is to work collaboratively with local Hillel professionals, higher education partners and AEN to create a more positive campus climate for Jewish and all students. To achieve our goal, we will work with selected colleges and universities to provide training that helps administrators and staff to recognize the threats of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and to take affirmative steps to address them. In addition to our individual campus work, we hope to improve the adoption of best practice policies and procedures that universities can customize to their specific campus environment.
Q: Why is it important to focus on senior officials in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion?
Mark Rotenberg: EDI officials are at the forefront of the racial-justice imperative that has swept over this country, especially since the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. While the impetus to identify and rectify racist, and specifically anti-black racism, is first and foremost on their agenda, it is important to appreciate that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism directed at Jewish students must also be part of the agenda. Those officials are a core part of our target audience.
Mark Yudof: In the last decades, equity and inclusion offices and deans of students have focused on racism, homophobia, anti-Hispanic bigotry, etc. We also want to familiarize them with the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and familiarize them with the needs and aspirations of Jewish students and faculty. I don’t think many of these professionals are hostile to Jewish students and faculty, but they don’t necessarily have the knowledge that they need to begin to address issues that occur on campus. There is a tendency to focus on the legal mechanisms, but it is more a question of ameliorating imbalances of knowledge—about the history of the Jewish people, but also the challenges that they face on campus.
Q: Why do you both feel that these initiatives are necessary right now?
Mark Yudof: We put a great deal of energy into crises—boycott resolutions, a Jewish student government official being harassed for her identity, etc.—and these are all important. But look at it like a forest fire. We want to fight the fires but also prevent them. We need to be more proactive, and both of our organizations are good at this. Students are sometimes subjected to a barrage about Israel being complicit in everything wrong in the world, from COVID-19 to racial injustice in the United States, and someone needs to speak up for the truth.
Mark Rotenberg: Anti-Semitic incidents on campus are at an all-time high even with months of campuses being physically closed due to COVID-19, and this dangerous trend has been surging for several years. It’s also clear that recent efforts to delegitimize Israel on campus have taken on more pernicious forms recently. We are witnessing more explicit anti-Semitic expressions of anti-Zionism that are focused on demeaning and isolating students who wish to express their Jewish identity and their support for Israel. Many university leaders lack an understanding of these threats and how they affect our students. We need to make it clear to them that this trend has accelerated and is impacting too many Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus, and they need to vigorously address it. AEN’s and Hillel’s leadership agree that this moment requires a focus on this particular problem and requires us to step up and make university leadership aware of how serious it is.
Q: AEN and Hillel will be working together to share best practices, policy recommendations and training materials from their respective programs. What particular strengths will each organization contribute to this partnership?
Mark Yudof: The two organizations have considerable strengths. AEN has more than 750 faculty members on 250-plus campuses across the country, many of whom have expertise on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. The faculty is really our core strength. We also have close relationships with senior administrators. We don’t want to helicopter into a campus; we need a good relationship with the administration to be effective. We have those contacts. We have the presence on campus on the faculty level to get the job done. They’re their own political force on campus, and we need to recognize that. We want to make sure that faculty, Hillel professionals and students are working together effectively and pragmatically.
Mark Rotenberg: The strength that Hillel will bring to this collaborative effort is its longstanding presence on campus. We have both the brick-and-mortar and the full-time professionals on hundreds of campuses across the United States. We complement AEN’s faculty strength by being the Jewish student community’s physical presence on campus—twin assets that are vital to the initiative. Concretely, we’ll offer sophisticated measurement tools that will allow officials to better understand the campus climate for Jewish students using a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches. We’ll also offer tools for professional development and access to experts to help them see the needs and experiences of Jewish students, and we can conduct analyses using internal and external experts (including faculty) who can help evaluate the campus policies, procedures and practices that impact the Jewish student experience.
Q: What do you hope your respective initiatives will have achieved in the first year of operations?
Mark Rotenberg: Campus climate is an elusive term, and the underlying reality is difficult to affect in the short term. No realistic person can expect that the campus climate for Jewish and pro-Israel students can be revolutionized in a matter of months. What we hope to accomplish in this first year is to pilot our initiative on 10 to 15 campuses, to make headway on those campuses with the administration in partnership with AEN, and to create a situation where the leadership on those campuses appreciates the importance of addressing the climate in a robust way.
Mark Yudof: That would be a very good year! My theory of change in higher education is that innovation frequently comes from emulation. Things take hold in higher education not necessarily through a top-down process, but an understanding that other institutions have done it successfully. My aspiration is that the initial 10 to 15 campuses can serve as a model for many more in terms of thinking about anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and Jewish identity.
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