UT needs to define and combat institutional anti-Jewish sentiment

The University of Texas must not be allowed to pick and choose what type of hatred it deems fashionable to oppose.

Anti-Semitic tweet by Professor Spencer Wells. Source: Twitter.
Anti-Semitic tweet by Professor Spencer Wells. Source: Twitter.
Jordan Cope
Jordan Cope

Former adjunct professor at the University of Texas Spencer Wells went on a Twitter tirade this week against Israelis. Wells, who also served as a member of the UT College of Natural Science’s Advisory Council, dreams of a nuclear war with Israel, and calls on the world to “bomb [Israel] until the sand turns to glass.” He denied all Israelis a right to self-defense and thus life, saying, “You’re Apartheid oppressors. You deserve to die.”

He writes: “I just hope that with the upcoming U.S. pullback from its role of Middle East protector that the Iranians feel empowered to take bolder steps in dealing with Israeli aggression.”

Yet Wells is a celebrated figure. The former “explorer in residence” at the National Geographic Society, he is considered a world expert on the subject of “personal genomics.” He has given TED talks, been a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and is regularly interviewed by media around the world. Wells also served as a member of the College of Natural Science’s Advisory Council.

Although his service to the university expired last May, his legacy remains celebrated. He remains an “Outstanding Young Texas Ex” as awarded by TexasExes, the university’s “official alumni association.” Other recipients elevated to such honor include Gov. Greg Abbott and film star Matthew McConaughey.

While Wells’s most recent tweets were issued after his service to UT, his anti-Semitism also manifested during his employment there. In April, while still an adjunct professor, Wells attacked Jews for their spending habits, reflecting the anti-Semitic Jewish parasite trope. He notes: “Jews hiring private jets to fly to Israel for burial. Utterly insane.”

Despite Wells making said statement during his time and capacity at UT, the university failed its students and the public, exercising a gross double standard by refusing to condemn such anti-Semitism.

In its official statement, the university merely observed that it has no “association with the views held by Wells,” who “is no longer a faculty or advisory member.”

UT’s failure to speak out appears in stark contrast to promises by university officials last month to condemn all acts of hate, such as those occurring out of state and by those with no ties to the university. On June 1, Interim President Jay Hartzell in his email “UT Austin: Turbulent and Difficult Times” condemned George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police officers in Minnesota as “senseless,” while also stressing “we must continue our struggle for meaningful and enduring change to overcome acts of racism and violence that continue to erode our community.”

Does UT not believe Spencer Wells’s hatred also corrodes our community?

This is certainly not the only example of prospective anti-Semitism affecting UT’s Jewish community. In 2017, a window at UT’s Hillel was bashed in.

Wells’s comments are not the first time that university officials have looked the other way. A number of instances of campus anti-Semitism, as reflected by Wells’s mutual hatred of Israel and Jews, is fueled by misconceptions regarding the Jewish state: Israel. Much of these misconceptions are regularly perpetuated by the UT Middle Eastern Studies Department.

Since the 1990s, that department has been problematic enough that it inspired UT Professor Michael Craig Hillmann’s book From Classroom to Courtroom, which explores allegations of internal “favoritism, intimidation, abuse, harassment and racism” and “ethnic, religious and gender discrimination.”

Writing about UT, Benjamin Baird of the Middle East Forum has noted:

[N]o such constraints deter these professors from presenting ahistorical, one-sided accounts of the Middle East. Whether designing anti-Israel curricula for secondary education, accepting funds from Islamist organizations, teaching from radical sources, or producing scholarship that advances an anti-American, anti-Western agenda, professors in CMES [the Center for Middle Eastern Studies] have clearly been hired and promoted with an eye to their ideological purity.

With these biases, perhaps it’s not too surprising that an anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish academic found a home at the university. Was UT merely jumping on a bandwagon when it spoke out against Floyd’s murder? Or is it truly committed to calling out hate? If the latter is true, then UT must prove its dedication. The president’s office must condemn comments by Wells, whether expressed while a UT professor or afterwards.

Lastly, given the university’s failure to apply equal standards, administrators must adopt an objective standard for anti-Semitism, such as the IHRA’s. After all, UT must not be allowed to pick and choose what type of hatred it deems fashionable to oppose.

Jordan Cope is a law student at the University of Texas, where he also earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies. He has been published in multiple forums on Counter-Terrorism and the Middle East.

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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