If they find out I’m Jewish, they’ll target me.”
This is one of a litany of chilling claims by Jewish students at Northeastern University about the anti-Semitic hostility they have been forced to deal with on campus, as quoted in a letter recently sent by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) to Northeastern’s President Joseph Aoun. First alerted by our organization’s exposés of the university’s hostile climate for Jews, the ZOA’s own investigation has gone much further to lift the curtain on what Jewish students can expect to face if they enroll at Northeastern.
ZOA’s letter, based on first-hand reports from students, shows that the problem at Northeastern is not simply a case of professorial academic bias against Israel. Northeastern’s professors are using the basest forms of social bullying and intimidation to silence Jewish students who dare defend their Jewish identity in the classroom.
According to ZOA’s investigation, Professor Denis Sullivan, Director of the university’s Middle East Center goes furthest in abusing his authority in the classroom to violate his students’ academic freedom. Here are some vignettes from what the students told ZOA about Sullivan’s lack of academic ethics in class:
“A Jewish student in the class raised her hand and asked a legitimate question… Instead of answering the question, Professor Sullivan personally attacked the student, as the rest of the class snickered. …She was so traumatized by the attack that she began crying and had to leave the room.”
“According to one Jewish student, when you question what Sullivan tells the class about Israel, Sullivan ‘finds a way to make you feel stupid.’”
A Jewish student wrote a paper taking the position that Hamas, with its genocidal goals, cannot be given legitimacy. “Professor Sullivan rejected the student’s paper and threatened her with a poor grade unless she rewrote it … The Jewish student felt that she had no choice but to rewrite her paper.”
“One student reported that he is afraid even to reveal his Jewish identity in Sullivan’s class.”
When a Jewish student questioned the anti-Israel position of a visiting Palestinian diplomat Sullivan brought as a guest to his class, “Professor Sullivan publicly ridiculed the student.” The diplomat “refused to answer the question, characterizing it as offensive.”
Sadly, Sullivan is not the only Northeastern professor who has victimized Jewish students, according to the ZOA:
“When a Jewish student respectfully challenged” Northeastern Sociology and International Affairs Professor Berna Turam’s justification of Islamic honor killings during class, “Professor Turam – and the other students in the class – laughed at the student, humiliating her. On another occasion, Professor Turam laughed at and publicly mocked this same student as she presented her research proposal in class … Strangely, Professor Turam repeatedly referred to this student as “Rachel” – a Hebrew name – despite being told that this is not the student’s name. This student stopped wearing her Star of David to Professor Turam’s class.”
Readers of this column will have heard by now about Northeastern’s Economics Professor and Pakistani citizen M. Shahid Alam, who was caught on video telling students that anti-Semitism is something that one should be proud of and bragging about intimidating pro-Israel students in his classes. As the ZOA’s investigation revealed, in an e-mail to Northeastern’s President Joseph Aoun, a Jewish student personally recounted his feelings in response to hearing Alam’s hateful words:
“I sat painfully listening to Professor Alam insinuate that students should be proud to be called anti-Semitic. I had never in my life, ever, experienced anti-Semitism firsthand until this past year when I witnessed Professor Alam and Professor Sullivan display an age-old hatred against the Jewish people … No one should experience hatred like this in their learning environment.”
Aoun never did respond to the Jewish student, although his cold shoulder was better than the treatment other Jewish students got from campus administrators. At a seminar on campus inclusiveness held by the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, a Jewish student spoke up about how marginalized he and other Jews felt on campus. As the ZOA recounts, “Interim Dean Uta G. Poiger publicly embarrassed the student. Instead of showing compassion for the problems that he and other Jewish students have been enduring at Northeastern, Dean Poiger questioned the veracity of Jewish students’ campus experiences and thereby publicly demeaned them and their concerns.”
The responses of other campus administrators to the issue have been disappointingly similar, according to the ZOA. For example, Northeastern Provost Stephen Director has said that claims of anti- Semitic incidents on campus “are completely unfounded, and we reject them. The present-day facts are clear: Northeastern is fully supportive of Jewish life and learning.”
The former President of the American Jewish Committee of Boston, Larry Lowenthal, who is now on Northeastern’s payroll, went so far as to defend the Professor Sullivan:
“As an Adjunct Professor in the Jewish Studies program at Northeastern University, I wish to offer some personal comments on the controversy surrounding Professor Denis Sullivan … At all times, Sullivan treated me and my views with dignity, sensitivity and deep respect. In my personal experience, Northeastern has provided an open, unhindered and stimulating environment for the expression of Jewish and Zionist points of view.”
And perhaps most disappointing has been the reaction of Lori Lefkovitz, the Chair of Northeastern’s Jewish Studies Department. She has refused to acknowledge any problem, stating that: “I am sorry that there are those who are unsatisfied with an accounting of the present state of Jewish life and learning at the school.” She claimed that concerns about anti- Semitism on campus are “designed to put us on the defensive and to make the Jewish community less supportive of Northeastern at precisely the moment when Northeastern deserves kudos and the strong support of Jews who care about Jewish campus life.”
Lefkovitz invited Professor Sullivan to speak at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Newton, where her husband is the Rabbi.
Discussing the initial Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT) exposé of Northeastern’s mistreatment of its Jewish students with members of Mishkan Tefila, Lefkovitz said the Jewish community should not “dignify it by taking it too seriously.” It is particularly disappointing to see the head of Jewish studies at Northeastern place more importance on being a dutiful employee than on protecting the Jewish students in her charge.
Jewish leaders naturally want to claim that there is no hostility toward Jewish students within their spaces of influence, yet this only abets the further marginalization of those students. Faced with undeniable proof that they’re wrong, they are caught in a trap. Admitting that there is a problem would raise questions about their lack of response in the past and in the present. Denial allows them to avoid stressful conflict with those among their fellow professors who abuse Jewish students, and with the administration, which refuses to stop the abuse. The abandonment of Jewish students on campus is a massive scandal that has not yet been entirely exposed.
Northeastern University exemplifies the ugly atmosphere that makes being a pro-Israel Jewish student so difficult on today’s campuses.
ZOA’s letter to Aoun exposes with intense moral clarity the stark failure of Jewish leaders and American educational institutions to keep Jewish students safe from a hostile environment. It should be a clarion call for all Jews and people of conscience to speak out in condemning this failure. Only consistent and unyielding pressure will protect Jewish youth from hatred.
Ilya Feoktistov and Charles Jacobs are Research Director and President, respectively, of Americans for Peace and Tolerance (www.peaceandtolerance.com).