First published in Jewish Herald-Voice
Houston Hillel is reassuring students and the local Jewish community that Houston’s largest university remains a safe place for Jewish students. The effort follows revelations that a small cadre of current and former University of Houston students has taken to Twitter to praise the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust and to foment anti-Semitic and anti-Israel points of view and, in some cases, violence against Jews – “speech” that campus leaders have deemed “repugnant,” but said must be reviewed by law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to determine whether it is a criminal matter, concerning a possible hate crime.
“Houston Hillel takes very seriously any inflammatory comments directed at Jews, whether from current students, faculty or alumni,” said Houston Hillel executive director Rabbi Kenny Weiss, following a series of meetings with Jewish UH students and community leaders.
“Hillel professionals and student leaders work with the University of Houston community to ensure a safe environment for Jewish students and the Jewish community,” he told the JHV.
Meanwhile, Jewish students at UH said they are waiting for campus leadership to publicly condemn the actions of those who pose a perceived threat to others’ personal safety and whose actions contravene UH’s commitment to diversity.
“I want my university to show that it legitimately cares about its diverse population and not just certain student groups,” said UH junior, Tatiana Uklist.
Earlier this month, the Canary Mission, an online anti-Semitism watchdog project, published a large collection of alleged tweets by more than a dozen current and former UH students, reaching back several years, that express unambiguous hostility and hate toward Jews and the State of Israel.
In a statement to the JHV, Dona Hamilton Cornell, UH’s vice chancellor for Legal Affairs, said UH is safe for all students, Jews included.
“[UH] is a safe campus and we are committed to fostering an environment where students with diverse backgrounds and beliefs feel welcomed and safe,” Cornell said.
Jewish students at UH have welcomed such pronouncements in the past, amid other safety concerns and expressions of anti-Semitism that arose on campus. These students share concerns by civil rights groups, who fear that if UH leadership fails to adequately deal with incidents of anti-Semitism and hate speech on campus, student enrollment and the university’s reputation will be negatively impacted.
“Whether the university can punish the speech or not, they have an obligation to address the underlying problem,” according to Kenneth L. Marcus, president and general counsel of The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a Washington-based civil rights group that has taken interest in the case.
“If there are anti-Semitic or racist activities going on at the campus, the university needs to deal with it one way or the other,” Marcus told the JHV. “The legal restrictions might tell them how they can deal with it, but the fact is they need to deal with it and they need deal with it firmly.”
The local office of the Anti-Defamation League told the JHV: “While we take each reported incident [of anti-Semitism] seriously and investigate them closely, thus far we are not aware of any serious concerns regarding the safety of the Jewish students at the University of Houston. We remain in close contact with law enforcement and are offering our support and resources to Rabbi Kenny Weiss, Houston Hillel and campus police.”
‘Kill all the Jews’
Canary Mission’s report on UH provides social media account information of current and former UH students engaged in anti-Semitic postings on Twitter.
Some posts include Arabic phrases and incite physical violence against Jews and Israelis.
“Yall don’t understand I wanna beat a zionist bitch up so bad,” one student allegedly tweeted. Another allegedly wrote: “I need to go throw some rocks at the yahood [Jews].”
Multiple messages praise Hitler and the Holocaust.
“I mean it when I say I wish Hitler finished them off in the holocaust,” a student allegedly tweeted. Others allegedly wrote: “F**K THE JEWS F**K EM ALL KILL ALL THE JEWS ATTA BOY HITLER”; “Hitler died too soon, really”; “Palestine will be the 2nd place of the Holocaust for the Yahood [Jews]”; “Hitler mah nigga”; and, “Hitler said he left some Jews alive so the world would know why he killed em.”
Similar messages glorify militant groups that have killed Israeli civilians in acts of terrorism and are dedicated to the annihilation of the Jewish state.
Students also tweeted various slurs, calling Jews “dogs,” “pigs,” “whores” and “faggots,” and propagate classic anti-Semitic stereotypes, including blood libels.
“A Jewish rabbi has admitted to using human child meat as a filler in McDonalds meat. They allegedly drug teens and kill them, for their meat,” one of the college students allegedly tweeted.
Canary Mission stated in its findings: “We identified 13 individuals who between them posted dozens of times expressing hatred of Jews and Israel, praise for Hitler, mockery of the Holocaust and threats of violence against Jews. Such posts came from a number of members of student activist groups, like UH’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Muslim Students Association (MSA) chapters, as well as from individuals unaffiliated with these groups.”
UH officials told the JHV that they were aware of the Canary Mission’s report and said its claims were being reviewed by student affairs, equal opportunity services, the police department and legal counsel.
UH’s vice chancellor for Legal Affairs declined comment to the JHV on what actions were being taken, if any, citing privacy laws, and noted that it’s up to law enforcement to decide if the tweets amount to a crime.
“It is speech the university finds repugnant; however, the determination of whether it is a criminal matter is for law enforcement, in conjunction with the district attorney,” said Cornell. “Generally speaking, a hate crime occurs when another type of crime, bodily injury, for example, is motivated by, or is because of, the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity or expression or disability. Again, generally speaking, speech, repugnant or not, except in cases of inciting violence, is not unlawful.”
Cornell added that the Dean of Student’s Office is reviewing the matter to determine any potential UH code of conduct violations.
The Algemeiner online news site was among the first to report on the Canary Mission’s investigation into evidence of anti-Semitism at UH.
Houston Hillel brought the initial report to the attention of UH police, Student Affairs, legal affairs and to UH Chancellor Renu Khator’s office. Hillel further notified Houston police, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.
“We work proactively to ensure all students on campus have positive connections with Jewish life and Israel, including holding educational programs, fostering close relationships with University of Houston administrators, and engaging Jewish and non-Jewish student leaders in student government and other student organizations,” Hillel’s Rabbi Weiss said.
Jewish students at UH objected to characterizations that “rampant anti-Semitism is ravaging UH,” as early reportage claimed. However, students did acknowledge a growing problem with anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bigotry on their campus that coincides with the rise of UH’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, whose recent campus activities include promoting academic and economic boycotts against the Jewish state, and hosting a fundraiser last year for a convicted terrorist, who killed Jewish college students in Israel and later was released by authorities via a prisoner exchange.
“When I read the tweets, I wasn’t exactly surprised, especially after seeing who wrote them,” said Uklist, who founded UH’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel.
Uklist said she’s encountered some of the students on campus whose names and Twitter handles appear in the Canary Mission report. In at least one case, she expressed concerns about student safety after one of those students named in the report allegedly tweeted multiple times about his attraction to the militant – meaning violent – anti-Israel movement.
“I’m worried that students and parents are going to see reports about these tweets and start thinking that UH isn’t a safe place to be for Jews and people who have positive associations with Israel,” Uklist said. “I know that some of the tweets are old, and some of those students are no longer at UH, but it could still cause some genuine worry.”
Uklist noted that her grandmother was orphaned as a result of the Holocaust and that her parents suffered Jewish persecution in the Former Soviet Union.
“The fact that [anti-Semitism] is still happening so long after they left the Former Soviet Union, so long after the Holocaust, it’s so incredibly disgusting,” she said.
Uklist and other Jewish students at UH told the JHV that if campus leadership fails to respond to incidents of anti-Semitism on campus, UH’s Jewish student population likely will dwindle, especially if more accounts of this nature occur, unchecked.
According to research by The Louis D. Brandeis Center, anti-Semitism on college campuses across the U.S. is on the rise.
The center’s general counsel noted that university officials sometimes make the mistake of thinking that they need to determine whether an expression of anti-Semitism is either constitutionally protected free speech or is hate speech. Most hate speech is free speech, Marcus explained, so the distinction often isn’t helpful.
While each campus must decide if and how to punish perpetrators of anti-Semitism, Marcus said the real issue is how campus leaders deal with an atmosphere that “has been poisoned by this form of hatred.” In the case of UH, he said the university must recognize that it has a problem and it needs to deal with it more than just by punishing individuals who are involved.
“They need to find out why, at this time, they have people who are engaging in this conduct,” the civil rights lawyer said. “They need to outreach, quite vigorously, both to the Jewish community and also to the sorts of groups who may be involved.”
The Louis D. Brandeis Center and ADL supply university campuses with best practices on how to deal with anti-Semitism. Both groups offers free legal counsel to college students who’ve experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism. Efforts also are underway on both the federal and the state level to encourage and better equip institutions to respond to the growing problem.
Last month, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, aimed at establishing a uniform definition of anti-Semitism and directing the U.S. Department of Education to adopt guidelines for responding to domestic situations. The House of Representatives is expected to take up a similar measure during the current session, while state legislatures, in places such as Virginia, are looking to do the same on the state level.
Following SJP’s fundraiser for a convicted terrorist last year, Jewish students at UH expressed concern that campus officials are slower and more reluctant to respond to anti-Semitism on campus, compared to other forms of hate.
UH’s Legal Affairs office disagreed, stating that “we take any matter involving the safety and welfare of our university community very seriously.”
According to independent research on the issue, most universities are consistent in their responses to old-fashioned anti-Semitism – such as swastikas spray painted on Jewish fraternity houses – as they do to other forms of bias. However, when Israel is involved, responses tend to be different and weaker, especially when the perpetrators include people who are minorities, themselves.
“In those cases, university administrators are often perplexed on how to respond,” the Brandeis Center’s Marcus said.
UH’s SJP chapter, for its part, appears to be responding to the Canary Mission’s report by organizing a program on campus for Thursday, Feb. 2, where its members plan to argue that their anti-Israel and anti-Zionism attacks are different than anti-Semitism, despite the fact that these students allegedly have tweeted their hatred of Jews, specifically.