Concerned about discrimination against Jewish students, more than 300 college presidents signed a statement last week committing themselves to an “intimidation-free campus.”
The Ivy League, however, was poorly represented: Brown University President Ruth Simmons was the only Ivy League president to sign the petition. Yale President Richard Levin and the other Ivy League presidents declined to sign the statement, which appeared as a paid advertisement in The New York Times Oct. 7.
“I just felt [that] while I am not out of sympathy with the people who wrote the letter, on the other hand we have to be mindful of all forms of discrimination and prejudice,” said Levin, echoing the concerns of others over the statement’s narrow scope.
Levin said that, were he to take a position, he would prefer to do so individually.
“I’m not a big fan of signing petitions,” he said.
The American Jewish Committee, or AJC, circulated the statement this fall following several incidents last spring that targeted Jewish campus groups, the organization said in an Oct. 4 press release.
The statement cites “death threats and threats of violence” against Jewish organizations. It does not mention any other minority groups.
The statement comes at a time when the Middle East crisis is triggering action across college campuses. One tactic — encouraging universities to divest themselves of interests in Israel — recently met with condemnation from Harvard President Lawrence Summers.
Rebecca Rosenthal ’03, co-president of Yale Hillel, said concerns that the Oct. 7 statement was too focused in its scope were “extremely valid.”
Yale Muslim Students’ Association president Sumeyya Ashraf ’04 also said she supported Levin’s decision.
“If you’re focusing on one minority group — it is a quite limiting petition,” Ashraf said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported 1,717 incidents against Muslims since Sept. 11, 2001, Ashraf said.
But Kenneth Bandler, AJC’s director of public relations and communications, said the statement encompasses concerns about discrimination against all minorities.
“If you look at the language, particularly the next-to-last-paragraph, it’s very inclusive,” Bandler said.
The paragraph states that practices of intimidation “directed against any person, group or cause” will not be tolerated.
Yale Friends of Israel co-president Emily Scharfman ’05 said she supported the statement.
“The petition isn’t saying ‘We support other forms of discrimination,’ but [shows] support for students who have been victims of latent discrimination,” Scharfman said.
Levin said he had received only one e-mail protesting his decision not to sign the petition.
Scharfman said the statement was mainly a response to events last spring, including an incident at San Francisco State University where a group of pro-Palestinian protesters shouted “Hitler did not finish the job” at a pro-Israel rally.
“Things like that are just despicable,” Scharfman said. “There is no excuse for that.”
Rabbi James Ponet, director of the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, said despite the national controversy, he is pleased at how the Yale community has reacted.
“I think we’ve been fortunate at Yale that the traditions of civility and respect for the individual — have continued to stand,” Ponet said.
Rosenthal said that efforts to create a more open dialogue should involve all groups, not just those who have vested interests in the Middle East crisis.
“I would hope that in any instance of violence, that the community would be outraged, and that the administration would take action,” Rosenthal said.