Pro-Palestinian encampments are closing after making deals with colleges
Students for Justice in Palestine organized and erected an encampment at the University of Texas at Dallas Wednesday, May 1, 2024. Photo: Nathaniel Butterfield

Some of their critics are still upset

By Andrew Lapin

(JTA) – When he announced this week that Northwestern University had reached an agreement with the groups behind the school’s pro-Palestinian encampment, President Michael Schill was hopeful he could salvage the rest of the semester and commencement.

“I am proud of our community for achieving what has been a challenge across the country: a sustainable, de-escalated path forward,” Schill said in a video he released to campus Tuesday.

But Northwestern’s president has not been universally celebrated for finding a peaceful resolution amid so many other reports of violence and mass arrests. Instead Schill, who is Jewish, has faced harsh criticism from the Jewish community.

Seven Jewish members of Northwestern’s antisemitism committee resigned en masse over the deal, leading the entire committee to announce Thursday that it was shutting down before it could make any recommendations. “It’s a terrible mistake. The administration made a joke out of itself,” Efraim Benmelech, an Israeli professor at Northwestern’s business school who resigned as the committee’s co-chair, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about the deal with protesters.

Chicago’s Jewish federation condemned the agreement, saying, “The overwhelming majority of your Jewish students, faculty, staff, and alumni feel betrayed. They trusted an institution you lead and considered it home. You have violated that trust.”

And some prominent Jewish leaders — including those of the Anti-Defamation League and the national Jewish federations’ umbrella group — are calling for Schill’s resignation.

“The handling of this situation leaves us with no confidence in President Schill to correct it. We reiterate the call for an immediate leadership change at the University,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, JFNA CEO Eric Fingerhut and Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation CEO Rachel Garbow Monroe, all Northwestern graduates, wrote in a letter to the chair of the school’s board of trustees on Thursday. They also demanded the cancelation of the deal.

The blowback against Schill reflects a larger Jewish divide over how to handle the encampments that have sprung up across campuses nationwide in the wake of the original Columbia University protest — most pushing their schools to divest from Israel. Northwestern is one of a handful of schools to strikes deals with the protesters to get them to clear out before finals and commencement. (Others, including Columbia, have negotiated but failed to reach agreements with protesters.)

The deals mean that the encampments are being dismantled, something sought by Jewish groups and students who say the protests create an antisemitic and hostile climate on campuses. But they also mean that students and faculty who participated in the protests evade disciplinary action. Some critics say that through the agreements, the universities are legitimizing and incentivizing protests by negotiating with their leaders and making concessions.

“The same concept behind not negotiating with terrorists applies to these terrorist sympathizers as well: You are only giving them the incentive to continue, or escalate, the very behavior it is you want to discourage,” columnist Zachary Faria wrote in the Washington Examiner, a right-wing outlet, after a deal at Brown University this week. “Brown isn’t nipping this encampment impulse in the bud, it’s watering and fertilizing the seeds for more of it in the future.”

Late Thursday, another school with a major Jewish presence, Rutgers University in New Jersey, also struck a deal with protesters, who then took down their encampment peacefully. As part of the agreement, the university promised not to retaliate against students and faculty who participated in the protests, as long as they did not continue to violate school rules, and to enroll Palestinian students. It also committed to continuing a relationship with a West Bank university and to taking other steps to make Palestinian students feel welcome. But it refused to end relationships with Israeli universities, and said only that it acknowledged a divestment request and would allow students to discuss it with an investment committee. 

The Rutgers deal reflects an emerging pattern: While universities are committing to some steps demanded by protesters, they are not agreeing to the central goal of the protest movement: divestment. Brown’s agreement goes the furthest by committing the school’s board to holding a formal vote on divestment this fall. A deal reached early Thursday at the University of Minnesota, like Rutgers’, will allow protest leaders to make the case for divestment to the school’s governing board.

Northwestern’s own deal calls for the school to restart a dormant advisory committee on “investment responsibility”; fund positions for two Palestinian faculty and tuition for five Palestinian undergraduate students who are “at risk”; and renovate a center for Muslim and Middle Eastern and North African students, among other terms.

Representatives for the school did not return repeated requests for comment. The campus chapter of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, a member of the coalition that led the encampment protests, celebrated the deal on Instagram, calling it “the next step towards divestment.” 

In contrast with Northwestern, Jewish leaders at both Brown and Evergreen State College in Washington told JTA they approved of their own campus deals, as they succeeded in clearing out the encampments while opening up future opportunities for dialogue. The leader of Brown’s Hillel also said he was confident that the school’s board would not vote to divest.

Besides Schill — who replaced the previous Jewish Northwestern President Morton Schapiro in 2022 after another initial successor’s illness — and Brown President Christina Paxson, at least one other Jewish university president has publicly floated the idea of reaching a deal with his encampment. Michael Roth at Wesleyan University in Connecticut said such a deal was not out of the question for him. This week, he had drawn praise in some corners for clearly outlining the terms under which his university would take action against its encampment.

On his blog Thursday, Roth said the Brown and Northwestern agreements “might show the way” toward a similar resolution at Wesleyan, and that the school has communicated with its own protesters. He added that the school would “much prefer to talk with protesters about things we can do as an institution to address the war in Gaza” rather than make arrests or issue suspensions. (Roth did not return a JTA request for comment.)

Yet at Northwestern, the Jewish backlash to the deal has been severe. Besides Benmelech, six other Jewish members, including the director of the campus Hillel, resigned from the antisemitism committee before its dissolution, citing their disapproval of the deal. In their resignation letter, they said they were not consulted on the agreement. They also said their committee — which, like other antisemitism task forces at other universities, was formed in recent months in the hopes of addressing campus unrest over Israel — had been unable to reach a consensus on whether or how to condemn antisemitism at the encampment.

“In light of the University leadership’s decision not to utilize the committee for its stated purpose, we can no longer continue to serve in this role,” the committee members wrote. 

Following the statement, Northwestern’s student newspaper reported Thursday that the remaining committee members had informed Schill that “the committee as currently constituted cannot continue to function.” They added that they hoped he would “pursue the Committee’s goals through other means,” potentially by forming a different committee.

NU Hillel Executive Director Michael Simon declined to comment to JTA, and Benmelech declined to comment on Schill directly, though he rejected the narrative that the encampment’s dismantling was peaceful.

“Basically everyone gets away,” he said. “Everyone can violate university rules with impunity. What lessons do we teach those students? What lessons do we teach them as citizens? Disobey the rules, there’s no order, and you will be rewarded for that?”

One Jewish undergraduate student leader, who asked to remain anonymous, told JTA that Schill should resign, even though they were also “very glad the encampment is over.”

“I hope he will step down. I do not think he is fit to lead the university,” this student said, citing Schill’s failure to consult the task force and what they said was his failure to more strongly condemn antisemitic language, including the contentious pro-Palestinian phrase “From the river to the sea,” coming from the encampment. 

Along with the ADL, StandWithUs and the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, two groups that often advocate on behalf of pro-Israel students, also called for Schill’s resignation.

Calls for a university president’s resignation over their perceived failure to address campus antisemitism have become a familiar tactic for Jewish groups since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war nearly seven months ago. The ousters of the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania followed an explosive congressional hearing about antisemitism on their campuses

Now, as encampment protests mount and the specter of mass arrests and violence has become a reality at many universities, leaders may see the upside of making deals similar to Schill’s — and will have to weigh them against such opposition.

Asked what steps leadership should have taken to deescalate the protests instead, Schill’s critics offered solutions that they said wouldn’t involve bringing in police. Benmelech said the school should have done a better job identifying both students and non-students at the encampment, forcing them to remove masks when necessary, and handing down suspensions to anyone found in violation of university policy.

He also thought the university should have waited out the protesters: “If they will be patient enough, these encampments will die out.”

In a joint statement, the ADL, StandWithUs and the Brandeis Center said that universities could simply choose to do a better job to “enforce time, place and manner rules” for protests; prohibit common aspects of the encampments like tents and amplified sound; and remove threatening or antisemitic signage.

Whether such proposals could actually succeed in de-escalating the encampments, or even be accomplished without the aid of police, is an open question. But at a school with a much smaller Jewish community than Northwestern, one of the only Jewish faculty members said an agreement was the ideal path forward.

“This is the best way for change to happen,” Nancy Koppelman, a professor at Evergreen State who teaches classes on Israel and antisemitism, told JTA. She is one of the few visibly Jewish figures at the state school in Olympia, Washington, which does not have a Hillel or a Jewish studies department (Hillel International estimates the Jewish student body numbers around 90). She added that “things have de-escalated significantly” since this week’s agreement.

Koppelman, whose brother is a professor at Northwestern, described the encampment at Evergreen State as peaceful. But she also said she had been verbally targeted by protesters there, including some who called to boycott her class on Israel while refusing to meet with her, and believed it was a good thing the school worked to remove them. 

“I think that they have some misinformation about me, which is very easy to do in a time like this,” she said, describing the attacks on her and her classes as antisemitic. 

Anti-Israel activism has long been a fixture on Evergreen State’s campus, both before and after Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old Evergreen State graduate, was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting Israel’s occupation of Gaza in 2003. And some of the terms of Evergreen State’s deal seemed particularly friendly to the Israel boycott movement, including a promise to set up new “disappearing taskforces” specifically investigating the school’s financial ties to Israel, and a prohibition on studying abroad in Israel (or the Palestinian Territories) while the war is ongoing. 

But Koppelman said neither provision was terribly concerning. As a public university, she noted, any divestment issues must go through the state government. And no Evergreen State student has studied abroad in Israel in at least two decades: “It doesn’t happen,” she said.

Regardless, Koppelman said, she is committed to trying to address and combat antisemitism through education — which she believes should be the goal of any university.

“Nothing would make me happier than for the people who boycotted my class to take it in the summer,” she said.

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