Jewish students at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

A Jewish student leader at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said campus Jews are satisfied with an unprecedented step taken by the chancellor to condemn a presentation to dorm advisors as anti-Semitic.

“We were very happy that a mass email was sent out to everyone at the university,” said Ian Katsnelson, a student senator and a leader of the IlliniPAC (Public Affairs Committee), which works to support U.S.-Israeli relations on campus. “It’s actually the first time in university history where the university has publicly condemned anti-Semitism,” he said.

Chancellor Robert Jones sent a campus-wide email in which he denounced a presentation on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians by Students for Justice in Palestine.  The email also cited the recent discovery of a swastika in the Foreign Languages building.

Critics responded to the assertion by Jones and others that the presentation, titled “Palestine & Great Return March: Palestinian Resistance to 70 years of Israeli Terror,” was critical of Israel, but not anti-Semitic, according to the News-Gazette, a local newspaper. They urged the university to formulate a definition of anti-Semitism.

In his email, Jones wrote that “This exercise was part of a university program created to help students learn to share diverse ideas and perspectives that lead to new understanding. Instead of fostering dialogue, it incited division, distrust and anger.”  

All housing staff, residence advisers and advocates will be required to undergo anti-Semitism training, he said. The university would also conduct an investigation.

Katsnelson and other Jewish students filed a formal complaint about the mandatory resident advisors meeting last month at which the pro-Palestinian students promoted “the idea of martyrdom as a call to violence,” Katsnelson said.

IlliniPAC called the presentation a “narrative of demonization of Israel and its citizens and Jewish students.” Coming after a series of anti-Semitic acts on campus, Katsnelson said, “it was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Katsnelson said that IlliniPAC consulted with the Jewish organizations on campus such as Hillel and Chabad. The organizations serve 4,000 Jewish students on the campus of 50,000. “We formulated a plan as to how to get the university to take action and protect Jewish student voices here.”

The university’s condemnation of anti-Semitism “has been a long time in the waiting and something that’s a huge step forward for the Jewish community,” he said.

“We now feel safer because the university has finally acknowledged that there is anti-Semitism at this campus,” said Katsnelson. In addition to painted swastikas, he said that mezuzahs had been torn off doors.

Katsnelson sees the chancellor’s denunciation as an opening for future opportunities to meet with people on campus that have differing opinions “and have conversations with them about these touchy subjects.”

But while Katsnelson praised the chancellor, the University of Illinois student government passed a resolution that distinguishes anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism.

The resolution, which passed in a 29-4 vote, criticizes Jones for having said a presentation to dorm advisers on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was anti-Semitic.

Many pro-Israel and Jewish students who were critical of the measure walked out ahead of the vote and held a vigil in remembrance of victims of anti-Semitism.

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