The ugly news at St. Thomas

St. Paul’s University of St. Thomas is in the news and the news is ugly. The linked story includes the full text of the messages/statements cited in the column below by Robert J. Delahunty, UST Le Jeune Chair and Professor of Law; Willis Krumholz, UST JD/MBA 2014; and Daniel Berlinger UST JD candidate 2017. Professor Delahunty et al. write:

The University of St. Thomas is in the news, and the news is very ugly.

Several days ago it came to light that Mayzer Muhammad, the head of UST’s student government, had a long record of making anti-Semitic remarks on social media, including an implicit call for the genocide of the Jewish people. “[Y]ahood [Jews] will get what coming for them,” Muhammad tweeted.

Muhammad was the president of the UST chapter of the Muslim Student Association before his election in April 2016 as head of the UST student government. His comments about Jews and supporters of the state of Israel covered a two-year period from 2014 to 2016, not long before his election as student president. During that time, he repeatedly gave coarse expression to his hatred. For instance, in July 2014 he wrote: “If you support Israel in anyway, shape, or form, please unfollow me right now cause those people are the scum of the earth.” For full documentation, see here.

When the disclosures appeared, Muhammad’s reaction was to attack his accusers rather than to apologize for what he had written. In a message to UST undergraduates, he claimed that he was the victim of a “smear campaign” by two “Islamophobic” organizations. The two organizations in question were the Algemeiner and Canary Mission.

The Algemeiner is a mainstream if lesser known American Jewish publication. Algemeiner ran the story of Mr. Muhammad’s statements, noting that he was the head of the UST student government. Muhammad’s statements had been collected by Canary Mission, which scours social media accounts to monitor anti-Semitism on college campuses. It does so on the understanding that the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is frequently blurred and indistinct. Indeed, Muhammad’s comments, which attacked both Israeli government policies and Jews as such, make for a case in point.

In his message to UST students, Muhammad gave no sign of a willingness to resign or even to apologize, which might limit the damage he has done to UST and mitigate the offense he given to Jewish people. In our view Muhammad’s stance leaves UST tainted with his public anti-Semitism.

As members of the UST community, this concerns us deeply. Muhammad continues to occupy the most prominent position in UST’s student government. Instead of resigning from his position – as would have been honorable – he assailed the motives of the watchdog groups that exposed him, accusing them of a “smear.”

To be sure, criticizing the policies of the State of Israel cannot necessarily be equated with anti-Semitism. A university like UST should be a forum for open and vigorous debate on a whole range of issues. Indeed, it is regrettable that university administrators nowadays are so often unwilling to protect diversity of opinion, including opinions that many would find repulsive. Reasonable minds may well disagree on Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip – the alleged occasion of some of Muhammad’s tweets.

But it is also true that criticism of Israel frequently masks an underlying anti-Semitism. Why? Because Israel is not just any nation-state. It was founded as a refuge for a people who had been persecuted, expelled and murdered for many centuries. The persecution of Jews occurred in both Christendom and Muslim lands and has continued to the present. Between 1948 and 1972, about 820,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes in Arab countries. Of these, about 586,000 were resettled in Israel.

Given this long and tragic history, attacks on the State of Israel, especially when the attacker expresses himself in terms of naked hatred or turns a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Israel’s enemies against her people, can come close to classic anti-Semitism – close enough to raise reasonable suspicions that more is at work than a policy disagreement.

In Muhammad’s case, there can be no doubt that he crossed the line from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism. To say “[Y]ahood [Jews] will get what coming for them” is not just to criticize the State of Israel. It is to call, in plain enough terms, for the mass murder of Jewish people, whether in Israel or elsewhere. If Muhammad or his defenders think otherwise, then they must have spent their lives in a kind of coma, unaware of or indifferent to the Holocaust and the discourse about Jews and Judaism that preceded it.

In crossing the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, Muhammad also crossed the line between what is tolerable in our community and what is not. In these circumstances, we would have expected the swift, decisive and unequivocal repudiation of Mr. Muhammad’s remarks from the UST administration.

Late last Friday, UST President Julie Sullivan circulated a message to the entire UST community. We welcome President Sullivan’s intervention. There are many true and useful observations in her message. Moreover, we appreciate the difficult position in which she was place by Muhammad’s tweets and their disclosure. Any university president will have to weigh the interests and opinions of the university’s varied constituencies and to evaluate the complications that a hasty, thoughtless or insensitive intervention in a matter like this may occasion. President Sullivan has taken other encouraging steps including the hiring of Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein as an Associate Chaplain at UST.

Nonetheless, we would have expected a firmer and clearer response from Dr. Sullivan to her student government leader’s anti-Semitism. Even if the emotions Muhammad expressed were those of an adolescent, and even if he has not repeated the offense since becoming UST student president, he has not resigned or withdrawn his remarks or apologized. The millstone he placed around UST’s neck remains there.

Our main concerns about Dr. Sullivan’s letter are three.

First, she did not unequivocally brand any of Mr. Muhammad’s remarks as anti-Semitic. She merely stated that he had been “accused” of anti-Semitic discourse. On the merits of that accusation, she was silent. Commendably, she did say that the school “strongly denounces the 2014 statements that have circulated on social media.” And she condemned, in generic terms, “all hateful anti-Semitic, anti-Christian or anti-Muslim posts.” However, her harshest criticism was directed, not at Mr. Muhammad, but at the two Jewish organizations that had brought Mr. Muhammad’s comments to light. At least, that is how we understand her somewhat cryptic remark that “[a]t the same time, we are deeply concerned about the vitriolic and hateful discourse that targets young voices” (emphasis added). This seems to replay Muhammad’s tactic of shooting the messenger.

Second, she took no institutional responsibility for repairing the damage Muhammad had caused. Instead, she seemed to be assigning the sole responsibility to the UST undergraduate student body to deal with Muhammad. She alluded to the possibility that he might be removed or recalled from office by the actions of his peers, or at least be subjected to a vote of no confidence from them. And we are pleased to say that a movement to do so has already started. See here. An impeachment vote by the UST undergraduate student government is likely to occur after undergraduate classes resume on March 27.

But UST cannot shed its millstone so easily. Consider the possibility that Muhammad is not removed from office, forced by peer pressure to withdraw or given a vote of no confidence. In the light of what is now public knowledge, any of those outcomes could be interpreted as a sign that the UST undergraduate body had endorsed Muhammad’s views. In plain terms, it could be taken to show that our students were indifferent to anti-Semitism, or even sympathized with it. Is that a consequence that our university President could accept?

Third, nothing in Dr. Sullivan’s letter imposes any kind of sanction on Mr. Muhammad, or even hinted at one. It would not have required undue creativity to devise an appropriate sanction, even one well short from removing Mr. Muhammad from his office. He might have been required to do some form of community service. If some local Jewish organization or place of worship were willing to accept such service from him, he could have been told to perform them there. Or he might have been required to organize and speak at a student government-sponsored event dedicated to discussing the alarming rise of anti-Semitism on the nation’s campuses. The speakers at such an event could include leaders of both the American Jewish and American Muslim communities, among them representatives from the Jewish groups that exposed Mr. Muhammad’s tweets.

UST itself should take further action to address the problem of anti-Semitism. As we have noted, anti-Semitism is on the rise at our universities – a conclusion amply documented by researchers at Brandeis University in a 2016 study.

UST might also offer a course dedicated to the study of anti-Semitism throughout the years. Such a course would cover the persecution of the Jewish people by Christians, by Muslims, and by the neo-pagan Nazis that culminated in the Holocaust. Some of our students are evidently unaware of the past 2000 years of the Jewish experience. This ignorance may have fed into a misunderstanding about what constitutes anti-Semitism and what does not.

UST has responsibilities to its Jewish students, neighbors, friends and benefactors. Jewish students need to be certain that UST will provide an environment in which they are welcome and honored. We are not talking about creating any kind of “safe space” in which robust and informed disagreement is stifled. We are talking about a genuinely Catholic university in which our Jewish elder brothers and sisters in the Lord are cherished and honored.

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