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Times of Israel: A4BGU CEO pens op-ed on campus protests

Times of Israel: A4BGU CEO pens op-ed on campus protests

May 15, 2024

CEO Op-Eds, Current events

The Times of Israel — As has been widely publicized, the situation at American universities in the aftermath of the October 7th Hamas terror attacks on Israel is a real mess. Sadly, my alma mater, Northwestern University, is no exception. It seems to be writing itself into the wrong side of the history books.

Pro-Palestinian tent encampments inspired in part by outside agitators with the most notable being at Columbia University have swept campuses nationwide, resulting in unlawful behavior, harassment of Jewish students, and violent takeovers of school facilities. The severity of the protests recently prompted the Biden administration to put the campus issue atop its latest communication on countering antisemitism, which included sending a guide promoting campus safety to the leadership of more than 5,000 colleges and universities.

Doug Seserman, A4BGU CEO

What’s even more alarming to me than the tent encampments is how university leaders have navigated the protests — and in the case of my alma mater, Northwestern University, the school negatively distinguished itself in this downward spiral.

Northwestern President Michael Schill set a dangerous precedent when he negotiated an agreement with anti-Israel protesters without apparently even consulting with the Advisory Committee on Preventing Antisemitism and Hate that he himself appointed just this last January. Following the agreement, seven prominent members of the committee resigned. Administrators at other schools have followed suit, reaching similar deals that capitulated to anti-Israel pressure. Rutgers University agreed to review protesters’ demand to divest the university’s financial holdings from companies with ties to Israel, while Brown University went as far as agreeing to a vote by its board in October on the issue of divestment.

I love Northwestern. I did both my undergraduate and graduate work there. I’m still close with my fraternity brothers. And I’ve been married to my college sweetheart for 34 years. However, my alma mater’s decision-making has left me upset, embarrassed, and dumbfounded. Northwestern succumbed to the anti-Israel mob and has effectively enabled “the inmates to run the asylum.”

Furthermore, Northwestern’s response to the protests has threatened my core values as both an American and as a Jew. As an American, I believe in democracy and freedom of speech. The right to protest must be protected. It is a litmus test of a democratic and just society. However, many of these encampments have become bastions for hate speech. My strong point of view is that when free speech becomes hate speech it should lose its right to be free. Furthermore, as a Jew, I believe in value of “Tikkun Olam” — the responsibility we collectively share to make the world a better place. My Jewish identity is also connected to my love and support for the land of Israel. And, while Israel may not be perfect, it certainly has every right to defend its civilian population in the aftermath of heinous atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7th. That level of barbarism cannot be condoned under any circumstance. It has no place in a civilized world and must be eradicated.

This all begs the question: What should I do now?

My conundrum isn’t unique. Alumni of far too many colleges and universities have been presented with this troubling dilemma: Your alma mater doesn’t seem to be reflecting your values.

What is the best way to respond?

Here are five options to consider:

1. Do nothing.

Some alumni may choose to acknowledge that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex issue. Therefore, they should dissociate the issue from their broader support of their alma mater. This gives the institution the benefit of the doubt, and the alum can wait for the situation to play out further down the road. David Ben-Gurion — the founder, first Prime Minister, and namesake of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev — said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, one must believe in miracles.” What I know with absolute certainty is that no miracles will happen from doing nothing.

2. Abandon ship.

Prominent executives and billionaire donors have already withdrawn donations and resigned from their alma maters’ boards. Some are calling on their peers to do the same.

Parents are also struggling with where to send their children to school. In late April, the presidents of Israel’s nine leading research universities issued a letter expressing their support for American Jewish students. They pledged to do their best to open admissions to international students in order to help them “find a welcoming academic and personal home.”

Yet, by withdrawing altogether, Americans may miss the opportunity to do their best to combat antisemitism here in our own country. This is a time when American Jewish leadership is needed both here and abroad. There is no question we must rise to above the fray and embrace a new mandate to elevate the discourse around Israel and ensure the safety of Jewish students on college campuses in the United States.

3. Withhold your gift and assess the school’s next action.

The middle ground between doing nothing and abandoning ship is withholding your gift until the institution takes action in support of Israel and Jewish students.

For instance, when Northwestern initially formed the Advisory Committee on Preventing Antisemitism and Hate, I was cautiously optimistic. Perhaps the university made this move more for optics than anything else, but, at least in theory, the new committee could’ve represented the kind of reassurance that alums and supporters alike need to continue supporting the institution.

4. Continue donating to your alma mater consistent with your values.

Rather than making a purely unrestricted gift, donors can consider earmarking donations consistent with their values.

Funding programs that foster Jewish life like Hillel on college campuses is always important.

Strengthening existing or establishing new programs for student exchange and research collaboration between your alma mater with Israeli universities is also a vital approach to fostering relationships between students and faculty from the U.S. and Israel. Sharing knowledge and experiences helps people connect at a human level. I can’t think of a better way to combat xenophobia and antisemitism than to foster authentic people-to-people relationships.

This tangible approach unfolded before my own eyes when I attended a meeting last Fall in Providence, Rhode Island. The meeting was in connection with Brown University’s Carney Institute for Brain Science. Last summer, graduate students and faculty from both Brown and Ben-Gurion University participated in a two-week neurotech course in Israel. Following October 7th, I met with these students and heard them speak with palpable emotion about how transformative their peer-to-peer experience was for them. I’ve never seen more articulate young American ambassadors for Israel than the group of Brown University graduate students. And, notably, most of them weren’t Jewish.

5. Support an Israeli university

With the war hanging a moral cloud over American academia, donors can find meaning by supporting the education, research, and programs at Israeli universities. The world-leading research conducted at these institutions enables the Jewish State to fulfill its promise as a “Migdal Or” (beacon of light) by helping solve humanity’s biggest challenges such as climate change, water scarcity, cybersecurity, AI, robotics, global health, marine biology, and more. I can’t think of a more tangible 21st century Zionist act than to be part of Israel’s building and sharing of its knowledge with the world.

Supporting an Israeli university is also a great way to support the diversity and shared society of the Jewish State. Approximately 22% of Israeli citizens are Arab. Ben-Gurion University, as an example, has hundreds of Arab Muslim Bedouin students, many of them female and the first from their families to ever receive a university level education.

The bottom line is that while each of the aforementioned options has its merits, the most effective course of action doesn’t have to be an “either/or proposition.” For me, the best course of action is “both/and” — a combination of options four and five. One can keep supporting your alma mater while also supporting Israel in a meaningful way.

Israel’s darkest hour may very well be the best time to increase the kind of philanthropy that fortifies our role as an American Jewish diaspora. As we know from Pirke Avot, the ethics of our fathers: “The work (of repairing the world) is plentiful. It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

Read this op-ed by Doug Seserman, A4BGU CEO, in The Times of Israel.