The Volokh Conspiracy

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Disagreeing with Eugene about the Anti-Hillel Incidents at Northwestern University Last Week


April 15, 2024, was admitted students day at Northwestern University. Student protestors took advantage of that day to, well, protest.

As the Daily Northwestern reported, "Demonstrators outside Sargent and Allison handed out flyers that welcomed admitted students to what they called the 'real Northwestern' around noon." The leaflet handed out by protesters accused Northwestern of "funneling Jewish students into Hillel, the Zionist 'foundation for Jewish life.'"

Later in the day, students held a protest rally, which included a student inveighing again NU Hillel as the "Zionist home of Jewish life on campus" in a speech during the rally. "Hillel is one of the many ways in which this university is complicit in infusing Jewishness with Zionism," the organizer said.

For the uninitiated, Hillel is the mainstream, international Jewish student organization that has hundreds of chapters in the US. Hillel provides religious and cultural programming to any Jewish (or non-Jewish, if they are interested) students who seek it. The only limitation Hillel has, ideologically speaking, is that it won't sponsor or partner with groups that call for Israel to cease to exist, nor who support boycotting Israel-related entities. That said, "anti-Zionist" students are welcome to participate in Hillel activities, and it does not impose any ideological litmus tests on participants. Wanting Israel to continue to exist is a position shared by well over ninety percent of American Jews.

The obvious reason that NU activists were attacking Hillel on admitted students day was to discourage students who either support Israel's existence, or are sufficiently indifferent to Israel to use the Hillel's services regardless, in other words, the vast, vast majority of Jewish students even at left-wing elite university, to attend, knowing they will face hostility from organized student groups and their members.

Now, imagine that similar vitriol has been aimed, on admitted students day, at the campus black students organization, the campus LGBTQ+ group, or the campus Muslim group, for any reason. Then imagine that the Dean of Students, who is also vice-president of student wellbeing (!), had been in attendance.

Everyone knows that if any of these other minority group organizations had faced similar organized vitriol, on admitted students day, no less, the university administration would have had a collective conniption fit. The Dean, Mona Dugo, if she had been in attendance, would have been "standing in solidarity" with the group whose organization was attacked. The university would have issues press releases denouncing the protests and emphasizing that it welcomes (black, LGBTQ, Muslim) students.

None of that happened. Instead, Dean Mona Dugo was quoted in the Daily as stating she was there to protect the students' right to protest, which, I should note, doesn't seem to have been in any jeopardy. She later told Eugene, in response to his inquiry, that she frequently attends protests to ensure everyone's rights are protected. She added the University, strongly supports Hillel, which is vital to the Northwestern community, and that the University is investigating whether the statements about Hillel that were in the flyer distributed Monday violate our Code of Conduct or Northwestern's discrimination and harassment policies. As Eugene reports, on Sunday the university put out a statement clarifying Dean Dugo's role at the protest, which seems to match what she emailed him.

The Daily then elaborated on her original statement to them at the rally. "I'm not really here to stand with or in opposition to the students. My role as the dean of students is to make sure that students have a right to protest."

Eugene concluded: "It thus seems that she indeed told the reporters that she was there as a neutral, in order both to protesting students' rights and to make sure that they do not 'do[] anything that disrupts or damages our community.' Again, that sounds like her doing her job as an administrator."

I disagree. Now, there were other issues raised at the rally that didn't have the same sensitivities. But the student protestors, via their leaflet, had already shown that Hillel was one of their targets. And again, I find it hard to believe that a university official would profess neutrality between (a) students, on admitted students day, decrying the existence of a black, LGBTQ, or Muslim student group, and (b) the targeted organizations and their members.

Consistently applied, such institutional neutrality would be generally good policy, so long as it does not clash with civil rights laws. But we all know that there is no such institutional neutrality at elite universities when it comes to speech perceived as racist, homophobic, etc. Its especially not believable that a university official would profess neutrality in circumstances where protesting students are intentionally jeopardizing the university's ability to recruit members of minority groups. Indeed, in 2019 NU itself issued no less than four separate condemnatory statements over several weeks in response to "two stickers and one handwritten note, all with the slogan, 'It's Okay to Be White,'" being found on campus.

But maybe we should praise Northwestern for its institutional neutrality (marred I suppose by its eventual expression of support for Hillel) in this instance, as model for it to follow in other circumstances? I don't think so. Jewish students are entitled to the same protection for a hostile environment as other students, and as a matter of nondiscrimination, as required by Title VI, if a university wouldn't tolerate hostile behavior toward group A, it should not tolerate hostile behavior toward group B. Institutional neutrality toward group B but not A is not institutional neutrality, but in the immortal words of Animal Farm, evidence that some animals are more equal than others. I suspect that Eugene disagrees with me, and would prefer selective institutional neutrality to none at all.

I also disagree with Eugene's headline portraying the events at issue as an "anti-Israel" protest. The students were protesting NU's ties to Israel, but there were also specifically protesting Hillel, and doing so on admitted students day with the obvious intent of discouraging most Jewish students from attending. That makes the protests both anti-Hillel and antisemitic, no matter how much the protestors may profess to have nothing against Jewish people, per se. Indeed, the student who attacked Hillel at the rally declined to identify "themselves," likely recognizing that many people would find the attack on Hillel to be antisemitic. People, including NU students, have a general right be antisemitic, but we don't have to pretend they aren't.

PS I apologize to those who thought this post was going to be about pro-Shammai goings-on at NU. If you don't get this joke, don't worry about it.