Sophomore Noah Zand was excited when he first learned about Hillel Club holding a dialogue to address the recent controversy regarding Assistant Visiting Professor of Africana Studies Kwame Zulu Shabazz’s tweets, which have been considered anti-Semitic by the Jewish community, and the subsequent email chain between him and a Jewish faculty member.
Zand, who is Jewish, attended Hillel Against Hate Monday evening along with 130 other Knox students and faculty members. After a 20 minute presentation by Assistant Professor of History Danielle Fatkin on the history of anti-Semitism, the definition of anti-Semitism and the differences between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, students and faculty engaged in a dialogue to discuss specific instances when they had felt discriminated against.
However, Zand and others left the event feeling as though an opportunity for discourse was missed.
“I think what it missed out on was the elephant in the room. We [were] not talking about the reason why we [were] gathered there,” Zand said. “I’m disappointed. I was happy I went to the event, but I am disappointed that we didn’t discuss the tweets.”
To Zand, it was important for Hillel and the campus community to address the controversy together and for Shabazz to have an opportunity in public to speak to people about what he meant in his tweets. However, he clarified that he was not endorsing support for or against what Shabazz wrote, only that he felt the professor and the campus should have a discourse about the issue.
Sophomore Iesha Said also expressed her disappointment with the event. Although she liked the idea of the event and was glad to see the diverse group of people it brought together, she had attended with the intention of finding a neutral area for the tweets and emails to be addressed.
“It just gives me another thing where it’s just like, wow, Knox really doesn’t know how to have dialogues. Or how to have dialogues about discourses or about the big things that everyone really came here to do,” she said.
Said gave props to Hillel for taking on the controversy in a different light despite feeling disappointed. She was impressed with the diverse group, but admitted that she did not think that was the reason why people attended.
Shabazz was in attendance during the presentation given by Fatkin, but did not stay for the dialogue. According to him, he also felt as though the event failed to address the two issues that were raised in his tweets: that Zionism is genocidal and the relationship between blacks and Jews.
“Sitting at tables and talking about moments when you’ve been uncomfortable really misses the point that I’ve been saying is that being black in America is a life full of discomfort,” he said. “I’m not saying that there isn’t anti-Jewish sentiment, but as a group, in terms of quality of life, it doesn’t impact us in the same way. Anti-Semitism is a thing, it’s a problem – but in terms of where Jewish people live, how they live, what schools they go to, their wealth, their relative health, crime in the community, they’re doing really well.”
Shabazz said he would have liked to see a panel discussing the issues that were raised in his tweets and the email chain.
“If there is a question about black-Jewish relationships, which is one of the contested points, then we should have a conversation about that issue,” he said.
President of Hillel Club and junior Chava Solberg organized Hillel Against Hate after the tweet and email controversy. She was incredibly pleased with the turnout at the event and is already looking forward to continuing Hillel Against Hate in the future to address issues of hate in the community. The group plans to host more Hillel Against Hate event in the fall to address other aspects of the issue.
“We really want to focus on hate for everyone. I think that it is important for people to recognize what anti-Semitism is and what it looks like and how to approach that. But I also recognize that other kids have felt hate,” Solberg said. “It breaks my heart that anyone has ever felt sad or disliked. I wish that I could fix that, and I think this gives everyone a really good opportunity to do that. I want people to feel heard.”
Although Solberg is unsure of the direction she wants to take future events in terms of dialogue or education, she is excited to keep the conversation going. She also addressed the comments made by some students who felt that the event was lacking discourse specifically regarding Shabazz’s tweets and emails.
“I think some people were expecting a little bit of a showdown. That wasn’t the purpose. I didn’t want that … I hope that they got something out of this,” Solberg said. “This isn’t an us against them. This isn’t an us against one person, this is a let’s unite and grow stronger.”
Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jonah Rubin, a Jewish faculty members on campus, also felt as though the event went well and that it showed how willing Knox students are to listen to each other’s experiences with discrimination.
“The number of students who have come out to engage in these conversations is a testament to the campus,” he said.
Junior Jyotsna Seesala was also impressed with the dialogue. She initially attended in order to show solidarity with her Jewish peers and was glad to hear about different students’ experiences with discrimination and hate.
“Everyone has their own experiences and they’re all valid. Everyone is human first and their identity second,” she said. “To hear all these experiences, I can take away that time does change people and time has an effect on how we see and experience things.”