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Recent Incidents Involving the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict on Campus

Dear members of the Northwestern community,

Throughout Fall Quarter, messages have been posted and painted around campus stating, “From the River to the Sea Palestine Will Be Free.” Then, on Nov. 9, a Weinberg student published an opinion column in the Daily Northwestern in which she proclaimed her pride in being Jewish and argued that the slogan was hateful and had its origins in anti-Semitism. This was followed by the appearance of another, large sign near Deering Meadow with “From the River to the Sea” written over 40 copies of her opinion piece.

I appreciate and support Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Robin R. Means Coleman’s message to the community Wednesday. I also appreciate further engagement by her and members of our Student Affairs team with students and student groups about our responsibilities to one another when having difficult conversations on our campus. 

I have been reflecting on the recent events, and listening to students, faculty, staff and parents about the events, and wanted to offer some further thoughts on how a university community can create the best environment for meaningful dialogue.

Let me be explicit about what I am not trying to express — I am not making a judgment about whether the statement “From the River to the Sea” is antisemitic. As the Anti-Defamation League’s website explains, and as another Weinberg student pointed out in a piece published Thursday in The Daily Northwestern, the precise intent of the statement is open to some debate. Certainly many people see it as the antisemitic targeting of Jewish people, while others view it as a call to respect the human rights and freedoms of Palestinians. The truth no doubt depends upon the intent and perspective of the people who propagate the slogan and those who hear it. 

What I do want to write about is the way we engage each other here at Northwestern. As all of the first-year students and their parents heard me say at Convocation, I am devoted to free expression and the values embodied in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A university is built upon the idea that people should be free to express their views on both academic and political matters without fear of retribution. This goes for faculty, staff and students, and as this statement demonstrates, even administrators. It is only through reasoned debate that we have a chance to develop understanding and pursue knowledge and truth.

But, I also told the students and parents that just because one has a right to say something doesn’t mean that one should say it. There is nothing inconsistent between engaging in vigorous debate and paying attention to the effect one’s words have on members of the community. As an academic community, we should be respectful of one another as we seek the truth.

In this latest incident, one student sought to express how she felt, as a Jewish person, upon viewing the sign, “From the River to the Sea.” I would have hoped that the people who put up the sign near Deering Meadow, painted on top of pasted-together copies of her well-reasoned op-ed, would have responded instead by discussing the issues, perhaps through their own op-ed.

Thursday’s Daily Northwestern op-ed by the second Weinberg student heartened me by demonstrating that the battle of ideas can be fought through respectful engagement. I commend both Weinberg students for their impassioned and thoughtful opinion pieces. Painting the slogan over the first student’s op-ed, however, did not advance anything other than making people angry, polarizing our community and making students feel targeted for being Jewish.

As we deal with some of the knottiest issues on campus — and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is among the most difficult — I hope that we can remember that persuasion through reason is always more appropriate than intimidation. And, at the end of the day, we are a community dedicated to knowledge, not slogans.