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Jewish groups confront new questions: What counts as calling for genocide? And how should it be punished?

(JTA) – Just days after the presidents of three elite universities testified before Congress, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul sent a letter to the heads of her state’s public universities over the weekend instructing them that “calling for the genocide of any group of people” should “lead to swift disciplinary action.”

Meanwhile, Stanford University released a statement saying that “calls for the genocide of Jews or any peoples… would clearly violate” the school’s code of conduct.

The letter and statement were both in response to the congressional hearing, in which the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology declined to say outright that calling for the genocide of Jews would violate school rules. 

Swift and widespread outrage followed the hearing, leading to the resignation of Penn’s president and placing pressure on the other two leaders.

The hearing had another effect: Nationwide, explicit acknowledgement by public officials and university leadership alike that calling for genocide is, in fact, unacceptable. The question for Jewish and pro-Israel groups — especially those long concerned with antisemitism on campus — is what that means and how it will change their approach to the issue. 

What, exactly, counts as a call for genocide? Do popular pro-Palestinian chants that many Jews consider threatening — like calling for “intifada” — run afoul of the rules? And how should students be punished if those rules are broken?

One week after the hearing prompted those questions, some of the leading U.S. campus antisemitism watchdogs appeared reluctant to definitively answer them. They condemned chants such as “intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” but demurred from explicitly calling them genocidal. 

Representatives of two groups suggested that students who call for genocide should be suspended. One pro-Israel activist who spoke to JTA said the punishment should depend on “context,” acknowledging that he was using the very phrase that drove much of the backlash to the university presidents. A few others declined to state exactly how such students should be punished. 

“Chants like ‘from the river to the sea’ and ‘globalize the intifada’ are deeply offensive and antisemitic and are unquestionably contributing to hostile environments for Jewish and Israeli students on campuses across the country,” a spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Tuesday. 

But the ADL stopped short of defining such chants as de facto calls for Jewish genocide, and its own website’s description of the phrases does not include the term “genocide.” The website does say that “intifada” refers to violence such as that of the second intifada two decades ago, when approximately 1,000 Israelis were killed in terror attacks.

Neither Hochul’s office nor Stanford’s public relations representatives responded to JTA’s questions about whether they considered such phrases to meet the definition of calling for genocide of Jews, nor how they would discipline them.

Julia Jassey, a recent college graduate and the CEO of the campus antisemitism watchdog Jewish on Campus, called those phrases “antisemitic in impact” but would not say whether students who use them should be disciplined.

“Practically, the impact of saying ‘From the river to the sea’ calls into question the existence, the legitimacy, the lives of the folks who are living there who are Jewish,” Jassey said. When asked whether those phrases should be subject to disciplinary measures, Jassey, like other campus antisemitism activists who spoke to JTA, said it was largely up to the universities.

“I think that university administrations have an obligation to be clear,” she said, adding that they should “condemn” such language whether it comes from students or faculty. “It’s really important to prioritize the impact,” she said.

The ADL statement on the phrases further said universities had “clear legal obligations” to “respond” to such language. But beyond noting that the response should include some form of disciplinary action, the ADL did not clarify what such a response should be. 

The organization said it does push for universities to suspend any student group “that promotes calls for antisemitic violence.” That may be a reference to Students for Justice in Palestine, which defended Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The ADL and other Jewish groups called on campuses to withdraw recognition and funding from the group, and in recent weeks, several universities have suspended their SJP chapters.

While there have been a small number of reported incidents of swastikas and chants of “Gas the Jews,” along with others referencing Hitler on campuses this year, chants of “from the river to the sea” and “intifada” have been far more common. 

Responding to video of a recent event held by the Columbia University chapters of SJP and the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace at which protesters chanted “intifada,” the International Legal Forum, an Israel-based group, called the chant “a direct and unadulterated call for violence and genocide.” The group pushed Columbia to publicly condemn the activists and “ban these hate groups once and for all.” Columbia had suspended both groups for the remainder of the fall semester.

Those who chant those phrases object to the notion that they are calls for genocide. A spokesperson for JVP said that the group does not consider “from the river to the sea” to be antisemitic. 

“JVP understands that to be an absolute right for anyone to be free from the river to the sea,” Sonya Meyerson-Knox, the group’s communications manager, told JTA weeks prior to last week’s hearing. “So Palestine will be free, Israeli Jews will be free. One person’s freedom does not take away another person’s freedom. Unless, of course, it’s in a supremacist state, which is what the Israeli government has been doing for 75 years.” 

She likewise said after the hearing that the group also does not consider use of the term “intifada” to be equivalent to a call for violence, and does not believe students or university personnel should be penalized for using it. She added that her group does not endorse calls for violence and said, “No one on campuses is calling for the genocide of Jews and there is no evidence of this.” She repeated her group’s repeated accusation in the wake of Oct. 7 that Israel is committing “a genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.”

Meyerson-Knox said that JVP bases its guidelines on international law. “Resistance ‘by any means necessary,’ not so much. Popular resistance, absolutely,” she said. “There is a big difference there.”

When asked about the pro-Palestinian phrases, the general counsel for Hillel International, the umbrella group for campus Jewish centers, told JTA that students who chant “from the river to the sea” “need to be educated” on the fact that the phrase appears in Hamas’ charter. 

“What’s relevant is whether it lands on Jewish students on the campus as an attack, a potentially genocidal attack, on the Jewish people, a plurality of whom now live in Israel,” the counsel, Mark Rotenberg, said.

Rotenberg added that a university “has a responsibility to not allow these kinds of endorsements of violence to be misunderstood,” comparing the chants to a student placing a noose in an area of campus “knowing that Black students will see it.” 

He did suggest what administrations might do to a student or staff member who took such an action. “Universities will discipline, suspend and terminate the employment of people in the university community who engage in that kind of speech activity,” he said.

Watchdog groups devoted to the issue of campus antisemitism — some of which have spent years filing federal civil rights complaints that included objecting to the use of of pro-Palestinian language on campus — were somewhat vague as to how schools should discipline students who use them.

“The consequences that would be appropriate would be those provided for by school regulations or by law,” Gerard Filitti, general counsel for the pro-Israel legal group the Lawfare Project, told JTA. The Lawfare Project has filed federal civil rights challenges to college campuses via the Department of Education, including one at Columbia University from 2019 that the department re-opened in the wake of Oct. 7.

Asked what kinds of consequences would be appropriate, Filitti offered a range of options without saying which would best fit the offense. 

“Whether that includes suspension, or a mandatory training about antisemitism, including anti-Zionism, or whether that includes expulsion, I think that is, to borrow a phrase that was spoken of last week, context-specific,” he said, referencing the university presidents’ answers to the question of whether calls for genocide of Jews violated their codes. He added that universities should consider “the whole range of remedies available as consequences under the codes of the schools.”

The Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, another pro-Israel legal group active in campus lawsuits, also did not offer thoughts on whether or how universities should discipline students who uttered those exact phrases. 

The group’s president Alyza Lewin told JTA in a statement, “The very first step to ending the current harassment and preventing future harassment is for university administrators to understand Jewish identity so they can effectively recognize anti-Semitism.”

And a top figure at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an antisemitism watchdog group that has called for all three presidents who participated in the hearing to resign, suggested that universities should “train the police” to respond to complaints of antisemitism.

When asked if students calling for “intifada” should be arrested, Rabbi Abraham Cooper didn’t rule it out.

“This is private property. Universities set their own rules for campus,” he told JTA. “They have protocols in place. It’s not for me to say right now what those protocols should be … But what it does mean is they’ve got a whole lot of discussing and a whole lot of reflecting to do, because whatever they have in place right now may be working for a lot of people but it’s not working for the Jewish students.”

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Top Swiss Diplomat Appointed to Mediate Tensions Between Jewish Tourists, Businesses in Davos Ski Resort

A Hebrew sign at the Pischa Restaurant in the Swiss resort of Davos informing Jewish guests that they are banned from renting ski equipment. Photo: Screenshot

The tourism authority in the exclusive Swiss mountain resort of Davos has appointed a top diplomat to mediate the growing tensions between local businesses and Orthodox Jewish visitors as complaints of antisemitism increase.

Michael Ambühl — the former State Secretary of Switzerland previously in charge of the country’s relationship with the European Union (EU)  — will head a task force to tackle the problem, Swiss media outlets reported on Friday.

The announcement of Ambühl’s appointment comes just days after the resort was roiled by the refusal of a restaurant that operates a ski equipment rental store to provide services to Jewish guests.

A sign in Hebrew at the Pischa Restaurant in Davos stated that “due to various very annoying incidents, including the theft of a sledge, we no longer rent sports equipment to our Jewish brothers. This affects all sports equipment such as sledges, airboards, skis and snowshoes. Thank you for your understanding.”

Swiss police are currently investigating the incident as a possible case of discrimination. One Israeli tourist reported that he had visited the Pischa Restaurant where he “pretended not to understand Hebrew and asked if we could rent the equipment. After the woman consulted with the manager, she rejected our request.”

The tourism authority’s decision has irritated the country’s main Jewish representative body, the Swiss Israelite Association (SIG), which had been engaged in a separate dialog with the authority about accommodating Jewish guests that was abruptly closed down last year.

“The latest case shows that something is obviously wrong in Davos,” SIG General Secretary Jonathan Kreutner said in remarks quoted by the Blick news outlet.

Kreutner said that “comparable problems are not known from other holiday destinations, especially in those where our dialogue program is still active.” Kreutner acknowledged that the tourism authority “wants to take a new path, but we don’t yet know what it looks like and where it will lead.”

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‘Israel Outright Rejects International Dictates’: Biden Creating Plan For Palestinian State, Netanyahu Pushes Back: Report

US President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York City, US, Sept. 20, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

US President Joe Biden, along with a number of Arab states, are quickly working to form a plan to end the Israel-Hamas war and create a Palestinian state, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, sparking pushback from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The first step of such a plan would be for Israel and Hamas to agree to a six-week ceasefire in exchange for the Israeli hostages. Then, during that pause in fighting, the U.S. and its Arab partners would announce the plan and start to form an interim Palestinian government.

The US, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates are all reportedly are part of the talks, which have an ultimate goal of creating a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Washington Post also suggests that Israel may be expected to expel many of its own citizens from West Bank settlements and help rebuild Gaza.

The development of these plans is part of the reason Biden has cautioned Israel against moving on to fighting Hamas in Rafah — the terrorist group’s last stronghold. He believes such a ground offensive could jeopardize the prospect of peace. 

In a statement on Thursday, the White House said Biden “raised the situation in Rafah [during a call with Netanyahu], and reiterated his view that a military operation should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the civilians in Rafah.”

In response to these reports and the conversation he had with Biden, Netanyahu wrote that “Israel outright rejects international dictates regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. Such an arrangement will be reached only through direct negotiations between the parties, without preconditions.”

He added, “Israel will continue to oppose the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. Such recognition in the wake of the October 7 massacre would give a huge reward to unprecedented terrorism and prevent any future peace settlement.”

The tension represents the latest hiccup in Biden and Netanyahu’s relationship, which has grown increasingly sour since October 7 as Biden put pressure on Israel to wind down its fight against Hamas.

Netanyahu, jpwever, was not the only one to question the prudence of the proposed American-led plan. Left-leaning group Democratic Majority for Israel said in a post on Twitter/X: “We have always favored a two state solution. But right now, how do we ensure the lesson does not become ‘sheer evil,’ pays? That must be a central part of any plan.”

Richard Goldberg, a Senior Advisor at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies contended that the plan “is doomed to fail for several reasons. Two big ones: It’s premised on Hamas surviving and involves Qatar.” 

“Israel will be in a much stronger position after it takes Rafah,” he argued.

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Harvard University Issued Subpoenaed for Antisemitism Documents

Pro-Hamas students rallying at Harvard University. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder

Following weeks of warnings and ultimatums, the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce subpoenaed Harvard University on Friday to hand over documents related to its handling of allegations of antisemitic intimidation and harassment.

The order represents an escalation of tactics by the House Committee, which began investigating Harvard University last semester to determine whether it ignores complaints of discrimination when the victims who lodge them are Jewish. Since then, Harvard has been asked twice to submit a trove of materials requested by the committee.

Last week, Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) wrote Harvard a censorious letter accusing school officials of obstructing the committee’s investigation with “grossly insufficient” responses to its inquires and submitting content of a “limited and dilatory nature.”

In a statement to Reuters, Harvard maintained that it has cooperated with the committee in “good faith,” providing “10 submissions totaling more than 3,500 pages that directly address key areas of inquiry put forward by the committee.” Chairwoman Foxx told the outlet, however that the problem is one of “quality, not quantity,” suggesting that Harvard is frenetically pantomiming compliance without providing anything of substance.

Foxx has requested “all reports of antisemitic acts or incidents and “related communications” going back to 2021 that were sent to Harvard’s offices of the president, general counsel, dean of students, police department, human resources, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, among others. She also requested documentation on Harvard Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz, who, the school determined, had “denigrated” several students for being “Israeli Jews.” Originally, Foxx gave Harvard a deadline of Jan. 23 by which to comply.

“While a subpoena was unwarranted, Harvard remains committed to cooperating with the committee and will continue to provide additional materials, while protecting the legitimate privacy, safety, and security concerns of our community,” Harvard told Reuters.

“We will use our full congressional authority to hold these schools accountable for their failure on the global stage,” said committee member and Harvard Alumnus Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) in a statement announcing the action.

The past four months have been described by critics of Harvard as a low-point in the history of the school, America’s oldest and, arguably, most prestigious institution of higher education. Since the October 7 massacre by Hamas, Harvard has been accused of fostering a culture of racial grievance and antisemitism, while important donors have suspended funding for programs, and its first Black president, Claudine Gay, resigned in disgrace last month after being outed as a serial plagiarizer. Her tenure was the shortest in the school’s history.

As scenes of Hamas terrorists abducting children and desecrating dead bodies circulated worldwide, 31 student groups at Harvard, led by the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) issued a statement blaming Israel for the attack and accusing the Jewish state of operating an “open air prison” in Gaza, despite that the Israeli military withdrew from the territory in 2005. In the weeks that followed, anti-Zionists stormed the campus screaming “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “globalize the intifada,” terrorizing Jewish students and preventing some from attending class.

In Novevmber, a mob of anti-Zionists — including Ibrahim Bharmal, editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review — followed, surrounded, and intimidated a Jewish student. “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” the crush of people screamed in a call-and-response chant into the ears of the student who —as seen in the footage — was forced to duck and dash the crowd to free himself from the cluster of bodies that encircled him.

By Dec., Claudine Gay —  along with Elizabeth Magill of University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and Sally Kornbluth of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — was hauled before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to account for her administration’s handling of the problem. For weeks, Gay was reluctant to punish students who chanted genocidal slogans and unequivocally condemn antisemitism. During questioning, she told the committee that determining whether calling for a genocide of Jews constitutes a violation of school rules depends “on the context.”

Two days later, the committee launched investigations of Harvard, Penn, and MIT.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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