(JTA) — The University of Florida has more Jewish students than any other public college in the United States — and last week, one of them reached out to a professor, fearing that it would no longer be possible to study Jewish topics there.
Citing a graphic that had been making the rounds on social media, the student asked if it was true that a new bill working its way through the state legislature would remove all “Jewish Studies courses, majors and minors” in the state. The graphic was shared by several people with large online followings, including comedian D.L. Hughley, who has more than 750,000 followers on Twitter.
“I love my major and I can’t imagine switching to anything else,” the student wrote, according to Norman Goda, director of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies.
Goda wasn’t able to console the student. Like other Jewish academics in Florida who spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, he doesn’t know whether H.B. 999 would affect Jewish studies on the state’s college campuses. Though the bill’s author — a Republican state representative — says that won’t be the case, the bill’s language is much less clear.
That’s because the bill’s current wording would forbid the state’s public higher education institutions from teaching or offering any major or minor based in “methodology associated with Critical Theory.” That prohibition, say academics and other critics of the bill, would make teaching courses in Jewish studies impossible — and would also outlaw many other fields in higher education.
Exactly what the bill means by “critical theory” is unclear. To academics, the term refers to a tool for analyzing society and culture, created in the 1930s by German Jewish academics, that encourages people to view the world through power structures, and to consider why they fall short. To political conservatives, it’s a relative of “critical race theory,” a watchword for those who want to inhibit classroom instruction about racism. An earlier version of H.B. 999 mentioned only critical race theory, not the umbrella theory.
“These people don’t know what they’re talking about,” said a Jewish faculty member at a Florida university, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation from the state government, regarding the lawmakers behind H.B. 999. “You’re putting people who don’t know what critical theory is, but have heard the words — and now you’re putting them in charge of universities.”
A university that completely purged such ideas from its classrooms, the anonymous faculty member said, “would be non-existent.”
The bill in question is the latest example of conservative-led state efforts to snuff out culture-war modes of thought like critical race theory and gender studies, often referred to euphemistically by lawmakers as “divisive concepts” in education. Such efforts have occasionally ensnared efforts to teach Jewish history and the Holocaust.
Attempts to legislate the classroom are particularly potent in Florida, where Republican governor Ron DeSantis, a likely presidential candidate, has frequently stated his desire to ban “woke” concepts from being taught in the state. (DeSantis has stated he will wait to see H.B. 999’s final form before he decides whether to sign it, but in a discussion with college administrators last week he continued to rail against what he called the “ideological agenda” of campus diversity, equity and inclusion programs.)
The state recently rejected the curriculum for a new Advanced Placement African-American Studies course in high schools, forcing the College Board to rework the class. Florida is also home to several active conservative “parents’ rights” groups that have lobbied to remove objectionable books and clubs from public schools.
While most legislation in this realm to date has targeted what’s taught in K-12 public schools, this bill and other efforts in Florida have gone a step further by seeking to regulate the world of state-funded higher education — creating what critics say are new and dangerous threats to academic freedom, with broad and vague wording that leaves efforts to research and teach a variety of disciplines in doubt.
“This bill would cripple the long-standing freedom universities have to design and teach a curriculum based on the development of academic disciplines,” Cary Nelson, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois and past president of the American Association of University Professors ,who has taught multiple courses on Jewish issues, told JTA.
In a recent subcommittee hearing on the bill, Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade, who co-authored the legislation, said, “I believe that state universities should be focused on teaching students how to think, not what to think.” He said the bill’s banning of “radical” ideologies referred to “a system meant to direct and promote certain activism to achieve a specific viewpoint.”
Efforts to limit the material taught to children and college students are underway in several states. But Florida has an especially large population of Jewish students. The University of Florida stands atop Hillel International’s ranking of public colleges with the highest proportion of Jewish students, and the University of Central Florida has the third-largest. Florida State University, Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University and the University of South Florida also rank in the top 60.
H.B. 999 would affect education at those schools in other ways, too. The bill, which recently advanced to committee, would overhaul the state’s post-tenure review process, so that instead of checking on a faculty member’s research productivity every five years, as is currently the case in the state, tenured professors could face reviews “at any time for cause” including “violation of any applicable law or rule.”
The result, one academic in the state said, would be “open season on faculty,” who could be out of a job if their university’s board — which, in public schools, is beholden to the governor — disagrees with their syllabus.
Andrade rejected the idea that H.B. 999 would undercut Jewish studies in Florida.
“Outsiders are wrong. Ethnic studies are not affected by the bill either by the bill’s intent or the bill’s language,” Andrade wrote in an email to JTA, accusing the bill’s critics of “lying and claiming that Florida’s leaders have tried to ban teaching black history in schools.”
The state’s only Jewish Republican legislator, state Rep. Randy Fine, did not return a JTA request for comment on whether he supports the bill. Fine has promoted similar culture-war legislation in the past, including a bill he co-authored in February that would prohibit all K-12 schools in the state from referring to either students or employees by pronouns that do not correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth.
With a Republican-dominated House and Senate, some form of H.B. 999 seems likely to reach DeSantis’ desk. (A parallel bill in the state Senate does not contain wording on critical theory.) But there is strong opposition from the academic community. Groups including the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors and Florida’s statewide faculty union have harshly condemned the bill and urged lawmakers to oppose it.
The American Historical Association’s statement on the bill this month calls it a “blatant and frontal attack on principles of academic freedom and shared governance central to higher education in the United States.” More than 70 academic, historical and activist organizations co-signed the statement.
The executive committee of the Association for Jewish Studies signed a different statement authored by the American Council of Learned Societies, decrying the bill as an “effort to undermine academic freedom in Florida.”
“If it passes, it ends academic freedom in the state’s public colleges and universities, with dire consequences for their teaching, research, and financial well-being,” the statement said of the bill. “Academic freedom means freedom of thought, not the state-mandated production of histories edited to suit one party’s agenda in the current culture wars.”
Asked for comment on the bill, Warren Hoffman, the executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies, pointed to the statement.
Rachel Harris, director and endowed chair at Florida Atlantic University’s Jewish Studies program, is in her first semester at the university, having just arrived from the University of Illinois. “I’m now wondering if that was a terrible mistake,” she joked. (Harris is spending this term in Israel, researching on a Fulbright fellowship.)
Still, Harris said she was “confident” that legislators would “continue to support educational commitments in the state,” noting that Florida has a Holocaust education mandate for K-12 public schools. Her Boca Raton university is currently building an expanded center for Jewish and Holocaust studies, funded by private donors. H.B. 999 in its current form would prohibit universities from teaching critical theory concepts even when such programs are privately funded.
Despite what he described as a few students at the Jewish Studies center who are concerned about the new bill, Goda said he did not think the legislation would change the experience of Jewish students on his campus.
“Jewish kids these days are really choosing universities based on whether or not Jewish kids feel comfortable there,” he said. “And I would argue that [the University of Florida] is a very welcoming campus for Jewish kids overall. There are strong Jewish institutions associated with the campus.”
Instead, he feels the bill’s real effects would be felt in the state’s ability to recruit faculty and staff while its legislators jeopardize academic freedom, tenure and other lodestars of the humanities. He said, “The real question to me is how and in what way it’s going to be enforced.”
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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