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The ADL’s Robert Trestan interviews Wellesley College President Paula Johnson. ADL

Wellesley College president says antisemitic extremists scored a “victory” on campus

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Wellesley College president says antisemitic extremists scored a “victory” on campus

The ADL’s Robert Trestan interviews Wellesley College President Paula Johnson. ADL

BOSTON – When the menacing database known as the Mapping Project made headlines last June, Jews were aghast.

The anonymous website identified hundreds of Jewish and other organizations in the state – including schools – supposedly responsible for the “colonization of Palestine” and other societal ills. Local Jews braced for trouble, fearing an increase in antisemitism – including violence, scapegoating, intimidation, and infringement on academic freedom. US Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Salem, called it “an anti-Semitic enemies list with a map attached.”

One of the sites on this map was Wellesley College, which was chastised for – among other reasons – its relationship with Birthright Israel and its “free propaganda trips to Israel.” It also singled out a particular course in Wellesley’s Peace and Justice Studies program called “Palestinian Israeli Peace Prospects.”

According to the Mapping Project, “When Palestine is discussed at Wellesley, it is discussed through classes such as “Palestinian Israeli Peace Prospects,” a class which, true to its name, misrepresents events on the ground in Palestine as a “conflict” requiring “peace negotiations, conflict mediation, compromise, and solutions,” whitewashing over the reality of Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland.”

Wellesley’s President Paula Johnson recently described the impact of the Mapping Project at the college.

“Let me just share with you what happened on our campus, and I think it’s been an infringement on academic freedom,” Johnson said in a keynote address Oct. 30 to about 500 people attending “The Good Fight,” an ADL New England forum on confronting antisemitism held at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel.

She said the course that was singled out is taught by Nadya Hajj, a Palestinian-American political scientist, and “is the course at Wellesley that teaches about this conflict.” Johnson described the course as having a “nuanced and balanced” perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian history and conflict.

“By naming this one course … it is meant to silence a balanced view of this issue,” Johnson said. She added that it has caused fear on the campus, and handed “a victory” to extremists. The classroom location was changed, the police and FBI got involved – and the professor will not be teaching the course next year.

There was a collective gasp in the audience. “This is the silencing, right?” she said. “It is a victory for the extremists … It did exactly what they intended to do.”

Adding fuel to the fire at Wellesley was the decision by the student newspaper’s editorial board to endorse the “Mapping Project,” a stance promptly condemned by Johnson as antisemitic. The editorial board eventually walked back that endorsement but reaffirmed its support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is aimed at delegitimizing Israel and pressuring it to change its policies toward Palestinians.

In the forum, moderated by ADL New England Director Robert Trestan, Johnson acknowledged the fine line she needed to walk in her decision to criticize the Mapping Project.

“Every time we are asked to speak, we have to think about who we are leaving out, who might we be silencing as an unintended consequence, and what precedent we are setting,” she said.

But “the Mapping Project did cross a line for me,” she said, adding she felt “a moral imperative” to address it and “to make sure that it was very clear that the newspaper’s opinion – and they have a right to speak – was not that of the college.”

“What I didn’t do was speak out against BDS,” she said. “And my personal opinion is that I do not agree with that movement, I oppose the movement. I think that the spreading of the movement has actually increased antisemitic acts on our campuses.”

Those who attended the forum also heard from Jewish college students in the wake of a summer of increased white supremacist activity in Greater Boston.

The students, from Boston University, Harvard, Tufts, Emerson, and Wellesley, offered a mix of perspectives. They all described positive experiences through thriving Hillels and Chabads that eagerly stepped in to engage students after pandemic restrictions eased.

But each student cited at least one example of how antisemitism has affected them on the campuses they call home. Bailey Allen, from Emerson, was startled to see a poster vandalized, altered from “Yoga with Hillel” to “Yoga with Hitler.” Miky Rahmani, who attends BU, was told there would be no accommodations made for missed classes due to Jewish religious holidays.

“There are stories of professors … where on the first day of classes they say, ‘If you’re taking off holidays, I highly recommend you switch sessions,’” Rahmani said. “And if you ask why, they say something like, ‘because the holidays are on Tuesday and Thursdays, or Mondays and Wednesdays, and this class meets only on those days.’ Instead of trying to go above and beyond to help the Jewish students, they sort of rely on the fact that there are other sessions available.”

Allen described how every time she would help advertise for Hillel at club fairs, groups of students at Emerson would show up and repeatedly ask if they were a Zionist or anti-Zionist organization. While she tries to make sure that everyone knows that Emerson Hillel is an organization open to everyone, that doesn’t mean the harassment had no effect.

“We try our best to open up to everyone, but it’s still really hard to navigate. Do I wear my Hillel sweatshirt today? Do I wear my Star of David necklace today?”

Nechama Huba, a senior at Wellesley, expressed sadness and frustration about the challenges of being Jewish on a college campus, despite Jewish communities being “vibrant” and “full of life.”

“Jewish life,” she said, “is all of these things and more. But being Jewish at Wellesley is really tough … Ever since my first year at Wellesley, I’ve always felt the need to put walls up.”

Rahmani told of returning home to his BU dorm from Shabbat services one night and being approached while brushing his teeth in the communal bathroom by a student wanting to know: “Why don’t you [Jews] bomb the Palestinians?”

Rahmani explained that at the time he didn’t think there was anything antisemitic about the comment; He thought it was a joke made in bad taste. But he reconsidered this after speaking with his brother, who helped him realize the danger present when people lump the entire Jewish population into one set of opinions and beliefs.

The concern over people treating Jews as a monolithically ideological people, an idea based on age-old antisemitic conspiracies regarding Jews as a secret, powerful cabal, was expressed by several panelists at the forum.

“I’m not a spokesperson for the entire Jewish community,” Allen said, in an interview. “I don’t know why they do it, it’s troubling for sure.” Θ

Linda Matchan can be reached at matchan@jewishjournal.org. Gumerman, a senior at Brandeis University, can be reached at ngumerman@brandeis.edu.

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