DePaul student calls on university to address antisemitism


Courtesy of Barbara Schiffer

Barbara Schiffer, a Jewish woman and junior at DePaul.

Barbara Schiffer is a junior at DePaul and a Jewish student who claims the university does not support her or other Jewish students amid ongoing violence between Israeli defensive forces and Palestine.

Schiffer said she experienced antisemitic sentiments from a DePaul professor and community members online, so she published an article in The Times of Israel titled, “I asked if they stood with me: antisemitism at DePaul University,” outlining her concerns in attempt to garner the school’s attention.

“I have experienced, like some sentiment from a professor in particular and also online a lot, whether it’s on a DePaul kind of like sanctioned posts or just through students in general,” Schiffer told the DePaulia. “DePaul, as an administration and as a university, doesn’t fully understand what is required for Jewish students in particular to feel safe in their campus community, and I think that is kind of why the article was so necessary. There’s also a long history of antisemitism on DePaul’s campus, and generations of students have come and gone without DePaul doing anything really substantive to address this situation.”

Schiffer said she believes that Jewish people should determine what qualifies as antisemitism. While DePaul does not have a rabbi as part of the school’s Division of Mission and Ministry, the school provides other opportunities for Jewish life on campus.  

“I just think it’s very often what is considered antisemitism… gets decided for us by others, and as a persecuted minority, I think we reserve the right, like all peoples, to define what our oppression is and looks like and also what our liberation looks like,” she said. “And that’s, I think, part of the concern here, is that when Jews aren’t consulted on these matters, it means that our narratives and our perspectives on our own identities and histories aren’t important.”

Criticizing DePaul’s solidarity statement, SGA

Schiffer criticized DePaul’s statement regarding the violence between Israel and Palestine. The statement, written by Rev. Guillermo Campuzano, vice president of DePaul’s Mission and Ministry, was published on Newsline on May 17.

“The statement itself didn’t really land with the [DePaul] Jewish community,” Schiffer said. “And we would have appreciated [DePaul] also condemning the antisemitism that has been rising within [the] statement.”

Additonally, Schiffer criticized a statement published by DePaul’s Student Government Association (SGA) on May 21 in solidarity with the school’s Palestinian community. The statement denounced the actions of the Israeli and U.S. governments and calls on DePaul to increase protections for Palestinian students on campus.

“The SGA statement calls for the university to denounce the actions of the Israeli government while failing to mention the over 5,000 rockets that were fired at Israeli civilian centers by Hamas from Gaza or the international tidal wave of antisemitic violence,” Schiffer wrote.

According to the TRT World, a Turkish news publication, some argue that the efforts of Hamas pales in comparison to Israel’s destructive forces. Palestinians are dying at a greater rate compared to Israeli citizens. With a more advanced military, technology and resources,  Israel has a more effective defense system than Palestine. Schiffer argued that a government’s actions do not necessarily represent its citizens.

“The Israeli government is a government, and they make decisions that the people may or may not agree with, and that’s why in my article I never state that I fully support these actions,” Schiffer told The DePaulia. “There is pain happening on both sides, and at the end of the day you can disagree with a government, but putting down an entire citizenship, like an entire country, is a very different argument.”

Schiffer’s article also highlights SGA’s cabinet-elect’s ties to DePaul’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), including President-elect Watfae Zayed, SGA’s first Palestinian student president. Zayed declined to comment for this story, citing the emotional taxation regarding ongoing events in Palestine.

“Importantly, however, SGA states that it stands with the DePaul chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine — the explicitly anti-Zionist group with chapters internationally, whose founders call for the isolation and destruction of Israel,” Schiffer wrote.

SJP works in solidarity with Palestinians, supporting their right to self-determination. They also call for respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Schiffer is concerned that SGA’s cabinet-elect does not reflect all of the DePaul community, including Jewish students.

“[SGA members] are supposed to be representative of the entire greater student body… and so having people who are the liaison for the greater community, who ultimately don’t speak for the entire community is obviously really concerning,” Schiffer told The DePaulia.

SGA elects its members democratically and Zayed and her vice president Keven Holechko won by an 18 percent margin; they received 58 percent of votes for president and vice president, and no Jewish students ran against them.

Anti-Zionism and antisemitism

According to Schiffer and Rabbi Ezra Balser of Silverstein Base Hillel in the Loop, a foundation that supports Jewish life on college campuses, anti-Zionism largely contributes to antisemitism.

“Zionism, simply put, is the Jewish people’s national liberation movement to establish self-governance in some part of our ancestral homeland,” Balser said. “When our liberation movement that really seeks to just return us home to a place where we’ve had continuous presence for thousands of years, as a place we’ve been praying to return since our forced exile, when our liberation movement is not seen as valid, when our equality, our desire for equality is not seen as important, we do see that as antisemitism.”

“Zionism tends to get turned around in a lot of different ways, and at the end of the day it really is just about the Jewish community’s right to self-determination,” Schiffer added.

However, according to Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic — and claiming it is uses Jewish suffering to erase the Palestinian experience.

Beinart notes that Israel has almost 9 million citizens, but also contains close to 5 million non-citizens: Palestinians who live under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza without basic rights.

“I don’t consider Israel an apartheid state. But its ethnic nationalism excludes many of the people under its control,” he wrote. “One reason Israel doesn’t give these Palestinians citizenship is because, as a Jewish state designed to protect and represent Jews, it wants to retain a Jewish majority, and giving 5 million Palestinians the vote would imperil that.”

Beinart also points out that anti-Zionism can exist without antisemitism, and that often, antisemitism is used by the Israeli government to justify mistreating Palestians.

“In the real world, anti-Zionism and antisemitism don’t always go together,” he wrote. “If antisemitism exists without anti-Zionism, anti-Zionism also clearly exists without antisemitism. But while anti-Zionist antisemitism is likely to be on the rise, so is Zionist antisemitism.”

According to Beinart, it is unclear if anti-Zionists are any more likely to harbour antisemitic attitudes than people who support Israel.

A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center about Americans’ attitudes towards Israel shows that Americans over the age of 65 expressed the most antisemitism, yet they also expressed the most sympathy for Israel. Americans under 30, however, harbored the least antisemitism and were least sympathetic to Israel. Moreover, Americans with a high school degree or less were the most antisemitic group and were also the most pro-Israel. Americans with postgraduate degrees were the least antisemitic and the least pro-Israel.

“It is an understandable impulse: let the people threatened by antisemitism define antisemitism,” Beinart wrote. “The problem is that, in many countries, Jewish leaders serve both as defenders of local Jewish interests and defenders of the Israeli government. And the Israeli government wants to define anti-Zionism as bigotry because doing so helps Israel kill the two-state solution with impunity.”

“Antisemitism isn’t wrong because it is wrong to denigrate and dehumanize Jews,” he added. “Antisemitism is wrong because it is wrong to denigrate and dehumanize anyone. Which means, ultimately, that any effort to fight antisemitism that contributes to the denigration and dehumanisation of Palestinians is no fight against antisemitism at all.”

Condemning violence

Schiffer and Balser noted that while they believe in Israel’s right to defend itself, they condemn violence towards Palestinians.

“We, overwhelmingly in the Jewish community, also stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and support their right to self determination just as much as ours,” Balser said. “Hamas is a terrorist organization that rules tyrannically in Gaza and targets civilians with rockets on purpose and has in their charter that they wish for the world to be rid of Jews entirely. So I think while there’s really no moral equivalency between the two [bodies], it makes it very difficult for Israel to defend itself which it has a right and duty to defend its citizens.”

Two state solution

Some Israelis and Palestinians alike believe the popular idea of a two-state solution is an  unlikely compromise. However, Schiffer and Balser expressed that both Israelis and Palestinians can coexist peacefully.

“I think that would be the ideal situation, is that everyone has their right to self-determination and statehood and safety,” Schiffer said.

Balser echoed Schiffer’s sentiments regarding both Israeli’s and Palestinian’s rights to safety.

“I think when the Palestinians and larger Arab community admit that the Jews belong in Israel, and Israel is our home, and we’re not going anywhere, that’s a huge first step,” Balser said. “And I think the same thing is true when we admit that the Palestinians also have a home in our shared homeland, that this land is a home to two peoples, we’ll be able to make that separation and achieve two stands for two peoples. I think we both deserve to have our homes and be safe in our homes, and we both deserve to not be asked or forced to leave our homes.”

Calling on DePaul to support Jewish students

Schiffer and Balser also listed demands they say will make DePaul more inclusive toward its Jewish community. Their demands include hiring a rabbi, mandatory training on antisemitism for incoming students, faculty and staff and reforming the ways DePaul responds to bias reports with input from Jewish students and Hillel.

“So it’d be great for DePaul to have a resource person from each targeted community, not just the Jewish community, to consult on responses to their relevant complaints,” Schiffer said. “And then also for a DePaul statement condemning antisemitism, including all its forms, including anti-Zionist antisemitism.”

Schiffer also contacted DePaul’s Vice President of Student Affairs, Eugene Zdziarski, regarding her concerns.

“Today we are witness to an alarming rise in incidents of verbal and physical harassment of Jewish people,” Zdziarski said in an email to the DePaulia. “We state plainly such acts of anti-Semitism – in any form – are reprehensible and not to be tolerated.”

“We reject hate and violence in any form and support all who are part of our university community and will continue to work with all members of our community to better understand specific concerns and offer support,” he added.

Schiffer and Basler said they intend to keep calling on the school until their demands are met.

“Jews around the world, including in Chicago and including on DePaul’s campus are feeling very unsafe right now,” Balser said. “We’re seeing an almost 500 percent rise of anti-Jewish violence around the world… when the institutions that our students are supposed to trust don’t speak out about that, it just enforces our feeling of isolation in the world. And I think all of the things that [Schiffer] and the Jewish students are asking for, is really just a request to be seen and to be heard and to be a part of the larger DePaul University community.”

Correction (6/7/2021): A previous version of this story listed Barbara Schiffer’s last name as “Shiffel.” The story has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling.

Correction (6/7/2021): A previous version of this story listed SGA’S Vice President as being named Kyle Holechko. The story has been corrected to include his correct first name, Kevin.

Correction (6/7/2021): A previous version of this story referred to “Israeli destructive forces.” The story has been corrected to say “Israeli defensive forces.”