IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Kendall Michaels was disturbed by years of anti-Semitic incidents she witnessed as a student at the University of Iowa.
She and other Jewish students recall being asked where their “horns” are, being afraid after a local Jewish student organization was vandalized during a Shabbat dinner, and, in Michaels’ case, seeing a fellow student’s Snapchat story with a swastika and the caption “I hate all Jews.”
This school year, Michaels decided to turn to her peers for help in making the campus more welcoming for Jewish students. She found allies in the student government, and they came up with a plan to add a representative on that body who could advocate for the university’s roughly 600 Jewish students.
But the Iowa City Press-Citizen reports it was a bumpy journey to get the support Michaels was seeking, even after sharing her story at a student government meeting in late March.
“As a Jewish student at the University of Iowa, it made me scared to be recognized,” Michaels said of the 2018 Snapchat incident. “This made me really scared to be myself and walk around the University of Iowa campus when I know there are students who are willing to post that.”
Student leaders were initially skeptical, voting down the idea of adding a designated Jewish representative after a lengthy and pointed debate that delved into Jewish ethnicity vs. religion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the best way to represent minority groups in the first place.
Fourteen student senators opposed the plan and five others abstained from voting, leaving it short of the 2/3 majority needed to pass.
Two weeks later, after hearing from more people who supported Michaels’ idea, the student government reversed course and voted yes.
It was a timely victory for Michaels, a senior who is nearing graduation.
“To even get this passed - it’s really difficult, because you know, the senators aren’t Jewish,” Michaels said. “They can do their research and they can do as much as they can to get educated about Judaism and how to help us, but if there’s not a Jewish student in the Senate, then we’re not truly being represented.”
There is precedent for adding a “Jewish constituency senator” to the student government of roughly 40 people. Nine current constituency senator positions serve students who are Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi-American, LGBTQ+, Native American, international, and those who have disabilities, are first-generation students or are veterans.
Those constituency senators are meant to address issues on campus as they arise, such as the bigotry that Jewish students at Iowa describe as being painfully common.
Three recent examples:
In March 2018, a campus mural depicting a message of racial unity was defaced with Nazi graffiti.
A year later, the Greater Iowa City Church of the Nazarene was vandalized with swastikas, racist language and Bible verses.
During a Shabbat dinner in 2019, members of Iowa Hillel, a center for Jewish students, found the words “Jesus loves you” on the side door of their building.
“If you take into account that that’s during a Jewish celebration, during Shabbat, when there’s Jewish people in the building, it’s a little scary,” said Jewish student Mollie Chez, who is from the northern Chicago suburbs and has been involved in the push to get the student government representative added.
Hillel started keeping its doors locked as a result, she said.
“It’s a little weird to not be able to just freely go into a place that you think is safe, and maybe even home. But that is the nature of this identity,” Chez said.
In 2020, there were 32 instances of white supremacist propaganda and 10 anti-Semitic incidents across Iowa, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Three of those anti-Semitic incidents were in Iowa City.
Jewish students at Iowa say such instances go under-reported.
“I know that people just in general have struggled to find the right route to report anti-Semitic instances or to feel like they have resources to support them during the transition from maybe a more inclusive and more understanding population, such as the Chicago suburbs, to Iowa City,” said Chez, who is a junior.
Back home, she went to a public high school that taught Hebrew. In Iowa City, Jewish students feel isolated by comparison.
Creating the student government position doesn’t address the entire issue of anti-Semitism, said Michaels, who is also from the Chicago suburbs. But it’s a way to give Jewish students more decision-making power.
“I just think it’s a huge step to making Jewish students feel safer, and making, possibly, even more Jewish students feel comfortable enough to go to college here. I know from my area, a lot of people tend to go to schools that are (more) heavily populated with Jewish people,” she said.
The first attempt to get the representative added became entangled in politics and religion. Some student government members were concerned about the involvement of Iowa Hillel. Iowa Hillel is affiliated with Hillel International, which is widely seen as a pro-Israel organization.
“Unfortunately, as I was researching Hillel International, I’ve seen … (it holds) a specifically positive view of the state of Israel,” student senator Nicholas Nachtman said. “While of course it is 100% in the organization’s right to hold that opinion, I worry that having such a strong power connected to the people who are making this decision could influence them to hold a political belief in an office that shouldn’t have a political belief.”
Maria Martin referenced Palestinian poet Remi Kanazi’s 2017 visit to campus, and said the amendment was grounded in the worry that someone could use a Jewish student representative position to try to silence anti-Zionist views.
Students considered a clause spelling out: “The undergraduate student government has no authority to comment on geo-politics and trans-national issues, including those such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Ultimately, that amendment did not pass because of fears that it would inhibit free speech.
Instead, the student government clarified that the Jewish student representative position is to be secular, just as the public university is.
Some students debated that point.
Student senator Marco Oceguera called it impossible to represent the Jewish identity as an ethnic group without also representing the religious aspect. He pointed out that he is ethnically but not religiously Jewish.
Creating the position would give voice to one religion, but not others, Oceguera argued, when there are “other religious minorities that are persecuted as well in this country.”
Others pushed back.
“The argument that this position places a non-secular position in (the student government) is simply untrue and minimizes the Jewish identity to that of only a religious one, ignoring a long history of ethnic persecution and genocide,” said student Joshua Brown, one of the supporters of the legislation.
Elke Heckner, a faculty member who studies the Holocaust, genocide and memory studies,said at the meeting she was “horrified” by the opposition to creating the position and asked students to “reconsider your own prejudices.”
“This is meant to be a representation of an ethnicity,” Heckner said. “Can you guys please think about what your resistance is to conceiving of being Jewish in terms of (culture)? … Why do you guys have such an investment in trying to show that there can only be quote-unquote ‘religious Jews’?”
Nachtman, who represents LGBTQ+ students on campus, said it has been difficult keeping the student representative positions filled. Instead of creating a 10th position, he said, the student government should “reconsider how we’re representing marginalized students on campus.”
“There’s still so many more communities that could be addressed,” Nachtman said. “If we continue to create a constituency senator position every time that we see an issue arise on campus, then we are going to create a critical mass that ends up a testament to tokenism - saying, ‘Hey, look, we hear you and we care about you, but we’re not actually dealing with it.’ ”
After the Jewish representative position was voted down, students met in a “town hall” to debrief about the reasoning for the decision. Those in support of the representative position lobbied their peers to get it passed.
Chez attended that town hall. She saw people who hadn’t previously been involved in the discussions, but after hearing about the position being voted down, decided to “take this opportunity to represent and support the community.”
The student government revisited the conversation April 6, passing the Jewish student representative position with 95% of the vote.
“It was just really eye-opening and really nice to see that in times of adversity and even discrimination, the community does have the ability to fight back and stand up for what’s right,” Chez said.
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