Bienen signs anti-intimidation letter in Times

Jerome C. Pandell

University President Henry Bienen was one of about 300 university presidents who signed a letter appearing as a full-page advertisement Monday in The New York Times decrying intimidation of Jewish students and groups on college campuses.

Bienen said Tuesday in an e-mail to The Daily, the American Jewish Committee-sponsored letter was sent to him by James Freedman, former president of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College.

The letter in the ad said signees will “maintain academic standards in the classroom and … sustain an intimidation-free campus.”

Although the letter said “an atmosphere of intimidation” now exists on some college campuses because of threats made to Jewish students and defacement of Jewish organizations’ property, Bienen said there have been no such incidents reported at Northwestern.

“I am not aware of any acts of intimidation against Jewish students or Muslim students or any students of any faith or ethnicity here,” he said in the e-mail. “Indeed, that gave me a little pause in signing this letter lest the implication be that there were such incidents.”

Bienen said he signed the letter as an individual and did not intend to voice a view about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I would sign a similar letter asserting that there should be no acts of intimidation against Muslim students or Palestinian ones,” he said. “People want me to sign such letters because I am NU’s president.”

Jewish and Middle Eastern student group leaders also said such acts of intimidation have been rare on NU’s campus and called most of the debate on both sides heated but respectful.

Kasim Arshad, executive vice president of the Muslim-cultural Students Association, said the debate at NU about the Israel-Palestine conflict is a good example of how different types of dialogue can coexist on campus.

“(This letter) is a good reminder for both sides, but it doesn’t directly refer to NU’s community here,” said Arshad, a Weinberg sophomore. “People have a high level of respect for one another’s opinions. … To have productive dialogue on these matters has to be the way we approach these issues.”

But Arshad said sometimes intimidation is felt by people holding pro-Palestinian viewpoints, because they then are seen as anti-Semitic.

“A lot of people who are pro-Palestinian sometimes feel they are suddenly labeled as being anti-Semitic, when the primary concern is peace and stability in the region,” Arshad said. “We cannot intimidate or bully our opinions on people.”

Michal Berkson, co-president of Hillel Cultural Life, said she was thrilled Bienen signed the letter.

“Frankly, it’s scary to be a Jew on campus and it’s scary to be a Jew who cares about Israel,” said Berkson, an Education sophomore. “If you can’t express your own opinions at a college campus, what does that say about our country?”

But Berkson called NU’s Israeli-Palestinian debate an incredible learning experience and said most campuses only can dream of having such debate.

Because Bienen has stood up for Arab groups in the past, he made the right decision by signing the letter, said Bassel Korkor, president of the Middle Eastern Students Association.

“Last year, he voiced concerns about the threat to international students during the war on terrorism,” said Korkor, a Weinberg senior. “Whatever conflict exists between Arabs and some Israelis, at the core of it, it is not religious in nature. … It’s political and requires a political solution.”

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Anti-Semitic threats denounced in ad; NU president, students call issue slight

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Bienen signs anti-intimidation letter in Times