By Stephen M. Flatow/JNS
How should Yeshiva University (YU) respond when a prominent faculty member takes public positions—against Israel—that directly contradict what the university espouses? Does the principle of academic freedom protect saying literally anything, even when it undermines the basic principles of an Orthodox, and avowedly Zionist, institution?
These are the some of the painful questions that YU, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy, needs to address, now that the associate director of its Center for Israel Studies has signed a petition denouncing U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and challenging Israel’s “occupation” of the city.
When President Donald Trump made his announcement, there was rejoicing in nearly the entire Jewish world. Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, the new president of YU, was so enthusiastic that he posted a video message on YouTube declaring, “We celebrate when other nations recognize Jerusalem’s status as the capital of the Jewish state,” adding that Trump’s announcement “speaks to our hearts and sings to our souls.”
But Jess Olson, an associate professor of Jewish history at YU and associate director of the university’s Center for Israel Studies, was not singing.
Olson was part of a group of Jewish studies scholars who signed a petition announcing their “dismay” that America has “endorsed sole Jewish proprietorship over Jerusalem.” There are 165 signatories on the petition. And there, at #106, is “Jess Olson, Yeshiva University.”
The petitioners would prefer if part of the city would be under the Palestinian proprietorship instead. They reject Israel’s liberation of eastern Jerusalem in 1967. They reject the reunification of the city. The city is in a “state of occupation,” they charge. They call for “the rights of…Palestinians to Jerusalem” and “Palestinians’ legitimate stake in the future of Jerusalem.”
Olson and his fellow petitioners also trot out discredited accusations by the radical group B’Tselem, falsely claiming Israel does not permit Palestinian Arabs to have “equal access” to Jerusalem. Their “proof” is that “Palestinians in the West Bank, unlike Jewish Israelis resident in that territory, require a special permit to visit Jerusalem’s holy sites.”
Apparently the petitioners believe Israel should be the only country in the world that permits foreign citizens to cross its borders without any kind of documentation. Every other country requires a non-citizen to have passport and a visa. But the minute Israel requires a permit, the critics accuse it of “denying equal access.” Outrageous.
If YU was an ordinary secular university, there would be nothing to discuss. Secular universities do not have an ideological or religious mission. Any faculty member can advocate anything he or she wants.
But Jewish colleges and universities are different. They have agendas. The mission statement of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) says its purpose is “educating intellectual and spiritual leaders for Conservative Judaism.” Obviously the JTS administration hires faculty whom it expects will advance that goal. Likewise, Hebrew Union College calls itself “the center for professional leadership development of Reform Judaism.” And YU’s mission statement declares, “We bring wisdom to life by combining the finest, contemporary academic education with the timeless teachings of Torah.”
No doubt there are a range of views regarding Israel among YU’s faculty members. Nobody is saying that every faculty member must march in political lockstep, or that dissidents should be fired. But there are parameters. YU professors who teach subjects related to Judaism have to be committed to “the timeless teachings of Torah.” Is redividing Jerusalem and spreading falsehoods about Israel consistent with “the timeless teachings of Torah?”
The Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV), representing several hundred Orthodox rabbis, is asking that question. In a letter last week to YU President Berman, CJV President Rabbi Pesach Lerner and his colleagues argued that Olson’s participation in the divide-Jerusalem declaration is so far outside the Jewish community consensus that he is “harming the university’s reputation in the eyes of the Jewish community.” The rabbis also asked whether the YU administration is keeping tabs on “what revisionist history he may be espousing in the classroom.”
Under ordinary circumstances, a university administration does not monitor what a professor teaches in his classroom. But if a university celebrates and advocates undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while one of its professors (the associate director of its Center for Israel Studies, no less!) announces that he opposes U.S. recognition and considers Jerusalem to be under “occupation”—well, that is a different story. YU must consider whether such positions are consistent with the university’s mission.
Parents who send their sons or daughters to YU no doubt assume their children will not be subjected to anti-Israel professors, as is common at other universities. Therefore, parents of YU students have the right to know if Olson is teaching his students that Jerusalem is under Israeli “occupation,” or feeding them falsehoods about Israel “denying equal access.” How will the university assure parents that none of Olson’s extremist beliefs are seeping into his classroom remarks or influencing the syllabi he designs for his courses?
So far, Berman has not responded to the CJV’s letter. I hope he will do so, and soon. YU students, their parents and the rest of the Orthodox Jewish community have a right to know the answers to the questions the CJV has raised.
Stephen M. Flatow, a vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, is an attorney in New Jersey. He is the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.