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News / Northwest

Jews on campus say WWU administration isn’t taking their safety seriously amid Gaza protests

By Robert Mittendorf, The Bellingham Herald
Published: May 24, 2024, 7:07pm

BELLINGHAM — Jewish faculty members, students and others on campus said this week that they are disappointed in the university’s reaction to the student protests on campus and a reported antisemitic incident in particular.

Members of the university’s Jewish community told The Bellingham Herald in interviews that they felt ignored and left out of the WWU administration’s response to a student protest camp that opposes the war in Gaza.

Professor McNeel Jantzen told The Herald “the silence is deafening” from university officials.

“I was rather disheartened to learn about that (antisemitic) incident via (The Herald) rather than from the university, especially as a Jewish faculty member,” Jantzen said in an interview at her office Wednesday.

Jantzen, who teaches cognitive neuroscience and is director of the Language and Neural Systems Lab, said she expected to receive a campus-wide alert that a Jewish student had been spat upon and followed May 17, during a protest that combined antiwar sentiment with a looming strike threat.

“If it’s bad, let us know. If it’s a threat to our safety, let us know,” she said.

In addition to the reported antisemitic incident, vandalism expressing anti-Israel sentiment has been rising in recent weeks.

Maddie Pelkey, a senior in environmental studies, told The Herald that she thinks the university is treating its Jewish students differently amid criticism of Israel in campus protests, teach-ins and other events.

“If this was anti-Islam or anti-Black, there would 100 percent action being taken. But when a Jewish person is spat upon, there’s not even an action condemning that,” Pelkey told The Herald.

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Other Jewish students, faculty and Bellingham residents have expressed their concerns privately to The Herald in the months since Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel that killed 1,200 civilians and the Israeli military response that has claimed as many as 35,000 Palestinian lives.

Rabbi Avremi Yarmush of the Chabad synagogue at WWU told KOMO-TV that the university is failing to protect its Jewish students.

“It’s an allowance for students to say, “Hatred of Jews is not so bad. If it was a bad thing, the school would do something,” Yarmush said.

WWU spokesman Jonathan Higgins said an alert wasn’t sent to students and staff because a day had passed by the time police documented a full report of the incident.

Higgins said university police and the WWU Office of Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance continue to assess the incident. In an email, Higgins offered a timeline of events to explain why a campuswide message wasn’t issued:

  • On Friday, May 17, at about 2 p.m., a WWU student, called the University Police Department, telling them that they were spat on by someone outside of Old Main. The officer attempted to return the call to the student, as requested, and left a voicemail requesting a call back.
  • On Saturday, May 18, after not hearing from the student, the UPD officer called them again. When the student answered, they told the officer they were no longer interested in filing a police report.
  • The UPD officer recognized the seriousness of the allegation and documented the incident. In respecting the student’s wishes, there is not an open criminal case at this time, but UPD is gathering further facts and talking to witnesses to ensure that the incident is documented appropriately and to determine if a crime or hate crime took place.

Pelkey said she believes that some of the criticism of Israel has become antisemitic, especially assertions that Zionism is racism or that the state of Israel has no right to exist. Those statements are considered antisemitic by major Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, whose definition of antisemitism has been adopted by the U.S. State Department.

One of Pelkey’s classes was moved online until the end of the year, and another of her professors was holding class inside the protest camp instead of a classroom.

“It’s sad that this is how I am going to remember college. I feel like they’re just waiting us out,” Pelkey said.