We sent the following letter to Dr. Nathan O. Hatch, President of Wake Forest University, in response to the University’s dis-invitation of the Waging Peace Conference last month.
Dear Dr. Hatch,
We are writing to you with concern for the state of free speech on the campus of Wake Forest University. Our organization, the Triangle NC chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, was a co-sponsor of the conference titled “Waging Peace: Doing Justice Through BDS,” organized by the Alliance of Baptists and held September 18-20, 2015 in Winston-Salem.
The conference was initially hosted by Wake Forest Baptist Church and scheduled to be held in Wingate Hall, where the church holds its worship services. Members of our group were invited to come speak and be a part of the conference. We were confused and upset to hear that a day before the conference was scheduled to begin, it had to change venues to a United Church of Christ church, causing considerable stress and financial expense for the Alliance of Baptists.
One of the members of the Jewish Voice for Peace leadership team, who attended the conference as a presenter and participant, had the chance to speak with Pastor Lia Scholl during the conference. She expressed her discomfort with hosting a conference on campus that she felt members of the faculty, clergy, and administration might view as anti-Semitic. Yet nothing about the description—or outcome—of the conference was anti-Semitic in any way. On the contrary, the keynote speaker of the conference condemned anti-Semitism alongside anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Black racism in the strongest terms. Throughout the conference, Jews and Christians talked together about how to best use nonviolence and peaceful means to advance justice and human rights for all people.
We understand that there are some who call the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement anti-Semitic. As Jewish people, we assert that this is untrue. To call BDS anti-Semitic is to say that involvement with a grassroots non-violent movement based on human rights and international law is somehow anti-Jewish, which is offensive to us. There is no single Jewish voice on Israel, and in fact, many Jewish people are involved in the BDS movement—we were honored to be invited to participate in the Waging Peace conference to speak about our work as Jews for BDS in Durham, NC. Groups including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ have divested from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation in response to the call for BDS.
Last month, Jewish Voice for Peace published a report, “Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate over Israel on Campus.” The report examines groups like the AMCHA Initiative, which work to intimidate students and faculty from discussing Israel’s policies, and label student groups like Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine with racist and inflammatory allegations of “terrorism.” They are a right-wing pro-Israel group with a history of intimidating activists and academics. Their definition of anti-Semitism is used only to scapegoat those they politically disagree with, not to promote the safety and comfort of Jewish students on campus—and creates a climate of fear on campus that shuts down important conversations.
Unfortunately, Wake Forest University’s dis-invitation of the Waging Peace conference fits in with a disturbing increase of shutdowns of free speech on college campuses. Legal advocacy nonprofit Palestine Legal recently released a report, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US,” which documents efforts by those on the right to censor or punish advocacy in support of Palestinian rights, including on university campuses. The report highlights case studies of universities that have forced the organizers of public academic and cultural events critical of Israeli policy to cancel, move, or substantially alter their events. We are concerned that Wake Forest University’s dis-invitation of the Waging Peace conference fits into this alarming trend. We would be ashamed to see a well-respected North Carolina university profiled in a future such report.
We ask that you apologize to the Alliance of Baptists for the inconvenience and expense of dis-inviting their conference, the day before it was scheduled to start. Further, we would like to know your future plans for ensuring that events highlighting the work of people of faith for justice in Israel and Palestine can continue to take place unencumbered on Wake Forest’s campus. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you.
Members of the leadership team on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace – Triangle NC