Earlier this week, during a call with a wide range of representatives from the post-secondary education community providing input on a publication for a higher education association, I was struck by a powerful lack of empathy evidenced by some of my colleagues.

We are, of course, in the midst of another firestorm of criticism against institutions of higher education: some argue that elite universities are centers for unfettered antisemitism; others argue leadership of elite universities are completely insensitive to the implied islamophobia that does not place the current conflict in Israel/Gaza in a context of years of oppression of Palestinians. And then, of course, there’s the fact that major donors are furious at the reaction of higher education leadership and are threatening to pull their financial support to Harvard, Penn, and Columbia.

I believe this misplaced emphasis on the elite Ivies in this discussion is adding fuel to the firestorm. The Ivies are, of course, not the places where most Americans attend post-secondary education. But they get the press. Why? Well, it’s Harvard! It’s Columbia! It’s Penn! Many of the journalists writing these stories graduated from these schools. Furthermore, the journalists already know the story they want to tell (depending of course on which side of the firestorm they stand). They see no need in focusing on the highly successful response of Dartmouth (one of those elites) which because of its history of good communication between the Department of Jewish Studies and the Department of Middle Eastern Studies conducted productive, difficult, powerful programs in the days and weeks after October 7. They surely don’t want to write about similar events held at other less well-known campuses (that is, if they even know about these programs). I have heard of smaller regional institutions that navigated these difficult discussions extremely well. The institutions sponsored roundtables on the conflict, led by faculty, students, and staff from differing points of view; there were panel presentations by experts in the history and conflict in Gaza, Israel and the Middle East; there was a peaceful protest march through the middle of campus, advocating for an immediate cease fire. I am confident that similar productive discussions and protests are happening across the country. Why is this happening at these places? It’s because either they have structures already in place that humanize “the other” (Dartmouth) or they have institutional leadership that is humbly committed to having conversations across cultural difference, conversations which predicate productive disagreement, passionate response, but insist on active listening on all sides and over all–empathy.

But back to the call with colleagues and my shock at the lack of empathy and moral imagination. Why do we find it so difficult to step outside ourselves and see what others might hear when we make comments such as
1. “sure Jews are feeling threatened on campuses, but what about Blacks on college campuses? How many times in the past have we felt threatened”
2. or “institutions of higher education should commit to the Kalven Report recommendations. As a Washington Post editorial argued, the less said by universities the better. The Israel/Gaza war is a great case to support this stance. On the other hand, of course, these institutions should continue to support DEI programs and DACA.” (For those who do not know this report, the Kalven Report was published in 1967 in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War protests, supporting the idea of university neutrality on political matters.)

I grew up in a very small town in the south as a member of one of a handful of Jewish families in the county. We were the object of “polite” antisemitism from some members of the community and much more threatening antisemitism from political voices such as John G. Crommelin, a candidate for governor of Alabama. By the time I was in college, my belief in the original sin of racism that is foundational to American history put me in dangerous situations that seemed less dangerous to me than silence about an evil that I knew in my heart. When my sister married a Palestinian in 1985, I became schooled in the foundational sin of the treatment of Palestinians by Israel which elevated my questioning of the political and military actions of the state of Israel.

What is happening on campuses and across the country is not a simple narrative. Not all actions and support of Israel are defensible, but some are. Not all actions and support of the Palestinian cause are antisemitic, but some are.

When I heard of the carnage and the taking of hostages on October 7, my heart broke, first by the actions of Hamas and second by what I knew (feared) Israel’s response would be: to sow salt in the earth of Gaza. When I heard the reports of dead Palestinian babies and wounded elderly Palestinians, I felt no solace whatsoever.

But I am a Jew and when I see and hear actions that are clearly antisemitic (tearing down and defacing postings of hostages with swastikas or celebrating the actions of martyrs on October 7), I am in pain, I am fearful. About 10 days after the Hamas attacks, I received a beautiful text from a dear friend who is not Jewish. He wrote “I remember speaking with you on the phone after George Floyd was killed and I was moved to tears. When I learned of [the] horrific attack on innocent people including children in Israel, I immediately thought of you and that we were sharing pain again over the awful cost of hatred. . . . I know you are grieving.” It meant the world to me, not just the expression of understanding my sorrow, but the sharing of my sorrow. His remarks gave me great solace and I am so glad that my earlier comments gave him solace. It is through these acts of empathy and moral imagination that we will in the symbolism of the Lurianic kabbalah retrieve the fallen sparks of holiness.