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CSU Jewish community reacts to Diversity Symposium speaker

Amid a week of educational discussions brought to campus by the 20th annual Diversity Symposium, the Jewish community at Colorado State University continues to fight anti-Semitism.

Five days prior to the opening keynote speech Oct. 19, a Jewish faculty member sent an email to Carolin Aronis, co-chair of the Presidential Task Force on Jewish Inclusion and the Prevention of Anti-Semitism, and two other faculty members, expressing concern over the choice of Melina Abdullah, a professor at California State University and a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, as Monday’s keynote speaker, who has been associated with an anti-Semitic minister and group.

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“On one hand, we’re seeing a great network of support growing within the CSU Jewish community, bonding, supporting each other and ready to speak out against the harassment and discrimination we have faced,” Aronis said. “On the other hand, we are legitimately concerned by attempts to misrepresent our community, something that can divide us from other minority groups.”

Aronis added that they are also seeing relationships grow with other communities and appreciate the support they have received from ethnic studies members.

The concern over Abdullah as a keynote speaker stems from a 2019 tweet she made defending Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam who frequently uses anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, and her appearances at events hosted by the NOI. 

“We were totally shocked; we were disheartened, just hurt that someone with a known association to a hate group with such anti-Semitic, such anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, was even considered,” said Julia Rosenwald, a graduate student and member of the Presidential Task Force. 

“It was a really crucial accountable moment because we would never want to hurt, in any way, any practice of coming up and bringing scholarship and bringing advocacy to fight Black racism.” -Carolin Aronis, Presidential Task Force on Jewish Inclusion and the Prevention of Anti-Semitism co-chair

An African American religious and political organization, the Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 and has many ties to racial justice figures and movements, including Malcolm X and the Million Man March.

However, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group, and the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish non-governmental organization, have accused the Nation of Islam and Farrakhan of continuous anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik, who is the faculty advisor for the Chabad Jewish Student Association and several other Jewish student organizations, director of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center of Northern Colorado and an instructor in the department of philosophy, expressed his support of the Black Lives Matter movement and his desire to have a more inclusive keynote speaker, alongside members of the Presidential Task Force.

“We’re all here for the same goal, no matter which group you’re a part of, which is to create a more inclusive, happier, kinder, unified, diverse society, with greater tolerance, acceptance and warmth to one another and unity,” Gorelik said.

With that goal in mind, Gorelik said his hope is to ensure that not one person feels ignored, hurt or attacked at an event emphasizing diversity.

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“(The) Black community has a common history and many shared interests with the Jewish community,” Aronis said. “Abdullah’s appearance was a critical moment for accountability in order to defend the legitimacy of civil rights movements from hateful agendas and exploitation. CSU’s Black community knows that we stand with them in demanding justice and equal protection and that this matter was about Dr. Abdullah’s association with Farrakhan.”

The Office of the Vice President for Diversity released a statement Oct. 18 recognizing and apologizing for the harm that this situation caused to the community. 

“The VPD remains committed to hearing from Dr. Abdullah in her keynote this week, affirming her powerful message about anti-Blackness in America,” the statement said. “We also condemn anti-Semitism and recognize the deep harm that the rise in this rhetoric, and the violence that emerges from it, has caused for our Jewish community here at CSU, in Fort Collins and around the country.” 

“There’s a very prevalent anti-Semitic campus culture, unfortunately, that we hope to eliminate. … Some of our goals are to educate the campus and use this as a way to bring together all of our minority groups to really make sure that all of us are safe.” -Julia Rosenwald, graduate student and Presidential Task Force on Jewish Inclusion and the Prevention of Anti-Semitism member

Abdullah responded to the concerns in her Oct. 19 speech, according to The Collegian.

“Those who are committed to racial and social justice should consider what side they stand on and challenge sources of such nefarious attempts to derail Black freedom struggle and my work in particular,” Abdullah said. “I am not going to be forced to justify my existence or answer obviously false allegations. That’s their work.”

According to members of the Task Force, in discussions with the VPD it appears that the selection committee for the Diversity Symposium did not research Abdullah before inviting her, but instead based their decision off of lectures they heard from her in the past.

The VPD told the Task Force that if they had known about Abdullah’s relationship to the Nation of Islam and Farrakhan, they would not have invited her.

President Joyce McConnell followed with an email Monday morning acknowledging the situation the Jewish and Black communities were put in, despite not playing a part in the keynote speaker selection. 

“We are most grateful to President McConnell for her apologetic, conciliatory and compassionate response to this situation, despite it being a very complex controversy to navigate,” Gorelik said. “She genuinely wishes to protect all groups from any harm.”

In a Tuesday panel at the Diversity Symposium, members of the Presidential Task Force shared a compilation video of anti-Semitic statements made by Farrakhan and discussed what makes them so harmful to the Jewish community.

“I think, as inflammatory as that video is, it’s really important for people to understand our emotional reaction to Farrakhan in a general sense because he outlines what … Jewish stereotypes (are),” said Mica Glantz, a CSU professor of anthropology and ethnic studies, during the panel. “It’s exactly these tropes that we get caught in this Catch-22. … And so it’s very important for us to begin the education around what those stereotypes are and how damaging they are.” 

Glantz said that when the Jewish community expresses concerns over these comments, it can look like they are controlling the media and creating a conspiracy, which is a common anti-Semitic stereotype. For those not familiar with Jewish history and anti-Semitic tropes, Glantz said, they might not realize what is happening. 

After the Task Force convened in June, its members started work on surveying Jewish students on campus to gain a deeper understanding of experiences of anti-Semitism on campus. 

Third-year student Matthew Zidbeck, a leader of CSU Chabad and member of the Task Force, said that many of the students he spoke with mentioned they feel unheard by the University, and he thinks this situation is the product of CSU not listening to Jewish students.

“(Now) that we have the task force, I’m super honored and glad that we could have this conversation because this was the first time that the Jewish population was invited to the Diversity Symposium,” Zidbeck said. “Unfortunately, we had to be under these circumstances, but I’m glad that the Task Force existed and that we were able to have these talks because this is a testimony to Joyce (McConnell) and the rest of the CSU (administration) looking out for us already.”

Rosenwald reemphasized the Task Force’s support of Black Lives Matter, the religion of Islam, LGBTQ+ groups and all other minority religions and groups.

“There’s a very prevalent anti-Semitic campus culture, unfortunately, that we hope to eliminate,” Rosenwald said. “Some of our goals are to educate the campus and use this as a way to bring together all of our minority groups to really make sure that all of us are safe. Our goal is to make sure everybody is safe.”

The Office of the Vice President for Diversity was unable to provide further comment on this matter within The Collegian’s deadline.

Serena Bettis can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @serenaroseb.

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About the Contributor
Serena Bettis
Serena Bettis, Editor in Chief
Serena Bettis is your 2022-23 editor in chief and is in her final year studying journalism and political science. In her three years at The Collegian, Bettis has also been a news reporter, copy editor, news editor and content managing editor, and she occasionally takes photos, too. When Bettis was 5, her family moved from Iowa to a tiny town northwest of Fort Collins called Livermore, Colorado, before eventually moving to Fort Collins proper. When she was 8 years old, her dad enrolled at Colorado State University as a nontraditional student veteran, where he found his life's passion in photojournalism. Although Bettis' own passion for journalism did not stem directly from her dad, his time at CSU and with The Collegian gave her the motivation to bite down on her fear of talking to strangers and find The Collegian newsroom on the second day of classes in 2019. She's never looked back since. Considering that aforementioned fear, Bettis is constantly surprised to be where she is today. However, thanks to the supportive learning environment at The Collegian and inspiring peers, Bettis has not stopped chasing her teenage dream of being a professional journalist. Between working with her section editors, coordinating news stories between Rocky Mountain Student Media departments and coaching new reporters, Bettis gets to live that dream every day. When she's not in the newsroom or almost falling asleep in class, you can find Bettis working in the Durrell Marketplace and Café or outside gazing at the beauty that is our campus (and running inside when bees are nearby). This year, Bettis' goals for The Collegian include continuing its trajectory as a unique alt-weekly newspaper, documenting the institutional memory of the paper to benefit students in years to come and fostering a sense of community and growth both inside the newsroom and through The Collegian's published work. Bettis would like to encourage anyone with story ideas, suggestions, questions, concerns or comments to reach out to her at editor@collegian.com.

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