Weissman Email Prompts Dialogue
March 10, 2017
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Following a slew of threats towards Jewish institutions around the country and a rescinding of federal Title IX guidance, Interim President Neil Weissman sent an email to the Dickinson community “Reaffirming Our Community Values.”
The March 6 email was in response to increased threats towards Jewish institutions, largely Jewish Community Centers (JCC), around the U.S. According to the Jerusalem Post, “more than 100 Jewish institutions… have received bomb threats since the beginning of the year.” Weissman specifically mentioned the Feb. 27 bomb threat towards a Harrisburg JCC and Feb. 25 vandalization of a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia.
In addition, Weissman addressed the Feb. 22 decision by the Department of Education and Department of Justice to rescind official guidance to schools to allow students access to bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
Weissman said that these two topics “were the specific issues brought to our attention. We framed them in terms of the broad principle of non-discrimination, which is the overarching value.”
“To be clear,” read Weissman’s email, “Dickinson remains unequivocally committed to its policy of non-discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, religion, age, veteran status, gender identity or expression and sexual orientation.”
According to Vincent Stephens, the coordinator of the Bias and Education Response Team (BERT), “there has not been any notable change in the number of incident[s] reported this semester, or in relation to religion.”
According to Vice President and Dean of Student Life Joyce Bylander, there has been no increase in incident reporting to the Bias Education and Response Team.
The email was prompted by “Expressions of concern from students and some staff,” said Weissman. Three students in particular had contacted Director of the Asbell Center for Jewish Life and Associate Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies Ted Merwin communicating their personal feelings about the attacks on JCC’s: Yael Farber ’17, Sarah Schneid ’17 and Nomi Small ’19.
“We were all feeling the personal impacts of it,” said Farber, “not just broadly this is happening all over the US… but this is happening places that we hold very dear.” Farber’s mother was forced to evacuate her local JCC after a bomb threat, and Farber’s sister’s JCC in Manhattan received a threat as well.
However, said Small, the discussion of the specific threats to Jewish institutions was limited: “It was one line hidden in a much larger email.”
“President Weissman’s email also failed to acknowledge that the bomb threats are part of a national trend,” said Small, whose opinion was echoed by Farber.
“We were disappointed to see [just] one line referencing [the anti-Semitic acts], but we appreciate that it was sent at all,” said Farber. “I’m really so proud to say that Dickinson has provided a safe community for me to be Jewish for the past four years. I’ve never experienced any anti-Semitism on this campus, and God forbid anyone will.”
On Tuesday, Mia Merrill ’19 looked down at her desk in Denny to see a swastika carved into the wood. “I felt kind of sick,” said Merrill, who reported it to her teacher and filed a bias report. “[Is this normal?] I mean, I don’t think so,” she continued, “But there are so many news reports all over the country where these little incidents are cropping up… and I think campuses are such a hotbed for it.”
Merrill states clearly that she feels safe on Dickinson’s campus, but she doesn’t “want people to shrug it off and say [these threats are] the new normal, because it shouldn’t be.”
Merrill says that regardless of the diverse reasons some Americans had for voting for Trump, “I don’t think we can ignore the fact that he was endorsed by the American Nazi party, and… by the KKK and… by Richard Spencer, who is a self-identifying Nazi. This country doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s not like we can just pretend that none of that happened.”
Merwin also makes the case that terror is not exclusive: “these acts do not just affect Jews; many members of JCC’s are not Jewish–some, like the JCC in York [County], have a majority of non-Jewish members–and so the evacuation of children and adults from these buildings sows fear in non-Jews as well as Jews.”
Students like Kitson Smyth ’17 also feel the effects of the national political environment on campus. Of the rescinding of the Title IX guidance, “Currently [it] doesn’t affect me at Dickinson College, but knowing that other transgender Americans are having our basic human rights annulled and disrespected does make me fear for the future of our country.”
Smyth, who has been “verbally harassed in restrooms because of [their] gender expression,” says “I have no doubt that as this presidential administration continues to enact legislation rooted in oppression, our students, faculty, and staff will notice shifts in our classrooms, dorms, and offices.”
Fiona Keane ’19 found the Title IX retraction “sickening.” They said, “While I never feared that the school would retract its support for trans* and gender nonconforming students, I was greatly heartened to see [Weissman’s] email so soon after the Title IX announcement. It felt reassuring, knowing that as both a nonbinary student and a Pride Coordinator, the school really did have my back.”
Still, Keane said “I’d like to see more attention brought to it. I’d also like for the college to actively follow through on its promise to help its LGBTQ students, especially trans* students, by adding more accommodations.”
Stephens invites students to participate in the Office of Religious Life’s annual Exploring Religion series, which includes a March 31 trip to a synagogue in Harrisburg. Those who wish to report incidences of bias should contact members of the BERT team or file a report on the website.