Moshe Vardi

Antisemitism at Rice University is not just real, it’s prevalent

I've been a professor here for 30 years and discovering how mainstream the double standard is has been a rude awakening

December 1, 2023, was my 30th anniversary as a faculty member at Rice University. I was not always a “happy camper” at Rice. At times, I had significant disagreements with Rice’s leadership; for example, I did not hesitate to criticize Rice’s response to the COVID pandemic. Yet I have always been proud to be a faculty member at Rice University. With deep chagrin, I have to admit that I can no longer say that.

My first inkling of a problem brewing at Rice was in the fall of 2022. A group of students wished to start a club, Students Supporting Israel (SSI), to counteract the growing activities of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on campus. As an Israeli-American faculty member, I was asked to be the club sponsor, which I accepted.

The students submitted the paperwork for approval of a new club. On October 12, 2022, the students received the following response from Rice’s Student Association (SA): “Students Supporting Israel at Rice had made it onto the google form for the SA Exec team to vote on, and the club did not get the approval votes needed for the club to form … While the exec members have not explicitly cited their reasons for not approving the club, I believe that the strong political nature focused on a contentious topic was the general reasoning.”

My quick email reply to this news was “As an advisor for this club, I was astonished to hear that SSI was not approved as a club at Rice. Given that SJP is an approved club, an opaque negative decision concerning SSI creates an appearance of discrimination. It is not enough to assert that the decision was not discriminatory; it is incumbent on the decision maker to remove the opacity and demonstrate that it was a good faith decision.”

I copied the Student Center on my reply to the Rice SA. Within less than 24 hours the SA decision was reversed and the SSI club was approved. A full explanation of the initial denial and then its reversal was never provided, but I could not fail to sense a whiff of antisemitism.

Jumping a year ahead, in September 2023, Rice Pride cut ties with Houston Hillel, which has been supporting LGBTQ+ students at Rice for several years. The reason for this decision, which reverberated around the world? Hillel International, an umbrella group for campus chapters, prohibits campus chapters of Hillel from partnering with or hosting groups that advocate for a boycott of Israel or that deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.

Pride argued that this intolerance of intolerance is intolerable. In the name of “inclusion,” Rice Pride decided to exclude the primary Jewish organization on campus. Ironically, Israel is the only country in the Middle East with solid LGBTQ rights.

About two weeks later, on October 7, 2023, on a major Jewish holiday, invading Hamas gunmen murdered, tortured, mass raped, and mutilated some 1,200 Israelis. The vast majority of the victims were unarmed women, children, infants and the elderly. About 240 hostages, including women, children, infants, and elderly people were taken as hostages to Gaza. On the same day, an estimated 2,200 rockets were fired toward southern and central Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, by Hamas.

For Israelis and Jews, October 7 was so unfathomable, so unbelievable, so abhorrent, that we cannot even name it. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, announced that day that the goal is not only to liberate Gaza and the West Bank, but also the territories “occupied in 1948” – in other words, “from the river to the sea.” “Get out of our land,” he said to the Israelis. A Hamas official later said that they would do Oct 7 over and over and over. (Indeed, the 1998 Hamas Covenant talks about the obliteration of Israel and about “killing the Jews.”)

When the Israel Defense Forces struck back, the killers dispersed to the safety of their multi-billion-dollar tunnel system, burrowed below residences, hospitals, mosques, schools, and UN facilities. The tunnel system and stiff resistance of Hamas, combined with the ongoing barrage of rockets launched from Gaza towards southern and central Israel, over 10,000 by now, made fighting very costly in civilian casualties (note, however, that Hamas fighters may count as civilians, and casualty figures do not separate them), triggering world-wide concerns.

On October 28, 2023, a petition circulated among the faculty of the Schools of Humanities and Social Sciences and Rice. The petition dedicated eleven words to mourn and oppose the loss of Jewish and Israeli civilian life caused by the Hamas attack. The rest of the 1100-word petition was aimed at “expressing solidarity with the people of Palestine in their struggle for liberation and calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza,” The 240 hostages in Gaza were not mentioned at all. To avoid ambiguity about the extent of liberation, Israel was referred to as “the Israeli Zionist state.” The Israel Defense Forces, which had to defend Israel in 1948 from the combined attack of seven Arab states, as well as Palestinian Arabs, who refused to accept the 1947 UN Partition Resolution, are referred to as “Zionist forces.”

The petition writers wrote “as scholars of global studies of race, Blackness, Indigeneity, Latinidad, state violence, colonialism, human rights, anti-imperialism, social movements, queerness, transness, gender, disability, critical medical anthropology, and visual culture.” Apparently, antisemitism did not deserve a mention in this list of oppressions.

On December 4, 2023, the SA Senate passed a resolution affirming support for the faculty statement of solidarity with the Palestinians. The October 7 atrocities were not even mentioned in the resolution. In spite of the well-publicized wave of anti-semitism that has been washing over US campuses, the resolution called on Rice’s president to “affirm its commitment to a culture of care for our Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim student body, faculty, staff, and community.” Apparently, Jews do not deserve a culture of care.

While Haniyeh might have been pleased to learn about the support Hamas is getting from Rice faculty and students, the truth is that no one in the Middle East is paying any attention whatsoever to Rice University. Such petitions and resolutions are meant to send a message on the Rice campus. Rice colleagues and students, I hear your message loud and clear. I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor. I recognize antisemitism when I see it. You do not need to be a user of derogatory epithets to be antisemitic; using double standards qualifies.

It is okay to criticize Israel, but not okay to pay lip service to Palestinian atrocities. It is okay to call for a cease-fire, but not okay to ignore the hostages. It is okay to call for a two-state solution – which I strongly support – to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not okay to talk about Palestinian liberation, while mentioning the 1948 Nakba, implicitly suggesting ethnic cleansing of Jews in Israel. It is okay to express sympathy with Palestinian refugees. It is not okay to ignore close to one million Jews that were pushed out of Arab countries after the 1948 war. It is okay to talk about Palestinian casualties. It is not okay to ignore Jewish casualties and civilian casualties elsewhere in the Middle East. (Civil wars are raging in Syria, Yemen, and Sudan.) It is okay to express concerns about anti-Palestinian hate crimes. It is not ok to ignore anti-Jewish hate crimes. It is okay to demand a culture of care for Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students, faculty, and staff. It is not okay to ignore Jewish and Israeli students, faculty, and staff.

I was well aware that antisemitism is alive and well in the US, but I had believed that it exists only in the margins, among the extreme left and extreme right. I have been rudely awakened. I now realize that not only is it a mainstream phenomenon, but it is also quite prevalent on my very own campus, among Rice faculty and students. This is a profoundly bitter lesson for me. I am not quite sure how to cope with it.

 A version of this article was first published on Medium.

About the Author
Moshe Y. Vardi is a University Professor and the George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering at Rice University. He is the author and co-author of over 750 papers, as well as two books. He is a member of of the US National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences.
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