University of Virginia's Jewish Students Defeat Anti-Israel Campaign

UVA Jefferson statue
Wikimedia Commons
March 18, 2022

The University of Virginia Student Council this week abandoned an effort to condemn Israel and block pro-Israeli speakers from appearing at the school following resistance from the school’s Jewish community.

On Tuesday, the governing body was scheduled to vote on a resolution condemning Virginia’s "Continued Normalization and Legitimization of the Israeli Apartheid State’s Occupation of Palestine." The resolution, written in response to a 10-day residency of a Jewish artist, would have called on the university to sever ties with speakers and groups associated with or supportive of Israel. The resolution’s authors retracted the measure on Monday after more than a dozen Jewish students campaigned against it.

It was a rare victory for Jewish groups on college campuses, which have grown increasingly hostile to Israel. Following Hamas attacks on Israel in May, student governments at a number of schools, including the University of Michigan and University of Chicago, condemned Israel and endorsed the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to punish Israel through economic measures.

A trio of student council members introduced the resolution after the university’s religious studies department invited French artist Frédéric Brenner to host a series of conversations on the Jewish diaspora. Student council representatives Christian Ephriam, Tyler Busch, and Nina Santana claimed Brenner’s residency would "normalize and legitimize" the "Israeli apartheid state." In the resolution, the trio claimed the BDS movement’s mantle.

"As the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign asks for educational and arts institutions to withdraw all support for entities, groups, institutions, and programs that normalize or legitimize the Israeli apartheid state," the resolution says, "the Israeli apartheid state needs to be culturally and financially isolated and the University of Virginia bears a responsibility in this anti-colonial struggle."

The resolution appears to have been driven by Dissenters, a group that organizes college students to fight "war mongering elites" and "uplift" people "who are surviving under oppression." Ephriam links to a website for the University of Virginia's chapter of Dissenters on his personal social media account. That site includes a link to a statement, written in February, with the exact language included in the resolution proposed this week.

A source close to the matter told the Washington Free Beacon that some student government members disseminated the resolution on Sunday. As it spread across campus, the Brody Jewish Center and other Jewish students on campus sent letters and speeches to peers asking them to vote against the resolution.

Abel Liu, the Student Council president, confirmed to the Free Beacon that the authors withdrew their resolution on Monday, prior to the Tuesday vote.

James Loeffler, the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz director of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Virginia, stood by the department’s decision to host Brenner as a resident artist.

"We believe the university is the ideal place to expand knowledge and to facilitate respectful exchange of ideas on such topics," Loeffler said. "To do so does not require ad hominem attacks on faculty or incendiary rhetoric that misrepresents the character of academic programs."

Brenner is a world-renowned artist whose work focuses on Jewish people around the world, including Holocaust survivors. His residency is set to begin March 20 and conclude March 29.