Colleges must welcome debate: But hate and antisemitism must be called out

November 12, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.

As president of Queens College, I identify with both our Jewish students, who fear violence on campus which harkens back to perennial themes of antisemitism, and with Muslim students, familiar with neglect and stereotyping. I feel an especially strong bond in light of the recent pandemic. As an Asian-American, I felt vulnerable to not only disease but also hatred.

However we identify ourselves, whatever our ethnicity or faith, the challenge is to ensure empathy is genuine and sympathies not selective. Through our own histories, we can approach one another while recognizing the limits of our experiences — not everything that can be compared should be deemed equivalent.

Institutions of higher education throughout the nation have been the sites of controversy over the ongoing war in the Middle East. That is not unexpected. Colleges are supposed to offer opportunities for debate and expected to facilitate dialogue. We appreciate how our students are acutely aware of current events, many of them having relatives in the region or even being called into military service.

We strive to live up to norms that can be modeled: to take turns expressing our own opinion and listening to others as they do the same. Perhaps we will persuade. Perhaps we will be persuaded. We should not be shouted down or silenced. We must not threaten, nor accept being threatened. The quadrangle is a civic space, a refuge, where people who might not encounter one another elsewhere can gather to learn. Our experiment of an open society, self-governed, depends on mutual promises of a social contract.

As we look at what is happening that causes suffering and trauma, sometimes inflicted deliberately as well as needlessly, I am humbled to be entrusted with a leadership role in a college community of students, faculty, staff and alumni.

We must be clear that the brutal atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists on Israeli citizens on Oct. 7 was immoral in the extreme. It would be a failure, in my own conscience at a minimum, if I were not resolute in that regard. That means having a duty to guard ones’ self against the “fake news” on social media. We may not be sure of what is factual, but we can try to discern what is likely a lie.

Much of my own work in civil rights has been oriented toward bridge building. I have protested stereotyping and the tendency toward guilt by association. The blaming of a group is at the crux of so much ongoing strife. For Asian-Americans, the pandemic was another example. The imprisonment of 125,000 persons, two-thirds of them native-born citizens of the United States, because they were perceived as perpetual foreigners loyal to the Japanese Empire during World War II shows how prejudice has concrete effects on a massive scale.

That discredited episode is what compels me to say all Arabs, Muslims, Gazans, and Palestinians cannot be justly held accountable for the murders carried out by Hamas. Following 9/11, Arabs and Muslims who were neighbors and co-workers — and Sikhs, who are neither Arab nor Muslim but wear turbans and may have darker skin — were treated with suspicion, even killed, as has happened again.

Among them are our own students, such as Salman Hamdani. An EMT and police cadet, the young man who had only just graduated was a hero of 9/11, running in the opposite direction of those fleeing, in order to save people in the twin towers, sacrificing his own life, only to be accused afterward, wrongly, of having helped the hijackers, apparently because his family was of Pakistani origin and the Islamic religion. He was ultimately vindicated. We recently unveiled a memorial plaque for him on our plaza that has the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.

Now, our government has sought to intervene with humanitarian goals as the civilian casualties in Gaza mount. Those who talk about “diversity, equity, and inclusion” have an obligation not to stand by.

Each of us has a perspective influenced by our position. To acknowledge our vantage point is crucial to comprehending someone else’s. None of us is merely an observer in this world. Neutrality can be no better than indifference to tragedy.

Just three years ago as COVID-19 spread, Asian-Americans saw the news reports and heard so much from family and friends about the real risks of physical violence. Even if they were born in America to parents who also were New Yorkers before them, whether you were walking down the street minding your own business or standing on the subway platform waiting for the next train, someone might come along and start shouting slurs before the rhetoric escalated into actual assaults.

It is debilitating to feel you are not safe where you have felt at home until suddenly it changed as if to reveal you had been naïve all along. American Jews are reporting hate incidents at a horrifying rate that exceeds even the pandemic worst.

As children, many of us have had to endure the common cruelty of bullying, and as an adult we continue to confront its grown up counterparts. Strangers, even acquaintances we were confident welcomed us, who are angry about Pearl Harbor or the Vietnam War, or economic competition from overseas leading to layoffs in American factories take out their resentments on people whom they identify with the enemy.

The perpetrators of bigoted acts target even victims who fought or fled the very regimes they are assumed to be associated with, regardless of how they strive to be assimilated on a daily basis.

What gave me hope in the face of scapegoating for a virus, however, were rallies such as none of us had ever witnessed before. These events brought together Asian immigrants and their American children, who can struggle to understand each other, because they are using literally different languages. They united communities whose distant cousins remain in conflict over ancestral grievances.

As much as Asian-Americans were standing up and speaking out, embracing the democratic process, they had support. Allies who were white and black ranging from Gov. Hochul to Queens Borough President Donovan Richards declared that they would protect their fellow citizens.

Alongside Latinos and LGBTQ leaders, Jewish and Muslim advocates came to these gatherings. That spirit of unity takes constant effort and it is not without moments of frustration. These are the tests of our ability to implement our ideals.

The common bond among all our students, like those who participated in gatherings to protect Asian-Americans, is confidence in our diverse democracy. It might be fashionable in some quarters to mock “the American Dream.” But I know that our students, no different than my parents, believe in it. That faith is what brought all our families to those shores and what enables us to persevere — and eventually prevail against the odds.

Even if our students face bias, as my family did, they — and I — can embrace the principles set forth in our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Our institutions can promote such values. Our students are engaging, mustering respect and tolerance, which depend on reciprocity to be sustained. In the face of evil and the apathy which enables it, we must foster equality, trust and communication.

Wu has been president of Queens College since 2020.

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