July 17, 2024
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Why I Left My Position at Rutgers For Yeshiva University

A pro-Palestinian demonstrator protests with “free speech’” written on her arms as Northwestern, Rutgers and UCLA presidents testify before the committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 23, 2024. (Credit: Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)

I knew things had gone badly awry at Rutgers University last year when a masked participant in an anti-Israel protest on campus proudly proclaimed, “Dying as a martyr, dying as a hero, is one of the greatest sacrifices you can do as a Palestinian and as a Muslim.” In other words, self-martyrdom through suicide attacks against Israelis was not only justified but praiseworthy.

The question is not whether the protester had the right to say these words, but what the response from the university administration should have been. Instead of silence and acquiescence, the administration should have adopted Associate Justice Louis D. Brandeis’ famous remedy for “falsehoods and fallacies” uttered under the protection of the First Amendment — namely, “more speech” to correct the falsehood, speech that advances the “processes of education.” If it had followed this principle, the Rutgers administration would have spoken out against the protester’s radical glorification of self-martyrdom through terrorism against Jews.

As universities nationwide continue to reel from anti-Israel protests and accusations of antisemitism on their campuses, I have left my position as a professor and administrator at Rutgers to join the leadership of Yeshiva University, an institution built on and guided by Jewish tradition. Some news outlets have sensationalized my move, claiming that I was driven out by antisemitism. This is untrue. I am not running away from antisemitism, but rather running to embrace the Jewish educational principles that Yeshiva University embodies. Perhaps ironically, those principles — most important, free inquiry and respect for diverse opinions within constructive bounds — are more closely aligned with the ideals of higher education espoused by the Founders of the United States than the ones currently exhibited by public universities like Rutgers.

Many of the founders — George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and James Madison, among others — argued passionately for the establishment of a national university that would educate students to appreciate and act in accordance with their duty to the country and to one another. In a 1796 letter, Washington celebrated the role of education in “enlightening and giving just ways of thinking to our Citizens.” While he had previously wondered whether such an education could be provided by the “seminaries of learning already established” in the United States (of which Rutgers, then a religious institution called Queens College, was one), he soon became convinced that a national university without a religious affiliation would be better suited to the task: There, “the Youth… from different parts of the United States would be assembled together, & would by degrees discover that there was not that cause for those jealousies & prejudices which one part of the union had imbibed against another part.”

Despite Washington’s misgivings about whether a university with a religious orientation could dispel such “jealousies & prejudices,” the Jewish educational principles espoused by Yeshiva University now come closer to fulfilling Washington’s vision than do the policies exhibited by most well-known universities during the past year. While these principles are articulated in classical Jewish texts — the Torah, the Talmud and others — and revolve around the study of those texts, they ideally infuse every aspect of the education that Yeshiva provides.

For example, the value of disagreement within constructive bounds can be seen in the Talmudic story about two major schools of thought during the first century BCE — those of the sages Hillel and Shammai, both of whom were committed to the good-faith interpretation of a point in Jewish law. They disagreed for years, until a heavenly voice emerged saying, “Both of these are the words of the living God.”

This story affirms, first, that multiple perspectives can be legitimate. And yet, paradoxically, the heavenly voice goes on to proclaim that the position of the school of Hillel is in accordance with the law. In probing this scene, the Talmud asks how it is possible to render judgment in favor of the School of Hillel if both perspectives are legitimate. The answer lies in the fact that the School of Hillel not only acknowledged the validity of its opponents’ position and transmitted that position to its students but also taught the opposing position respectfully and in good faith before teaching its own.

The founders’ debates mirror this episode from the Talmud. In the early years of the republic, they struggled to create a properly representative form of government. To reach a just conclusion, Alexander Hamilton recommended a process that involved impartial research drawing on nature, reason and prior examples, “distinguish[ing], with a careful eye, the defects and excellencies of each.” Despite his disagreements with some of his colleagues, Hamilton acknowledged that they were all “anxious for the establishment of a republican government, on a safe and solid basis. It is the object of the wishes of every honest man in the United States.” He did not deny his adversaries’ good intentions, nor did he seek to silence them.

This does not appear to be the case at most U.S. universities today. Among countless examples that I have witnessed is that of an Israeli professor at Rutgers who attended an anti-Israel lecture, listened respectfully, and offered, during the discussion period, to engage in dialogue with students and faculty. In response, he was heckled and subsequently denounced on social media. His attackers used the chilling, twisted logic that to protect the diversity of the university, Zionist professors should be fired.

What would Washington — an advocate of religious tolerance and a friend of the Jews — have thought of the Rutgers protester who glorified martyrdom through suicide attacks or of the students who called for the Israeli professor to be fired? Surely he, like Associate Justice Brandeis, would have expected the university administration to answer such divisive, destructive language with words promoting goodwill and a quest for mutual understanding. Who has the responsibility to articulate the connection between education and the common good if not the leaders of universities?

While most universities today claim to promote the ideals of diversity and inclusion, I have seen firsthand how they instead have harbored intolerance and hate. The educational principles that emanate from Jewish tradition come far closer to the founders’ vision of universities. Those principles resonate with me not only as a Jew, but also as an American.


Rebecca Cypess is the Mordecai D. Katz and Dr. Monique C. Katz dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yeshiva University.

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