Friday, December 13, 2002

Defense of Israel too sacred to be left to Republicans

On Wednesday, a group of College Republicans were involved in a scuffle in the student union building for the display of support for the war on terrorism and to show support for Israel. They were confronted by two faculty members who identified themselves as Jewish and were upset with the display.

We received word of this on Wednesday late night, but awaited a full report before running this story. Justin Byma, chair of the CRs on campus, sent me the following memo, reprinted here in full.

The following is a statement released by the SCSU College Republicans regarding the events of 12/11/2002 and sent to the Jewish Community Relations Council. A similiar statement will be delivered to the SCSU office of Student Life and Developement Monday morning. The SCSU CR's sought the help of the SCSU student government last night, but a resloution regarding students rights to free speech wilthout the fear of repercussions or physical harm failed to pass. After seeking outside counsel from CR supporters and campus officials, the CR's are taking action.

December 13, 2002

FR: Justin P. Byma, Chair, SCSU College Republicans


On December 11, 2002, the Saint Cloud State University College Republicans held a kiosk in the Atwood Memorial Center on the campus of Saint Cloud State University. The College Republicans held the kiosk as a means of showing our support for Israel in its fight against terrorism, as we felt that the pro-Israeli opinion is not often heard on campus.

The kiosk displayed a 39-page list of the names of all of those killed by terrorists from Jan 2002 through Oct 2002. It also included a display, which profiled some of the terrorist groups operating in and around Israel and Palestine and some literature that symbolized Israel�s right to defense and self-preservation. Above the kiosk flew a replica of the Israeli national colors.

Two professors approached the kiosk and said that because of their Jewish faith, they found the booth offensive. They specifically pointed to our display of a replica of the Israeli colors and said that because those of us at the kiosk were not Jewish we had no right to fly the Israeli flag.

During the ensuing debate, one of our members, Mr. Zach Spoehr, took a photograph of another College Republican member. One of the professors, Prof. Rona Karasik, told Mr. Spoehr that she would break his camera if he took her photo. Mr. Spoehr said he had not taken her picture and also said that Prof. Karasik has no right to break his camera. She then lunged for the camera and Mr. Spoehr backed away. She lunged for him a second time, grabbed him by the throat with both hands, and slammed him against the wall. I then escorted Mr. Spoehr away from the scene.

Mr. Spoehr has informed the Saint Cloud State University College Republicans that he has filed a complaint with the Saint Cloud Police Department. The College Republicans support Mr. Spoehr�s personal decision to do so.

A few minutes later, Dr. Nathan Church, VP for Student Life and Development, approached the kiosk and said that he "had to ask us to take down the flag" because some people were offended. He also reiterated the opinion that the College Republicans had no right to fly the Israeli flag because we were not Jewish ourselves.

We believe that Dr. Church left us no choice but to take down the flag. I personally argued our point, that forcing us to take down the flag was a violation of our first amendment rights, for close to 20 minutes. But Dr. Church would not back down. He said that he would like to take the flag to his office and that we could pick it up at the end of the afternoon. We convinced him to let us keep the flag, if we covered it up.

I told Dr. Church that we were only complying with his order because we did not want another "scene" at our pro-Israeli kiosk. I told him that I disagreed with his position and did not understand the reasoning behind it. He said we could talk about the implications of his decision at al later time. Two of our members went to see Dr. Church on Thursday and found him less than helpful.

The Saint Cloud State University College Republicans presented our grievances to the SCSU Student Government on Thursday evening. We have sought advise through various sources and plan to submit a written complaint to the Student Life and Development office early next week for what we consider a violation of our first amendment rights.

The College Republicans think it very unfortunate that Wednesday�s events had to turn so sour. Nevertheless, we stand by our right to free speech and will continue to show our support for Israel as it continues its fight against terrorism. We believe that Israel is truly America�s greatest friend and ally. We in no way meant to offend anyone, rather we believe that the Wednesday�s events stemmed from political intolerance and not offensive behavior.

Justin P. Byma, Chair, SCSU College Republicans.
Here's what we can add to the story. According to two witnesses, the second faculty member is Phyllis Greenberg. Both are gerontologists teaching here at SCSU. Karasik is the acting chair of the Jewish Faculty Association, whose members were active in pursuit of the anti-Semitism lawsuit here. In her statement on behalf of the JFA on Dec. 3, Karasik wrote:
...the settlement represents the administrations' accountability for campus climate. By finally making these problems public, it will help everyone understand that Anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance are not acceptable at St. Cloud State University.
If the allegations made by Byma are true it's going to be very hard, in my opinion, to square that statement with these actions.

This places JCRC, who has been critical of anti-Semitism at SCSU, in a real bind: Who's your dog in this fight?

A phone call to Byma learned one other tidbit that may shed light on this: He said that during the debate he was told by one of the two faculty members that there are no Jewish Republicans. Knowing the two faculty members, I'm going to hazard a guess that this was meant in jest. But when one of the students reminded her that Norm Coleman is Jewish, the faculty member replied that "Coleman is a Jew of convenience". Do you suppose she listens to Garrison Keillor?

Doesn't this make you wonder: Would there have been any concern if College Democrats had put up this display?

The administration's role in this is disturbing but unsurprising. They've managed to turn this into a free speech issue. We now have people taking down an Israeli flag because someone was offended not by the symbol but by the identity of the speakers. Dr. Church, part of Roy Saigo's team, is reportedly saying that he did not tell them to take it down but simply informed them that it might be a good idea. That's irrelevant; when a university vice-president comes up to a group of students with a "request", it isn't someone asking an equal for a favor. And the Student Government's vote is an act of cowardice.

The story is on 1450 KNSI currently (the CR members were interviewed on its morning news program, but I missed it being in another meeting), and according to Byma will be in tomorrow's St. Cloud Times.

UPDATE: Reader John Hickey writes:

Do the SCSU faculty know that Israel requires that all foreign ships at Israeli ports fly the Israeli flag? Do they also know that United States Naval protocol allows the flying of foreign flags on U.S. ships as a sign of respect. Do non Jewish holders of Israeli passports have a visually different document? Colleges used to be places where questions could be posed and answers sought. Questions like, who has the "right" to fly even a replica of the Israeli flag. Things sure appear to be different today.