Saturday, January 19, 2019

In an undergraduate academic department consisting of only five professors, including Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter and Chairman Dr. Steven Fine, Yeshiva University Associate Professor of Jewish History Dr. Jess Olson surprised the Jewish and YU alumni community by adding his name to a letter widely seen as radically anti-Israel and extraordinarily critical of recent U.S. policy related to the declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The letter, which is linked to the organization B’Tselem, was, at press time, signed by 177 academics primarily from the U.S., Canada, England and Israel.

The only organization the letter cites is B’Tselem, characterizing it as “the Israeli human rights organization.” However, many involved with Jewish public affairs are aware that B’Tselem is, by its own characterization, “the Israeli information center for human rights in the occupied territories.” B’Tselem maintains the position that “Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in June 1967. It has maintained control—in one form or another—over these territories and their people ever since. For more than half a century, Israel has kept up a reality of dispossession, oppression and human rights abuse in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.”

The letter states: “Palestinian residents of Jerusalem endure systematic inequalities, including an inequitable distribution of the city’s budget and municipal services, routine denial of building permits that are granted to Jewish residents, home demolitions, and legal confiscation of property for Jewish settlement. In addition, Palestinians in the West Bank, unlike Jewish Israelis residing in that territory, require a special permit to visit Jerusalem’s holy sites.

“In this context, a declaration from the United States government that appears to endorse sole Jewish proprietorship over Jerusalem adds insult to ongoing injury and is practically guaranteed to fan the flames of violence. We therefore call on the U.S. government to take immediate steps to deescalate the tensions resulting from the President’s declaration and to clarify Palestinians’ legitimate stake in the future of Jerusalem,” the letter concludes.

In an op-ed for JNS, columnist Stephen Flatow questioned Yeshiva University’s position on this letter and the status of its YU signatory. “Parents of YU students have the right to know if Olson is teaching his students that Jerusalem is under Israeli ‘occupation,’ or feeding them falsehoods about Israel ‘denying equal access.’ How will the university assure parents that none of Olson’s extremist beliefs are seeping into his classroom remarks or influencing the syllabi he designs for his courses?” Flatow wrote.

After requests for comment made to multiple individuals, Yeshiva University provided the following statement by Dr. Selma Botman, YU’s provost and VP for academic affairs. “Yeshiva University stands proudly and unwaveringly in its support of the State of Israel. Indeed, our commitment to Israel is fundamental to the university’s core values. Rabbi Dr. Berman recently shared his views on the Jerusalem announcement on video and I encourage you to watch it. While we recognize our faculty members’ right to freedom of expression, their views are theirs alone and do not necessarily represent those of the university.”

Dr. Jess Olson had not responded to The Jewish Link’s request for comment at press time.

Read the letter here: https://tinyurl.com/yb452v7b, and learn more about B’Tselem here: http://www.btselem.org/.

By Elizabeth Kratz