Strengthening the Foundation of Tolerance at Indiana University

Indiana University
Wells House
Bloomington, Indiana
April 2, 2011


Thank you, Alvin [Rosenfeld], for that kind introduction and for inviting me to attend this opening dinner. Before I introduce our distinguished guest, I would like to take this opportunity to address directly and personally a subject of the deepest concern to all of us in this room: the foundation of tolerance upon which universities rest and the culture of tolerance that we have a responsibility to maintain.

The Incidents of Last Winter

These two ideas came under attack this past winter when what appears to have been an isolated individual committed a series of acts of violence and vandalism that shocked our campus and our community.

Twice rocks were thrown through the windows of the Chabad House, once at the Hillel Center, and the directory board of Jewish Studies was smashed. Worst of all, several texts in the Wells Library, sacred to Judaism, were desecrated in especially reprehensible ways that I will not describe. All of this on the eve of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

As I indicated, evidence suggests that these deplorable acts were probably committed by an isolated individual, but that does not diminish the shock and fear those acts generated within the Jewish community and the university and Bloomington as a whole.

A Safe and Civil City

I think it is fair to say that much of our shock came from the fact that these disgraceful acts occurred in a community that has long prided itself on being a safe and civil city, to borrow from the name of a city program. As Professor Rosenfeld eloquently stated recently, the campus and community of Bloomington enjoy a well-deserved reputation for tolerance, civility, and for welcoming all manner of persons.

In Bloomington, as across the United States, synagogues, Hillels, and other Jewish organizations announce their presence openly, even prominently, and do not generally find the need to deploy more than basic security precautions.

One has only to go to virtually any Western European country to see many such institutions unmarked, sometimes behind fences or other barriers, and protected by metal detectors and on-site security personnel. By that standard, the level of acceptance and tolerance in the U.S. is truly remarkable.

Bloomington’s reputation for openness and civility gives the events of last fall a dimension they may not otherwise have had. That such vicious events could take place here in Bloomington, Indiana, and on the campus of Indiana University, suggests just how historically entrenched among some is the hatred that fueled them. And the expressions of that hatred—the breaking of windows and the destruction of sacred texts—have a deep and hurtful historical resonance for the victims and for all of us that we cannot ignore.

Of course, we must not confuse individual acts of hatred with a massive state-sponsored program of terror. To do so would trivialize an horrific past and marginalize its lessons. But we ignore at our peril the history, the symbolism, and the attitudes that, even now, express themselves in those individual acts of hatred and intolerance.

What is true of this particular form of hatred applies also to manifestations of hatred toward other groups. Shortly before the Jewish community was shocked by these events, a group of Asian students was accosted in racial terms, viciously attacked, and robbed here on campus. One student was taken to the hospital with a broken jaw.

In 1999, Bloomington also experienced the shocking, racially motivated murder of Korean student Won Joon Yoon by a white supremacist killer who was a follower of a hate group with the positively Orwellian name of World Church of the Creator. Incidentally, my wife Laurie and I have met with his parents and sisters in Korea on a number of occasions, and the pain and the devastation of the loss of their only son and brother continues to this day.

The University's Response

As a university we must respond thoughtfully and deliberately to the world around us, to practice what we preach, so to speak. The response to the antisemitic acts last winter was thoughtful and deliberate even as it was immediate and overwhelming. As a campus and a community, the resounding reaction was one of outrage and condemnation.

Provost Hanson wrote eloquently and forcefully on behalf of the university, condemning those criminal acts of vandalism and stating firmly that there is no place for antisemitism or any form of intimidation or discrimination at Indiana University or anywhere else. The IU Police Department responded quickly and professionally, adding extra security to ensure campus safety and conducting an aggressive investigation in conjunction with the local police force, the FBI, and the Department of Justice.

I want to say tonight that we can, we must, and we will respond to violence of this kind, and to hate crimes against persons or property, with vigor and with the full force of the law available to us. However, as our police force will be the first to tell you, such a response is not enough.

We must, all of us, bend our efforts—every day, and not just in the wake of a crime—to assure that our community regards tolerance and tolerant diversity as among its cardinal virtues. Beyond that, we must respect and learn from the clear lessons that history teaches us: that we cannot and we must not hide from our responsibility as a community to confront and to condemn such acts of antisemitism and all forms of hatred whenever and wherever we find them.

The ugly and tragic history of failing to do so stands as a stark reminder that this responsibility rests with each of us individually and with all of us collectively. The Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University is an integral part of that effort. Acts of antisemitic hatred—here or anywhere in the world—are matters of deep concern because criminal acts of hatred against any group threaten the freedom of all people.

In a diverse and increasingly global society, we absolutely depend on tolerance and respect for all people. We cannot afford to ignore the lessons drawn from the serious and informed study of present-day antisemitism and its deep connections with centuries-old traditions of suspicion and hatred.

Professor Rosenfeld and the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism are performing an invaluable service through their international leadership in this timely study. Would you please help me in thanking Professor Rosenfeld for all that he has done?

Conclusion: Beyond Tolerance to Engagement

These efforts to foster tolerance and tolerant diversity are certainly not confined to the institute. Tolerance must be the baseline of our intellectual growth and prosperity as a great university. An academic community is deeply engaged in a collective search for knowledge, and that collective search ranges over multiple perspectives, vast information, and many different worldviews.

Indeed, it is precisely the multiplication of perspectives, information, and worldviews, as well as the willingness to subject them to rigorous scrutiny, to debate them, and to defend them—in short using our reason to search for truth—that helps us to understand ourselves and our beliefs, our assumptions, and our knowledge more deeply and more thoroughly.

In this context, and in the broader context of this speech, I am almost compelled to think of one of the greatest writers on tolerance, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, writing over 350 years ago in Holland—one moment a place of tolerance, the next deadly and dangerous—who said: “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.” We cannot pursue our core missions of creating new knowledge and of passing on and preserving existing knowledge without tolerance.

Neither can we truly be an intellectual community if each of us works in isolation. We must go beyond tolerance to engagement. If we—faculty and students—spend all of our time in separate places or on separate computers, acquiring separate knowledge, and thinking our separate thoughts, we will no longer have an intellectual “community,” no matter how scrupulously polite and agreeable we are because we will never learn about each other, from each other, and with each other.

To put it another way, an excellent university education does not simply impart information, but challenges what we know and what we believe. Often that challenge is neither pretty nor comfortable. It refuses to smooth over or to rewrite the past or portray it in gentler, more comfortable hues.

As teachers (in the broadest sense), we must always insist that our students—and we ourselves—face the challenges inherent in growth and change, seeking to understand, to weigh, to assess, the ideas, assertions, and arguments that come from other perspectives, other traditions, other disciplines, and other beliefs, as we search for knowledge and truth.

In sum, we must demand a tolerant Indiana University, but we must aspire to an engaged Indiana University. That is our future, and I am delighted that the institute has been and will continue to be an important part of it.

Introducing Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal

Now, it is my pleasure to introduce our distinguished guest. In a recent speech delivered in Ottawa, Canada, Hannah Rosenthal said, “I have dedicated my life to eradicating antisemitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only my father could give me.”1

Her father was a rabbi and Holocaust survivor, and as United States Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal continues his work.

Ms. Rosenthal has been preparing for some time for this important work. She received her bachelor’s degree in religion from the University of Wisconsin, attended graduate school for rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and Los Angeles, and was a religious educator for three years.

She served on the staff of two Wisconsin legislators and led a number of advocacy organizations across the United States, including serving as the first executive director of the Wisconsin Women’s Council, and serving as Executive Director of the Chicago Foundation for Women, one of the largest women’s funds in the world. Before that, she was Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, working on domestic and international policy for the organized Jewish community in North America. She was also appointed by President Clinton as Midwest Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In recognition of her contributions, she was selected as Wisconsin Woman of the Year in 1988. She was also named a YWCA Woman of Distinction and Advocate of the Year by the Community Action Programs Association, and she received the Wisconsin Equal Rights Award. In 2005 and 2010, she was included in the Forward Fifty, a list of the most influential Jews in the nation selected by The Forward newspaper.

On November 23, 2009, Ms. Rosenthal was sworn in as Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Her office develops and implements policies and projects to support efforts to combat antisemitism and was created by the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004.

Ms. Rosenthal says that “she comes from a family that ‘believed in relationship-building and that the worst danger Jews face is isolation,’ so her personal and professional lives have been devoted to ‘enlarging the tent and enlarging the table.’”2

We are delighted that she is here with us as we do the same.

Would you please help me welcome Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal?


Source Notes

1 Rosenthal, Hannah.  “Remarks Before 2010 Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism.”  U.S. Department of State Website.  Ottawa, Canada.  8 Nov. 2010.

2 Fingerhut, Eric.  “New Anti-Semitism Monitor Sees Role as Reactive, Proactive.”  The Jewish Standard Website.  29 Nov. 2009.