Western Washington University

Prof. Shirley Osterhaus, Western Washington University

Shirley Osterhaus, a senior instructor at WWU, was accused of bias against Jews and Israel. In 2012, she was awarded the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center’s “Howard Harris Lifetime Peacemaker Award.” (Youtube)

A headless doll with a note reading “Death to all Jews” was among a series of antisemitic incidents experienced by Jewish students at Western Washington University (WWU), prompting the school’s administration to form a special task force to combat the phenomenon.

According to a report in WWU’s newspaper, The Western Front, four known antisemitic incidents took place on campus during the recently completed winter quarter. “It is unusual in my office that we would get four consecutive situations so close together,” said Sue Guenter-Schlesinger, head of the Equal Opportunity Office (EOO) and member of the task force. Information regarding the incidents were obtained through public records requests of EOO reports.

The first instance of antisemitism occurred on January 31, 2016, when a Jewish student living in the Fairhaven residential complex reported that a swastika and racial slurs had been written on a whiteboard attached to his door. Recognizing the perpetrator, the student confronted him and forced him to apologize. In response, school officials held a meeting at the residence hall on February 11, where the Jewish student was accused by other students of being too sensitive. One stated the swastika was “a peace symbol in some cultures,” the Jewish student recounted.

Three days after the meeting, another Fairhaven resident reported that a swastika had been drawn next to his name on a sign-up sheet posted on the door of the resident director. Following an investigation, a student admitted to drawing the Nazi symbol, but claimed he had drawn it as a joke. The targeted student dropped the matter because he did not want to magnify the situation by having someone kicked out of campus housing, according to an EOO report.

Then, on the night of February 2, a resident adviser patrolling the Ridgeway Beta housing complex found the headless porcelain doll with the antisemitic note. According to an EOO report, following questioning by the Ridgeway resident director, a student admitted to placing the doll and note on his suite-mate’s door. The student said the note was written by a friend from high school and he “thought this would be a prank.”

Following these three incidents, the EOO was prompted to launch an investigation into a fourth matter, after a student enrolled in the Fairhaven College World Issues Forum filed a complaint on February 23 accusing senior instructor Shirley Osterhaus of blatant bias against Jews and Israel and refusing to offer alternative pro-Israel viewpoints for consideration. According to the complaint, a guest speaker and former Black Panther member allegedly made antisemitic remarks during his presentation, titled “The Stark Similarities between the Black and Palestinian Struggle for Human Rights.”

Anti-Israelism vs. Anti-Semitism?

“I make clear distinctions whenever I talk about this issue, between what the Israeli military and government is doing, and Jewish people,” Osterhaus told the Western Front. “It’s disturbing to be brought with those allegations. It creates an environment on campus that doesn’t let faculty be as free, and talk truth to powers that are oppressive.”

The EOO inquiry — which included interviewing Osterhaus and reviewing videos of all pro-Palestinian lecturers to the class over the last five years — concluded that “the speakers did not place blame nor make discriminatory remarks against Jewish people.” It added that students should be prepared, as part of their academic career, to be exposed to opinions they may find personally offensive.

The three confirmed cases of antisemitism at WWU prompted President Bruce Shepard to create a special task force aimed at addressing what appears to be a growing issue on campus. In an April 12 campus-wide email, Shepard wrote that that the school administration is aware of campus climate issues and have made progress in addressing concerns. “That progress is a critically important and shared responsibility. Progress also requires that we be open and candid about challenges as they are encountered,” he wrote. The task force, according to Western Front, has met three times since its formation and will present its findings in a special report during the 2016 fall quarter at the earliest.

Bellingham, the city where WWU is located, is no stranger to antisemitic attacks. On May 8, hikers at a local state park discovered graffiti with the message, “IT’S TIME FOR OUR REVOLUTION,”  the Western Front reported. Alongside the message was a swastika and a symbol depicting the letters “NWF,” which is a possible reference to the white supremacist group, the Northwest Front.

By: Lea Speyer, The Algemeiner

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Source: United with Israel