Faith Commons

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

Every day the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sends out an email titled, “Daily Campus Crisis Alert.” Crises include students walking out on Duke’s commencement speaker, a fraternity house at Temple University where “Free Palestine” was spray-painted on the roof, and the president of Johns Hopkins announcing that the university would consider a petition to divest from Israel. Each of these incidents deserves thoughtful analysis and response, but lumping them together and labeling them all as crises precludes that option. Instead, this daily list of “crises” stimulates the amygdala, the part of the brain that sends us into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Just seeing the title of the email is a trigger for feelings of fear, anger, stress, and isolation. The prefrontal cortex, where the thinking brain is located, is disengaged. It’s as if the world is on fire and the hose to the hydrant has been disconnected.

The world of higher education has always been influenced by politics, economics and ideology—all of which are changing in this country as demographics, climate, and technology evolve. As we navigate these stormy days, it is important to remember that our religious traditions did not emerge from a static world. They were expressions of our human yearning to anchor ourselves when confronting the unknown. They remind us of the privileges we have, of the mystery that we will never fully understand, and most important, that we are never alone. This kind of faith calms our amygdala and reactivates our prefrontal cortex.

I have yet to find an email titled, “Daily Campus Healing Alert,” but someone should start one. Those emails would share stories like the encampment at Brown University, where both protestors and counterprotestors felt safe and where students reached an agreement with university administration and dismantled the camp after 6 days. They would include the video in which a first-year student at the University of Michigan describes his positive (if challenging) experience carrying a flag depicting both a map of Israel and a map of Palestine. They could expand on Politico Magazine’s compilation of interviews conducted with the editors-in-chief of campus publications from thirteen different colleges and universities, giving examples of how and why outside media often distorts what is really happening on these campuses.

To be sure, news of protests roiling campuses across our nation is scary and disturbing. Some criticisms of the Jewish state and of Jews, expressed as anti-Zionism and antisemitism, place unfair, unjust, and unfounded responsibility on Israel and on all Jews for the current war in Israel and Gaza. But these demonstrations are not simply anti-war protests, or excuses to lash out against Israel and Jews. They are reactions to a rapidly changing and often disconcerting world, and a call for a new approach to global problems.

If we choose to see them this way and use our whole brains to respond, we can refocus our attention and our efforts on the world as we want it to be, rather than the world as it was. We can re-value college education, measuring it by wisdom gained rather than wealth accumulated. We can focus on opportunities rather than threats, reactivating our brains, our hearts, our faith.

Some believe their faith demands they distance themselves from those who don’t believe, or think, the way they do. (Examples in Texas here and here.)

At Faith Commons we ask them, “Then, why did God create us this way? Why are we fitted with a capacity to think and a desire for community? Can we not see the dignity of difference as a divine gift to make us more aware of how much we might yet learn?”

Food for Thought:

Jessica Yellin explains how the way the news is presented in mainstream media increases our anxiety and shuts off our thinking brains. And she offers an alternative.
If you watch the news, you won’t be shocked to learn that it’s designed to compete for your anxiety, News Not Noise

This 2009 TED Talk is a timely reminder of our human limitations and the importance of learning from one another’s stories. 
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story | TED

The first Religious Studies department on a university campus was designed to broaden and deepen an appreciation for the study of all religions, and to foster interreligious dialogue and understanding.
History of the Department of Religious Studies, University of Iowa

Rather than withdrawing funding from higher education, donors who don’t like what they are seeing could redirect their gifts to invest in solutions to conflict, whether it is occurring across the world or on college campuses in the U.S.
I’m a UCLA professor. Why didn’t the administration stop last night’s egregious violence?, Forward

Here is what Professor David Myers is doing at UCLA when he is not attempting to calm violent protests:
Initiative to Study Hate, UCLA

The curtailing and policing of free speech at the University of Texas sets a dangerous precedent.
Gov. Greg Abbott and UT-Austin shift from championing free speech to policing protesters’ intentions, American Council of Trustees and Alumni

The elimination of DEI initiatives and censoring curricula will only lead to the deterioration of public education.
“Never Again” Starts with Education, Learning for Justice

Let’s end on a positive note! Atidna is fighting the odds at UT Austin and other campuses around the country. 
Student group brings Palestinians, Jews together in dialogue, ABC News