Last November, the theater department of Knox College canceled a play by Bertolt Brecht, following student complaints about the production’s stereotypical depiction of Asians. It was, of course, deeply ironic that a play by Brecht, whose works were deemed corrupting and were burned by the Nazis, would be quickly nixed by the University to accommodate students’ sensitivity.
The irony deepens. This month, a group of students at Knox is having a different interaction with the same administration and faculty that had been so responsive to students’ opinions. A Jewish student saw comments made by a visiting instructor on his personal twitter account—“Jews pulling the strings for profit” and “Zionist Jews act like Nazis”—and asked the college to investigate. During the investigation, an anti-Semitic image was slid underneath the door of a Jewish faculty member. The co-editor in chief of the student newspaper along with members of the Jewish student group have expressed frustration over these incidents and the college’s muted response.
Knox has not condemned the tweets as anti-Semitic. Its vice president for communications has said that “As an academic institution, we must maintain an unwavering allegiance to the constitutional rights of members of our community, particularly the freedom of speech that is essential for unfettered academic inquiry,” and that Knox does not follow the personal social media of faculty. This commitment to the defense of free expression is most admirable, but respect for freedom of speech does not take away the prerogative and duty of Knox’s leadership to condemn egregious anti-Semitism. Referring to the arguably eccentric decision to cancel Brecht’s play, Knox spoke of being “proud of the open dialogue between our students and faculty.” Why now is there silence from Knox leadership when the matter isn’t a classic play, but ugly and vicious anti-Semitism on their payroll?