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Article: Mitchell Hamline School of Law Facing Calls Of Antisemitism

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

TC Jewfolk

Nov. 2, 2023

A Jewish adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law abruptly resigned her position, decrying, along with Jewish students and allies at the school, what they see as antisemitic social media posts from another professor and a lack of response from the law school.

Melissa Weiner, a partner at a Minneapolis law firm and a graduate of the law school, said in her resignation letter dated Oct. 18, that her resignation stems from her “extreme displeasure” with Mitchell Hamline’s response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the Iranian-backed terrorist group that controls Gaza, and its “refusal to distance itself from the hate speech emanating from inside the institution.”

Weiner said that no one at the school has responded to her resignation letter, although a school spokesman said that Weiner was not teaching this semester.

“It’s way more than just two weeks of a lack of response and failure for them to have committed to this being important to the administration, which has caused them to not have the correct response,” Weiner said. “I’m…interested in the action that Mitchell Hamline is going to take to protect the safety of its Jewish students. If that plan is already underway, I’m happy to listen. If [the school would] like my thoughts on what can be done at the University, I’m certainly willing to take that meeting.”

The school has put out three statements, all signed by Interim President and Dean Jim Hilbert since the Oct. 7 attack. The first, on Oct. 10, didn’t mention Hamas or the attacks, while the second statement two days later said, in part: “Mitchell Hamline condemns all forms of anti-Semitism[sic]. We grieve for the devastating loss of life in the region and stand with all civilians in Gaza and Israel whose lives have been and are being threatened, lost, and devastated.”

In a statement to TC Jewfolk, the school said: “The tragic circumstances in Israel and Gaza have had a profound impact on members of our community, as has been true on campuses around the country. Mitchell Hamline remains focused on providing support to our students, staff, and faculty. Our response has been guided by our institutional values of mutual care, respect, and rejection of all forms of discrimination. There is no place at Mitchell Hamline for Antisemitism or any other form of bias. As we balance our various responsibilities as a higher education institution, we have made clear where the school stands and have taken steps to listen and to facilitate positive interactions. We are actively initiating and continuing conversations with multiple interested parties on this issue, working to ensure that all members of our community can speak freely and be heard in a civil and respectful manner, and that all students can learn in a safe and inclusive educational environment.”

“It’s concerning to hear of the allegations about Mitchell Hamline, considering its excellence in providing law students with a great education and teaching generations of Jewish lawyers in the Twin Cities,” said Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “The issues on college campuses are rampant across the U.S., particularly since Oct. 7. We are hopeful that the school will speedily address the serious issues of antisemitism it’s facing.”

The school’s third statement on the matter addresses the social media postings of “individuals affiliated with the law school.”

“Because these postings have raised concerns about [a]ntisemitism, I want to leave no doubt about where Mitchell Hamline stands: There is no place at the law school for Antisemitism or any other form of bias,” the school’s statement said. “Any messages espousing such views do not come from Mitchell Hamline as an institution and do not represent the views of the school, the Board of Trustees, or me. No faculty member, center or institute, employee, or student speaks on this matter on behalf of the law school.”

National Jewish group involved

Several people interviewed pointed to posts from Dr. T. Anansi Wilson, the director of the school’s Center for the Study Of Black Life and Law (CSBLL), which minimized or ignored the plight of the Israelis who were killed or kidnapped on Oct. 7. Both Wilson’s Twitter account with more than 17,000 followers and the CSBLL account with 280 followers are now private, meaning only approved followers can see the posts.

StandWithUs, an international, non-partisan education organization that supports Israel and fights antisemitism, sent a letter to Hilbert, the school’s interim dean and president, saying that the Oct. 19 statement did not “sufficiently address the issue,” and has requested an immediate investigation.

Among the claims that StandWithUs presented to Hilbert, was that while the school says that no individual or center speaks for the school, Wilson’s identity as the center’s founding director has been made central to its identity.

“In the days after the terror attack, the two events announced not only feature speakers who have spoken out against Israel, but at the time were exclusively promoted on Dr. Wilson’s personal Twitter account – not even on the CSBLL’s designated Twitter account or webpage,” the letter stated. “This activity has established their personal profiles and mouthpiece as the main forum for official Center messages. In the other direction, use of the CSBLL’s Twitter account to retweet posts from Dr. Wilson’s account further solidifies this professional union, making their personal speech the CSBLL’s own views.”

After a week of pro-Palestinian postings, they pinned a post to the top of their Twitter feed reiterating that the posts were their own, and not affiliated with the school.

In a statement, Wilson said in part: “I have long been a proponent and scholar of human rights, civil rights, self-determination, democracy and what Justice Kennedy once called ‘the right to dignity.’ It is unfortunate that my concern for, and public scholarship around, the potential for a historic loss of human life has been interpreted or experienced as a willful and threatening attempt to cause harm. That is never my intent, interest or desired impact. My goal, and that of all with beating hearts, should be to sustain, protect and defend life and to faithfully analyze our past and present, so that the future might be less bloody.”

Weiner’s concerns aren’t about a professor – or anyone – speaking up about concerns for Palestinians.

“When you start turning those comments into hate against Jews in a professional role where you are taking advantage of your platform as a professor at a law school, you are actually creating the incitement of violence and terror,” she said. “And the school is allowing it.”

The StandWithUs contends that Wilson is judging Jewish individuals based on their support for Israel.

“[It’s] an inappropriate gatekeeping of Jewish identity for someone who is not part of the community and in a position of power at MHSL,” the letter said.

Roz Rothstein, the co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, said that Wilson’s comments are part of a broader trend on campuses today of, “Teachers and mentors justifying Hamas’s atrocities against Jewish students’ friends and family in Israel and inciting a climate of hatred and bloodshed against Jews worldwide.”

Left out of DEI

One staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that while the school has placed a premium on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, Jews and Judaism aren’t considered.

“Judaism has never really been recognized as a DEI issue,” they said. “Things like the DEI office sending out the wrong dates for the Jewish holidays or having meetings on Yom Kippur. Stuff that shouldn’t happen but happens everywhere.”

The DEI office buys a table at the events of affinity bar associations, but not the Cardozo Society, the Jewish legal group in the Twin Cities. A school spokesperson said there is no standardized criteria for when this happens or doesn’t, but the school will be working on that process.

A staff member said the silence from the DEI office and faculty DEI committee speaks volumes.

“They’ve been silent,” they said. “We issued statements right away with George Floyd, the Dobbs decision, the affirmative action decision, and the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey. There’s more support for the earthquakes than for this.”

Another staff member said that they had another Jewish colleague who had experience in DEI spaces but felt uninvited to be a part of those conversations at Mitchell Hamline.

“They would say, ‘anyone can come,’ but it didn’t feel like that,” said the staff member.

“As Jews commemorated the 11 congregants who were massacred five years ago at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I can’t help but reflect on how often we have been told by DEI trainers that we cannot be victims of antisemitism because of the color of our skin or due to the perceived power and privilege we possess,” said Saba Soomekh, Ph.D., director of training and education for the American Jewish Committee.

“Never mind that the Jewish community is incredibly diverse economically and ethnically, with 12-15 percent of Jews in America identifying as Jews of color. The congregants killed at Tree of Life Synagogue were all ‘white presenting’ and yet, the color of their skin did not save them from being killed simply for being Jewish.”

Dan Kleinberger, a professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline, said the concerns of the Jewish students at the school go beyond Wilson’s social media posts – but those posts certainly aren’t helping matters.

“[Their concerns] more generally are related to the school’s apparent lack of understanding of what is going on in the world and at Mitchell,” he said “And what’s going on with regard to the law school employing somebody and funding a center, and then people seeing that this individual is making posts, apparently that are full of antisemitic tropes and full of misstatements of fact that have been used often to it incite antisemitism, creates a really serious problem.

“Antisemitism doesn’t seem to be something that’s anywhere on the [school’s] radar.”

Soomekh said that when it comes to DEI training, many times antisemitic tropes and canards are used – intentionally or otherwise – and misrepresent the Jewish community.

“Because Jewish identity cannot be placed neatly into the boundaries of religion, race, ethnicity, or culture, trainers do not know how to provide a concrete description of Jewish identity,” she said. “Because of this, Jews have categorically been placed as the suppressor and they are excluded from DEI and intersectionality efforts.

“According to the 2020 Pew research study, 80% of Jews believe Israel is important to them, yet we are the only group that has to leave our identity out the door if we want to be a part of intersectional movements.”

Concerns about retaliation

Staff and students at the school are concerned about retribution for speaking out about what they perceive as antisemitic. One student said there is no policy on staff use of social media, however the school does have non-discrimination and non-harassment policies that could apply to social media use by staff. The school spokesperson said there is a personal conduct policy that applies to staff, and faculty have professional conduct standards in the tenure code and faculty bylaws. Students would be protected from retaliation by staff, as detailed in school policy.

The StandWithUs letter pointed at a post that Wilson made on LinkedIn, suggesting that students would try to get them fired, suggesting race as the motive rather than their comments.

“Both of Dr. Wilson’s responses fail to account for the basis of the students’ complaints – Dr. Wilson’s expressed pro-terrorism sympathies and promotion of antisemitic beliefs – and serve to intimidate students and faculty in the future from reporting behaviors that contribute to a pervasively hostile environment at MHSL,” the letter said.

The school is split into a couple of different programs. There is the “traditional” program of students being on campus, and there is the blended program, where students come to class for one week each semester, but are otherwise taking classes online. Students in the blended program, according to one such student, are usually older students in a second or third career.

One of those students, Yael Nathanson, is a student from Houston, Texas, who had an encounter on social media with Wilson in late January. Wilson wrote: “There are some sorrows only Black and Palestinian folks can understand. What a world we survive. What deaths we’ve encountered. What new cruelties we’ve become intimate with. Stolen bodies, lands, histories, freedoms and so much legalized and justified death. The law as undertaker.”

A Twitter exchange between Dr. T. Anansi Wilson and law student Yael Nathanson.

The tweet was written four days after seven Jews were killed by a Palestinian gunman as they left services in Jerusalem.

“I understood it was Wilson’s viewpoint, and I was certain that they were going to post more hateful messages,” said Nathanson. “But I didn’t think it would spread throughout the school until now, when I started realizing how many others are citing them with their viewpoints, and students posting hateful and inciteful rhetorics. The school seem to lack the knowledge even to understand why it was an issue.”

Nathanson said that many students and faculty members are scared to speak up. She and other students and faculty members who don’t want to be named have felt targeted by staff retaliation and Wilson’s complaints of students trying to take their job away because they’re black, although Nathanson wasn’t named directly. She said her issues have nothing to do with Wilson’s race.

“You can’t hide behind race,” she said. “It’s not an excuse to be hateful and incite violence.”

Laurence O’Donnell, a non-Jewish student from Kansas City who is a section leader for the blended program, said that the school’s response has been a non-response, which has been frustrating to him and the students.

“It was shocking to me as a student at this school,” the student said. “I’m hoping as a student leader to call the school to account for its own bylaws and its own code on professional conduct. And I’m hoping the school steps forward and enforces that and holds all the faculty including this one to what they call in their own bylaws as the highest ethical and professional standards that lawyers should exhibit.”

Nathanson said her ask of the school is to commit to funding and promoting diverse perspectives on Israel as a way to defuse antisemitism.

“Whether that means funding events and programs and creating discussions and projects, maybe broader projects to include staff and faculty and alumni and board members, and create real opportunities,” said Nathanson, who graduates from the school in December. “I’ve had a great experience up until now, I don’t want to leave here with this bad taste. But I feel like this is my call to help them out. And until the school takes real actionable steps to protect the Jewish students, they should stop calling themselves an anti-racist institution.”

Said StandWithUs CEO Rothstein: “Mitchell Hamline School of Law has an opportunity to change a hostile climate on its campus by actively distancing itself from Dr. Wilson, investigating their antisemitic rhetoric using school resources, holding them accountable under relevant policies, and ensuring that professors are unable to use the Mitchell Hamline name to promote a bigoted agenda.”

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