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Eboo Patel visit creates dialogue around religious diversity

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On Nov. 1, Eboo Patel, who founded the Interfaith Youth Core and served on Obama’s inaugural Faith Council, arrived at Swarthmore. During the roughly 24 hours he stayed, he led four workshops, participated in a world religions class, attended a dinner with President Valerie Smith and other faculty members, and delivered a keynote speech, “Building a Healthy Religiously Diverse Democracy: America’s Promise in a Time of Crisis.” The events focused on the benefits of understanding and acknowledging religious diversity, even in secular spaces.

In his keynote speech, Patel said that hatred of immigrants and other people with different beliefs creates a barrier against their contributions that inhibits societal progression. He then spoke on the history of religious prejudice in America, beginning with the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s and the movement that pushed against it.

“What is Judeo-Christian?” Patel asked. “It is a genius civic invention. It is a new narrative for America that allows us to imagine Jews and Catholics as equal participants in American civilization. I want to say this again — a group of civic activists, as a way of responding to anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudice in the 1920s, invent a new narrative for America that becomes so deeply woven into American DNA that we believe it was present from the beginning. That’s genius.”

Patel, a Muslim, applied this idea of a national narrative to the modern issue of Islamophobia and fear of Muslim immigrants.

“What new civic initiatives do we need now in this moment of Islamophobia?” he said.
“There’s a new chapter that needs to be written.”

Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life at the college, planned Patel’s visit with pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church Joyce Shin and religion professor Mark Wallace, all of whom are members of the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County.  They aimed to bring together leaders of different faith groups and to strengthen relationships between the Interfaith Center and the Borough.

“When I first heard Eboo Patel speak on the need for interfaith cooperation in our society, I was struck by two things: first, his ability to speak across many different audiences, by which I mean audiences that consist of different religious backgrounds, different generations, different points of view, and different assumptions; and second, Eboo’s consistently constructive approach to making interfaith cooperation a social norm,” Shin said.

When Shin first pitched the idea over a year ago, Tompkins was doubtful that Patel, a prominent figure in interfaith leadership, would want to come to Swarthmore. However, Tompkins feels that Patel saw an opportunity for expanding interfaith collaboration to secular campuses.

“Swarthmore’s well known in higher-ed circles; it’s also a pretty secular school,” she said. “[Patel] and his colleagues at Interfaith Youth Core are particularly interested in broadening the interfaith conversation so that it’s not just faith groups talking to each other, but talking across the faith-secular divide, which seems to really be dividing our country.”

According to Shin, Patel touched on the significance of religious tolerance and sensitivity to religious issues, even for those who do not practice religion themselves.

“My hope is that Eboo’s constructive approach will draw out and make room for other constructive approaches in building cooperation among different religious communities as well as show the significance of interreligious cooperation in the civic sphere,” she said.

During the student workshop before his talk, Patel gave student leaders case studies of religion-related conflicts that have occurred in secular places such as schools and workplaces and asked them to discuss possible approaches. One situation involved an Orthodox Jewish man who refused to sit at his assigned seat on an airplane because it was next to a woman; one was the difference in power if it were a Muslim woman refusing to sit next to a man.

“We had some pretty interesting conversation,” Tompkins said. “Some people said, ‘Kick him off the plane,’ some people said, ‘Try to persuade someone to change seats.’ It was interesting.”

Another case study was a group of Muslim women who requested an hour of time at the public pool reserved for women only; another involved Hindu students that protested the dining hall serving beef in the only eating facility on campus as being offensive to them.

“What he said, what actually turned out to be true, was we never actually resolved the question of what should we do,” Tompkins said. “What was important was that we were practicing having this kind of conversation with some sensitivity to the issues that are raised by these different groups.”

Abha Lal ’18, an intern for the Interfaith Center, attended the workshop Patel gave for student leaders. According to Lal, religious literacy and interfaith dialogue can give us insight into everyday interactions.

“I think at Swat and a lot of college campuses religion is treated as a purely private matter, but the fact is that it is really important to how many people understand themselves and conduct public life,” she said. “I think Patel’s workshop encouraged us to see this not as a problem to be dealt with, but a fact of living in heterogenous societies that needs to be engaged with in meaningful ways.”

Though Lal feels that Patel’s message about interfaith discourse has crucial implications, she stated that she and other Swarthmore students would disagree with Patel’s claims about American excellence.

“My main qualm was that as important as his approach is, it seems to base itself a little bit uncritically on American exceptionalism, something that is hard to be fully on board with for people here for good reason,” Lal said.

Patel also led a workshop on sensitivity to religious differences for Swarthmore faculty, a workshop for students at Strath Haven high school and a workshop for leaders of local congregations.

Cielo de Dios ’21 attended Patel’s keynote speech with her classmates from “Religion and the Meaning of Life,” taught by professor Ellen Ross. The class is currently reading Patel’s book “Acts of Faith,” a memoir about the struggles of being a Muslim in America. She feels that her experience at the college has been in accord with Patel’s ideal for democratic discourse.

“A lot of what he said applies in my religions class specifically because in my religions class, we’re not all from one faith,” she said. “Most of us are Christians, but there’s a Jew and then there’s a Buddhist who was an atheist. We come from a lot of different backgrounds, and even before the talk, we were all open to talking about our experiences and our faith, which is what I think Patel is advocating for.”

Patel mentioned a “circle of dialogue” multiple times, which is the range of people with whom someone is willing to converse about differing beliefs. While Ryan Arazi ’21 agreed with Patel’s concept of a religiously diverse democracy, he found the notion of a “circle of dialogue” idealistic.

“I agreed with the very broad circle of opinions and allowing that circle to exist, and I’m someone who’s advocated for that a lot,” he said. “But in hearing someone else say it, I can understand why that can be too optimistic, especially in a society that’s as polarized as ours and especially with a topic like religion, which goes to your core beliefs, like who you are as a person.”

 

According to Arazi, Swarthmore students tend to be like-minded and therefore not particularly open to interfaith dialogue.

“This is exactly the type of place where that optimism might fail because you have people of very like-minded beliefs and it’s easy to forget about … the outside world and forget that it’s important to listen to everyone,” Arazi said. “I don’t think that it’s a reflection of the people here or the open-mindedness of the people, but that it’s just a natural product of putting like-minded people in the same place.”

According to Patel, religious diversity is a central tenet of social change.

“What else is it?” he said. “What else is social change but dealing with people with whom you disagree and engaging in a conversation in which sometimes, you will change your mind and sometimes they will change their minds?”

De Dios agreed with Patel’s emphasis on willingness to engage others with opposing opinions in conversation, but she felt that Swarthmore students generally identify more with the type of social change represented in the Desmond Tutu quote “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” which a Swarthmore student brought up during the 30-minute question-and-answer session after the keynote speech.

“I do think, though, that the first step is in dialogue,” she said. “Not that they have to be mutually exclusive, but the dialogue comes first, more than anything, than the action. I don’t think that people would agree with me that you can be tolerant and not act. I do think that the most important acts of tolerance and respect end up anyway leading to protests and action-based causes.”

Tompkins was very satisfied with the attendance at the workshops and at the keynote speech. She felt that this event is representative of recent changes that she has worked to enact as director of religious and spiritual life at the college regarding dialogue around religious differences.

“I absolutely resonate with what he had to say, because I’ve been here 14 years [and] we’ve made huge, huge progress as far as recognizing religious and spiritual identity as important parts of diversity and inclusion,” she said. “When I first came it was … really, nobody talked about religion; it was very marginalized, there was very little support. I see [the event] just as a continuation of the momentum we’ve been working on, but I feel like it gave us kind of a big push.”

For Tompkins, Shin and the Interfaith Council, the  success of the event bodes well for similar collaborations between the college and the Swarthmore community in the future.

“I am excited to work with the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County, Partners in Ministry, different groups at Swarthmore College, and members of the community in developing ways to cooperate inter-religiously,” Shin said. “By seeing who showed up, we have a better idea of who is interested in this work and with whom we can build more sustainable relationships.”

President Valerie Smith, who introduced Patel’s speech, delivered similar sentiments about religious diversity.

“During these tumultuous times when democratic values are being challenged, by engaging with difference, particularly religious difference, we acknowledge our shared humanity,” Smith said.

More Swastikas Appear in McCabe Library

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Despite continued efforts by senior college staff, Public Safety, and the Swarthmore Borough Police to investigate and eliminate incidents of hateful graffiti on and near campus, two more swastikas were discovered at separate times in the stall of the gender neutral bathroom on the second floor of McCabe Library. An investigation into the incidents is ongoing, and although there are no named suspects and no major college policy changes resulting from the repeated acts of vandalism, various community members and groups have responded to the continued acts of hatred with demonstrations of unity, support, and solidarity.

The most recent vandalisms in McCabe Library were first announced to the broader college community via an email sent out by Dean of Students Liz Braun on Nov. 21. In the email, Braun explained that a single swastika had been found in the gender-neutral bathroom of McCabe Library. This can be assumed to be the same bathroom President Valerie Smith referred to in an Aug. 31 email, in which she detailed a similar incident where two swastikas were spray-painted on the interior wall of a bathroom stall. The Nov. 21 incident occurred shortly after an on-campus vigil in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance, which GLAAD describes on its website as an annual observance that honors the memory of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. The discovery of the first of these new swastikas so close to the Day of Remembrance bears particular significance because German Nazis, who used the swastika as a part of their propaganda, actively discriminated against and interned transgender citizens during the 1930s and 1940s in similar ways to the discrimination against Jews and other minorities, as explained by the Houston TG Day of Remembrance website.

The discovery of a second swastika in the same location was reported in a Timely Warning Notice sent out via email to students, faculty, and staff on Nov. 23. In the email, Director of Public Safety Michael Hill reported that Public Safety received information about the second swastika at approximately 9:15 p.m. on Nov. 22. The email also notes that Swarthmore Borough Police had been contacted in reference to these incidents.

“These incidents do not define us. They strengthen and unify us in our fight against them…[and] I am thankful to belong to a community such as ours, that does not tolerate such action, and has both the will and the ways to fight it,” Braun said in her campus-wide email.

Co-President of Kehilah Jamie Starr ’19 noted that these repeated incidents were not as shocking as the discovery of the first swastika in McCabe, but recognized that the recurring nature of the graffiti was upsetting.

“The first time, this [was] so new and novel and [we thought] we need to stop it right now, and now that it keeps happening…we feel kind of helpless. You learn to just deal with it. And I think that’s been happening…It’s a busy time, and people don’t have time to be emotionally upset by this,” Starr said.

She pointed out that, at this point, there is not much else Kehilah can do as a student group, and tasked the college with taking proactive and preventative steps.

Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Joyce Tompkins was notified of the incidents before the entire campus was altered via email. She participated in meetings with the college’s Bias Response Team as soon as possible after the discovery of each swastika alongside Jewish Student Advisor Adam Lavitt.

“We don’t know who the targets of these [incidents were], but I feel, in my role, that I need to be cognizant and available to any marginalized group or individual that’s hurting. In the Interfaith Center, we were focusing on our Jewish community because of the history of the swastika,” Tompkins said.

She noted that the response to these two swastikas was different than the campus response after the first one, partly due to the fact that the incidents happened right before Thanksgiving break.

“My sense [after the third swastika was found] was that a lot of people had already left campus and that—II can’t speak for everyone—[but] there was a general feeling of wanting to get away and just heal and be away from it. It felt to me like a wound that had begun to feel better, and [the question was], ‘Do we rip off the Band-Aid?’, or ‘Do we try to allow the healing to continue?’ and it felt to me…[that we should] let some time away settle things,” Tompkins said.

As students took a break and returned home or gathered on and off campus for the Thanksgiving holiday, several felt these incidents jarred their expectations of a place like Swarthmore.

“I never expected something like this to happen at Swarthmore. I figured Swat was a liberal place and in a liberal area, since it was near Philadelphia,” Katherine Huang ’18 said.

Ivan Lomeli ’19 agreed with Huang’s sentiment, explaining that he never imagined something so hateful could occur during his time at the college.

“I had heard about hateful incidents, such as the Intercultural Center’s door being ‘vandalized’, to say the least, but I never fathomed something so directly hateful and targeting to occur,” Lomeli said.

Student Government Organization’s Chair of Diversity and Inclusion Chris Chan ’17 said that these incidents were a setback for a campus that is constantly striving for inclusiveness and unity.

“I personally think the incidents are unacceptable, intolerable, disgusting, and revolting. The fact that this is happening not just once, but multiple times indicates that there is someone out there, either on or off campus, explicitly discriminating and targeting a specific group of people,” Chan said.

After these repeated incidents came to light, many groups across the college community have mobilized in different capacities. Tompkins praised Wednesday’s Jewish Day of Resistance as a positive way for both Jews and allies to channel hurt and anger about the fact that these events have continued to occur on campus. Braun said in a statement that the Bias Response Team has been working to connect with individuals and groups that have been most directly affected to get their input on how to improve the overall campus climate. She pointed to the upcoming intersectional anti-Semitism workshop organized by Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development T. Shá Duncan Smith as an example of a programmatic opportunity for the community.

On the same day as the Timely Warning Notice released by Public Safety, Mosea Esaias ’17 penned an email to the student body on behalf of the Student Government Organization, issuing a call to social and political action in response to hatred, bigotry, and violence, on campus and on a broader national scale. The statement outlines that SGO wants to recognize and support those who have been engaging in social justice work on campus and outside of Swarthmore.

“We will act as allied partners in their struggle for liberation and equality…and will use its access and allocate our economic, physical, intellectual, and symbolic resources in order to support students organizing on campus, in local communities, and on the national stage,” the call to action reads.

It also included a link to a Political Action Resource Guide, intended to give students an opportunity to find organizations that are mobilized on a local and national scale, as well as upcoming events and other ways to become politically engaged. The guide includes information about events, such as the Stand with Standing Rock March in Washington, D.C. happening on Dec. 10, and lists of organizations grouped by interest area, such as Gender and Legal Defense.

In a statement, Esaias also noted that, in accordance with both the call to action and the SGO Bias Response Policy, SGO reached out to groups potentially targeted by the vandalism in McCabe to extend their support and to offer the possibility for future collaboration on projects addressing the issues of anti-Semitism and homophobia. He explained that SGO members are also continually meeting with members of the college administration and will be meeting with Braun next week, where these issues surround hateful graffiti will be a main focus of the meeting. Esaias also highlighted a meeting with Tompkins about the last collection of the semester, titled The Celebration of Light and that is scheduled for 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. in Upper Tarble on Dec. 7, which will be co-sponsored by SGO.

Braun confirmed that Public Safety is working very closely with the library staff to find ways to increase vigilance in the library since it has now been targeted multiple times. She also said that Public Safety is also working closely with Swarthmore Police Department on their ongoing criminal investigation. Both Hill and Braun could not comment directly on the ongoing investigation due to concerns that statements may inadvertently impact the investigation. At this point, no suspects have been identified, and it is unknown whether or not the various swastikas were all created by the same individual or by different individuals, as well as whether or not the perpetrator(s) is/are members of the Swarthmore community.

Huang appreciated the college’s prompt response to the discovery of more swastikas.

“I’m glad they include links to help groups on campus like CAPS, and Kelilah, and MSA,” she said.

However, Huang was not convinced that the college was doing all it could to improve the security of campus in light of these recent events.

“I feel like this horrific thing is at least preventable inside our McCabe, which has people posted at the desks. But I don’t work there, so I don’t understand really know what’s going on,” she said.

Huang is an employee of the Cornell Science & Engineering Library.

“You’ve gotta send the email, but I already want more than an email. I think they should be doing something now…we are hoping the administration does give some sort of stronger response,” Starr said.

The library staff has begun to take some steps to move forward after these incidents. Digital Resources and Scholarly Communications Specialist Maria Aghazarian pointed out that library staff are providing sticky notes and inviting students to share their responses to the incident on the door of the bathroom where these incidents have occurred.

“[We] are planning additional ways of building community and making our library welcoming, safe and inclusive,” she said.

Aghazarian also mentioned the library had formed a response team that will be meeting with Tompkins on Friday and plans to collaborate with Lavitt in the future.

Looking forward, Tompkin praised the sense of unity she saw between different groups on campus, such as the increased dialogue between the Muslim Students Association and Kehillah, in light of these events.

“It’s not just one person’s wounds. It’s all of our wounds, together,” Tompkins said.

CORRECTION: The piece currently states that Esaias penned an email to the student body on behalf of the Student Government Organization. While Esaias did send the email out, it was written collaboratively and approved by the entire SGO.

CORRECTION: The statement released by SGO was written by Esaias and Roebuck, not just Esaias as the piece currently notes.

Swarthmore Hillel votes to drop ‘Hillel’ from name

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Swarthmore Hillel’s board voted on Monday to change their name after receiving an email from Hillel International that threatened legal action against the student organization if it did not change the agenda of an upcoming event so that it aligned with Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. The student group decided to remove “Hillel” from its name so that it could proceed with the planned event, where four activists will be presenting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict next week. The name change will also ensure its autonomy in choosing guest speakers and future topics for discussion.

In its letter to Swarthmore, Hillel International described the four activists as “promoting an anti-Israel agenda” that violated Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. They wrote that if the event focused solely on the speakers’ participation in the American Civil Rights movement, then it would not be in violation of their policy, but that the group needed to correspond with Hillel International for confirmation. They issued an ultimatum demanding that the student group communicate with Hillel International by 5 p.m on Tuesday.

In a press release, Swarthmore Hillel said that the decision to drop “Hillel” from its name was made “in order to affirm [our] central Jewish values of openness and inclusion across differences.” Keeping the Hillel name “would prevent us from continuing to build that inclusive community we want to be,” wrote Joshua Wolfsun ’16, Swarthmore Hillel’s Israel-Palestine Programming Coordinator, via email.

Still, the decision to drop the Hillel name was a difficult one.

“For many of us, we identified with the Hillel name — either as a link to the larger Jewish student community, a connection to Hillel the Elder — the organization’s namesake — or quite simply as just what we have always called ourselves,” Wolfsun wrote. “As an organization that claims to promote pluralism and Jewish life in all its forms, it is deeply disappointing and frustrating that Hillel International has responded to our attempts to create an open and pluralistic community by threatening to sue its students and their college.”

Wolfsun reported that the Dean’s Office had been in contact with the student group, and had been “helpful and supportive” of the student-led decision-making process.

The meeting, which lasted two hours in Bond Hall, was attended by Jewish members both inside and outside of Swarthmore Hillel who discussed which aspects of Hillel they valued and desired to keep. Students also expressed concerns for the group to address going forward, such as feelings of exclusion and unilateral thinking. Having more diverse guest speakers with differing viewpoints is meant to address this issue.

According to its press statement, Swarthmore Hillel has yet to decide on the new name, although it will be chosen in the coming weeks, and the entire Jewish community at Swarthmore inside and outside of the organization will be invited to participate in the selection process.

Hillel International opposes programming that presents an anti-Israel view in any of its affiliated Hillel organizations. As part of a series on social justice issues on Israel and Palestine, Swarthmore Hillel scheduled a discussion entitled “Social Justice Then and Now: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement” with civil rights veterans Ira Grupper, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin, and Dorothy Zellner. Ira Grupper was involved in a 2009 march in solidarity with Gaza victims of Israel’s January 2009 siege. Mark Levy is a civil rights activist who regularly speaks to college groups about the relevancy of the Civil Rights Movement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Larry Rubin works with groups in Washington D.C. and Baltimore connecting the Black and Jewish communities. Dorothy Zellner was the co-editor of the civil rights newsletter “The Student Voice” and is now involved in advocacy work on behalf of Palestinians. They are scheduled to speak about their experiences in the American Civil Rights Movement and its applicability to the current conflict in Israel and Palestine next Tuesday and Wednesday.

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