By Adam Simon and Rabbi Josh Feigelson
Our first reaction to reading Northwestern University Professor Arthur Butz's latest claim that the Holocaust was a Jewish hoax was — like that of so many — pain, frustration and outrage. But more than anything, we felt profoundly annoyed that the lies of a delusional academic would undermine all the hard work of so many to make Northwestern the welcoming home for Jews that it is.
Our Jewish Theater Ensemble just concluded a sold-out five performance run of the musical "Children of Eden," by Broadway composer Steven Schwartz, a theatrical interpretation of the first nine chapters of Genesis. Attendance at Hillel's Shabbat dinners has doubled in the last year. Our Orthodox, Conservative and Reform services have been enjoying some of their best attendance of the year. Students are attending conferences all over the country, sponsored by Hillel, AIPAC and other organizations. Other students are preparing to host a major international summit on innovative approaches to social action, and another national conference on human trafficking — both completely student-initiated. Another group of students is launching an edgy, engaging magazine looking at life through a Jewish lens. And a creative and dedicated group of students is planning a huge dance party featuring an Israeli DJ to celebrate Israel's Independence Day.
And yet all people would hear about was Northwestern's nutty professor. Instead of seeing the thousands of meaningful Jewish experiences we at Hillel work so hard to facilitate; instead of learning of our Jewish studies program, which features some of the best scholars in their fields anywhere in the world; instead of knowing about the creativity and enthusiasm of the estimated 3,000 Jewish students at Northwestern; instead of all this, the nation would only hear about the outbursts of a tenured anti-Semite and would come to think that that was the end of the story.
So we decided to change the story. Rather than dignify nonsense with a debate, we reframed this event as an educational opportunity on a grand scale. We convened a community forum, at which every student had the chance to vent their anger and frustration in one of many small groups. We then asked those groups to focus on some basic questions: "Why does the Holocaust matter? What does this mean for Northwestern? And how do we ensure that 'never again' means never again?"
Northwestern students engaged in those conversations with all the energy, creativity and dynamism that we would expect. Their momentum was so strong that they decided to hold another meeting the next night and to continue the discussion over the ensuing days, deliberating and planning their actions. Proposals have emerged for immediate activism, including bringing a prominent speaker to campus, holding a series of "fireside" talks in the dormitories and residential colleges, and taking out ads in the student newspaper, all geared toward raising awareness of the dimensions of Holocaust remembrance.
In the longer term, students are talking about ideas to institutionalize the study of the Holocaust, its history and its contemporary relevance on an even greater scale. While Northwestern already boasts a chair in Holocaust studies, held by Professor Peter Hayes, one of the leading Holocaust historians in the world, the university could take this moment to go much, much further. Students envision the world's leading academic center for the study of the Holocaust residing here at Northwestern. They want to attract the very best Holocaust researchers and teachers to its faculty, creating interdisciplinary models of Holocaust study in all of its schools — arts and sciences, engineering, law, business and everywhere in between. With this proposal, NU students have shown a way to turn this painful chapter in Northwestern's history into a lasting legacy that will erase from memory the name of our sadly tenured kook.
In the past week we have heard from parents of current and prospective students, alumni and others, concerned that Northwestern is a bad place for Jewish students. We want to say loudly and emphatically, "Punct Fakert — Precisely the opposite!" Northwestern is a wonderful place for Jewish students to live, learn and grow Jewishly. And precisely because of the way our community has responded to this incident, Northwestern is engaged in the deepest and widest discussion about the importance of the Holocaust of any campus in America. Now is the moment for Jews at Northwestern. We hope you will join us.
Adam Simon and Rabbi Josh Feigelson are, respectively, the executive director and campus rabbi at Fiedler Hillel Center at Northwestern University.