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Temple leaders visited the Middle East to learn new ways to combat antisemitism, foster partnerships

The trek followed the creation of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Anti-Semitism and University Responses that Jason Wingard formed during the first year of his Temple presidency.

Temple University president Jason Wingard (back right) and Temple provost Gregory Mandel (back left) are greeted by children at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, during a recent visit to the Middle East.
Temple University president Jason Wingard (back right) and Temple provost Gregory Mandel (back left) are greeted by children at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, during a recent visit to the Middle East.Read moreRyan S. Brandenberg, Temple University

Temple University’s top leaders took a 10-day trip to the Middle East to foster relations with universities, visit historic religious sites, and seek insight on how to combat antisemitism and broader discrimination.

The June trek followed the creation of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Antisemitism and University Responses that Temple president Jason Wingard formed after reports of growing incidents of discrimination at colleges nationwide — Temple’s campus no exception.

The 20-member commission, including local and national scholars, clergy, and business and nonprofit leaders with expertise on handling discrimination, cited the trip as a model for college campuses, as well as the kind of new educational experiences that are necessary to increase understanding.

“[Members of the commission] told us early on that some of us would be served well by taking a trip to the Middle East to see firsthand and hear firsthand [about] the culture, religion, and some of the conflict that manifests from the Holocaust, but also being able to talk to some of our counterparts to hear how they are dealing with the same issue,” Wingard said.

» READ MORE: A critical voice on higher ed from an unusual place: Temple president Jason Wingard lays out what needs to change in a new book

Besides Wingard, the traveling delegation included provost Gregory Mandel; Valerie Harrison, vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion; Martyn Miller, assistant vice president for international affairs; Phil Richards, vice chair of the board of trustees; and Rabbi Daniel Levitt, executive director of Temple’s Hillel. During the trip, they met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and key members of his cabinet, and Wingard went to Jordan, where he gave a talk at Columbia University’s global center.

They also visited both Israeli and Palestinian universities, meeting with students who shared ways they bridge differences and offered to visit and lead talks at Temple.

Temple had some relationships with universities in Israel before the trip, said Mandel, but the visit, which also explored academic and research partnerships, has led to plans for increased collaboration.

The effort could serve as a model for college campuses, said Andrew Goretsky, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia, who served on the commission.

“Temple is not just looking to address antisemitism, but racism and hate in all forms,” he said. “This commission is a good start.”

Wingard said the university also plans to tackle discrimination against other groups, including Muslim and LGBTQ students.

The move comes as campuses nationwide struggle with incidents of discrimination, including a rise in antisemitism. A 2021 national survey by the league found that nearly one-third of Jewish students had experienced antisemitism on campus or by a member of the campus community, with three-quarters of them never reporting it, said Goretsky, who previously spent more than 20 years in higher education, most recently as Arcadia’s dean of students.

Locally, there were 16 incidents on college campuses in the region that Goretsky’s office covers, including eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware. Incidents ranged from swastika graffiti to a student giving a Nazi salute to another student at a party, he said. He declined to name the campuses.

And Pennsylvania in 2021 had the highest number of incidents of white supremacist propaganda in the nation, he said.

Temple has experienced incidents as well, including a report of white supremacist propaganda being distributed on campus by the New Jersey European Heritage Association in 2021. In 2014, a student reported he was punched and called antisemitic names after a verbal exchange with students manning a table for a pro-Palestinian group.

In 2018, Temple trustees condemned comments by professor Marc Lamont Hill about Israel, though defended his right to free speech. Hill had said he supported “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” which critics said was a phrase used by Palestinians as a rallying cry to destroy Israel. Hill subsequently apologized and said he rejects antisemitism.

Wingard’s hiring last summer drew criticism from the president of the Zionist Organization of America, who said that Wingard had served as a board member of the Tides Foundation, which gave financial support to organizations that backed a boycott of Israel. Wingard told the Jewish Exponent that Tides also provides funding to Jewish organizations and that as a volunteer board member, he didn’t have authority over the funding.

“I am not an antisemite and condemn antisemitism in all its forms,” he told the Exponent at the time.

Levitt, who is in his eighth year at Temple, said while the university is not immune to antisemitic incidents, its problems as they impact the students are no bigger than those on other campuses.

“I never had a reason to doubt the university’s sincerity in wanting to care for its students in the best way they are able,” he said, estimating that about 1,500 undergraduates are Jewish.

He hopes the commission and its work will establish Temple as a leader in trying to find solutions.

Already, the group, which was formed last March, recommended in a report to trustees that the university better communicates its values and policies for handling and investigating discrimination to the campus community.

“We have well-developed policies and procedures ... but sometimes we haven’t been as clear and consistent in explaining to our community what’s going on when something has arisen,” Mandel said.

The university, the commission recommended, should include antisemitism in its bias and harassment training for student and employee groups and create a roundtable with other groups on campus that experience bias to better promote “intergroup” understanding. The commission said the university also should invest in more educational programming to combat bias in the classroom and beyond.

“The best tool that a university has is to have students learn about the history of different biases and bigotries and from that also learn how to develop a sense of structured empathy,” said Lila Corwin Berman, professor of history and cochair of the commission.

To that extent, the Temple leaders embarked on their own trip for learning. Temple declined to release the cost of the trip, but said no tuition dollars were used and a portion was covered by private donations. While there, they visited the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Jerusalem’s Old City and the Western Wall, where Wingard put a prayer note in a crevice, as is the custom.

The group visited four universities, including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Al-Quds University, with locations in Jerusalem and the West Bank; and Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. Ben-Gurion, they found, shared many similarities to Temple in that it is in a poor neighborhood in a poor city with a mission to serve students from an under-resourced education system, Harrison said.

They met with Israeli and Palestinian students who recommended ways to bridge differences, Harrison said.

“They said it’s OK not to agree,” she said. “But it’s important that we all share our unique stories and experiences.”

Temple officials also met with faculty and administrators and talked about creating a “cultural immersion program” for students, Harrison said. She and her counterparts at the other universities are continuing to talk and collaborate over Zoom, she said.

“What we came away with is a notion that we are all connected and ready and willing to share and to help each other toward this end goal of a more global community that is enriching and meaningful for all of our students,” Harrison said.