President Richard Saller and Provost Jenny Martinez emphasized Stanford’s commitment to equal treatment amid increased incidents of antisemitism on campus during a fireside chat moderated by Professor Larry Diamond. (Image credit: Harry Gregory)

During a fireside chat Wednesday evening about religious intolerance, President Richard Saller said he and his administration take such concerns that relate to the Stanford community extremely seriously.

“We really do want to make sure that all of the communities on campus get the respect that they deserve,” Saller said. “We’re committed to equal treatment and equal protection.”

The discussion focused specifically on the experiences of Stanford’s Jewish community, who have reported increased incidents of antisemitism since the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Saller described steps the university has taken to prevent and respond to antisemitic incidents and sentiment on campus, including the establishment of a special subcommittee, hiring added security, and bringing in outside legal counsel to review allegations of policy violations for both free speech and civil rights law issues.

Wednesday’s public discussion took place in the Oak Lounge at Tresidder Memorial Union before a packed audience of about 200 people. It was moderated by Larry Diamond, the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Diamond is also co-chair of the Subcommittee on Antisemitism and Anti-Israeli Bias of the university’s Jewish Advisory Committee.

The discussion also included Provost Jenny Martinez, who acknowledged the pain many people feel, both on campus and globally, and called on members of the Stanford community to practice empathy for one another.

“I think one of the things that is valuable is having events where people do come together and try to recognize each other’s humanity at a very fundamental level, and doing what we can as an educational institution, to enable our students to do that, even when emotions are running high,” she said.

Other panelists included Michal Cotler-Wunsh, special Israeli envoy for antisemitism; School of Medicine Clinical Associate Professor Jafi Lipson; and doctoral student Kevin Feigelis. It was part of a series of events Wednesday related to combating antisemitism at Stanford.

The discussion with the president and provost followed a lecture by Cotler-Wunsh organized by Hillel, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Blue and White Tent Initiative, and others. In her talk, the Israeli politician and diplomat spoke about the mutation of antisemitism through the ages. Drawing a parallel to COVID-19, Cotler-Wunsh said that all strains of antisemitism must be identified and dealt with, lest the disease continue.

The events attracted about a dozen peaceful protestors holding signs outside the venue, who objected to Cotler-Wunsh’s presence on campus and Israel’s continued war on Hamas in Gaza, as well as a few protestors who briefly interrupted the fireside discussion before being asked to leave.

Supporting the community

Stanford has set in place several mechanisms to combat intolerance and support campus community members who face discrimination. Notably, Saller has appointed two committees to help combat antisemitism and anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim bias.

“We want the committees to consult very widely, to hear a broad range of perspectives, and then to use their judgment to help develop recommendations that we can use to combat antisemitism and anti-Israeli bias as well as anti-Muslim bias on campus,” he said.

Jafi Lipson, a clinical faculty member and radiologist in the School of Medicine, spoke about her experiences, both positive and negative, related to her Jewish identity since the Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7.

“These are exactly the kinds of reports that I want the subcommittee to gather so that we can aggregate them and think about what we can do to deal with them,” Saller said.

Martinez noted the various websites where community members can receive support. She also said that deans of individual schools also provide support and resources, particularly for incidents that may occur in classrooms and other academic settings. And since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, the university has hired legal experts to review complaints by campus community members to evaluate reports in light of the First Amendment and federal civil rights laws.

Martinez said education is important to combating religious intolerance and expressed the need to understand the long history of antisemitism that Jews have faced.

As the home to the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, one of the leading centers of Jewish studies in the country, Stanford is a great place to receive that education, Saller said. “We really do have a very high level of faculty involvement in these programs.”

When asked whether Stanford should adopt the definition of antisemitism as set forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), Saller said he believed ordering such an action was beyond the limits of his authority.

“My role as president is not to issue an official definition that’s binding on the campus,” he said.

Free speech

Many at Stanford, particularly students and faculty, have asked about the boundaries of free speech. Diamond asked how First Amendment rights dovetail with the university’s Fundamental Standard, which sets an expectation of respect and dignity for others, regardless of personal characteristics and viewpoints. Martinez, who is also a professor of law, said the First Amendment is foundational to the way our constitutional system works.

“It allows a very broad range of freedom for speech – much broader than in many other countries in the world, and I think that’s one of the strengths of America’s system,” she said.

But Martinez noted that just because one has a right to say something, doesn’t mean they should say it and she encouraged members of the Stanford community to engage with one another constructively.

“With that great freedom that we have also comes responsibility to be thoughtful about how we exercise our free speech rights. And that’s especially true in a university community, where we want to encounter ideas that we disagree with, and also treat each other with respect,” she said.

California has a statute called the Leonard law, which prohibits private universities like Stanford, from disciplining students for speech that is protected by the First Amendment in the same way that they would be protected if they were off campus.

“I personally think the Leonard Law is a good thing,” said Martinez, noting that she has defended the rights of free speech for speakers with many different perspectives over the years. “I think that the First Amendment is a very important part of our democracy and I don’t think that administrators like me should get to decide to censor or cancel speech that they don’t like.”