Colleges Brace for More Commencement Disruptions

A few hours after Columbia University canceled its main commencement ceremony following weeks of pro-Palestinian student protests, Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania was in his office in Harrisburg, taking stock of the ways he sees universities letting students down.

“Our colleges, in many cases, are failing young people,” he said in an interview this week. “Failing to teach information that is necessary to form thoughtful perspectives. They are willing to let certain forms of hate pass by and condemn others more strongly.”

Mr. Shapiro — the leader of a pre-eminent battleground state, a rising Democrat and a proudly observant Jew — has also emerged as one of his party’s most visible figures denouncing the rise in documented antisemitism after the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

And at a moment of growing Democratic anger and unease over how Israel is conducting its devastating military response, Mr. Shapiro, 50 — who has no obligation to talk about foreign policy — has not shied away from expressing support for the country while criticizing its right-wing government.

Plunging into a subject that has inflamed and divided many Americans carries risk for an ambitious Democrat from a politically important state. The politics around both the Gaza war and the protest movement are exceptionally fraught within the Democratic Party, and many of its voters and elected officials have become increasingly critical of Israel.

But Mr. Shapiro has been direct.

Asked if he considered himself a Zionist, he said that he did. When Iran attacked Israel last month, he wrote on social media that Pennsylvania “stands with Israel.”

When the University of Pennsylvania’s president struggled before Congress to directly answer whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated the school’s rules, Mr. Shapiro said she had failed to show “moral clarity.” (She later resigned.) When opponents of the Gaza war picketed an Israeli-style restaurant in Philadelphia known for its falafel and tahini shakes, Mr. Shapiro called the demonstration antisemitic and showed up for lunch.

And as university officials have struggled to define where free speech ends and hate speech begins, a tension upending the final weeks of the school year, Mr. Shapiro has issued stern warnings about their responsibility to protect students from discrimination. The issue hits close to home: On Friday, police cleared an encampment of pro-Palestinian demonstrators off the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Shapiro had said it was “past time” for Penn to do so.

Demonstrators during a rally in support of Gaza at the University of Pittsburgh last month. Israel’s war has fueled protests across college campuses in the United States.Credit…Jared Wickerham for The New York Times

‘It should not be hard’

In the interview, Mr. Shapiro stressed that he did not believe all encampments or demonstrators were antisemitic — not “by any stretch.” But he suggested that on some campuses, antisemitic speech was treated differently than other kinds of hate speech.

“If you had a group of white supremacists camped out and yelling racial slurs every day, that would be met with a different response than antisemites camped out, yelling antisemitic tropes,” he said.

Law enforcement officials and advocacy groups have tracked a rise in antisemitic, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab acts in recent months.

Speaking after an appearance at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony on Monday, Mr. Shapiro emphasized that “we should be universal in our condemnation of antisemitism, Islamophobia and all forms of hate.”

While there is room for “nuance” in foreign policy discussions, he said, “it should not be hard for anyone on the political left or right to call out antisemitism.”

In a new survey, Mr. Shapiro, a former state attorney general, had a job approval rating of 64 percent, with just 19 percent of Pennsylvanians saying they disapproved.

He has long emphasized bipartisanship and prioritized nonideological issues like rapidly reopening a stretch of Interstate 95 after a collapse. And his own religious observance has helped him connect with people of other faiths in a state where Jews are estimated to make up about 3 percent of the electorate.

“I make it home Friday night for Sabbath dinner because family and faith ground me,” he said in a campaign ad.

Many Jews in Pennsylvania hope that he will become the first Jewish president. On that subject, he deflects as skillfully as any potential White House aspirant: He laughs or insists that he loves and is focused on his current job.

“I am very humbled that people have taken note of our work,” he said. “I sort of dismiss those comments because they’re not helpful to the work I’m trying to do every day as governor, the voice I’m trying to have both here in the commonwealth and across the country to root out hate and to speak with moral clarity.”

He added, “It’s certainly not helpful when it comes to our top political priority, which is to re-elect President Biden.”

‘Josh is front and center’

The Mideast war, which has killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza, according to local health authorities, has fueled a broad and significant protest movement.

But on college campuses, there are sharp debates over when demonstrations against Israel and its treatment of Palestinians veer into antisemitic targeting of Jewish students and institutions.

To Mr. Shapiro, the distinction is clear: Criticism of Israeli policies is fair game. “Affixing to every Jew the policies of Israel,” he said, is not.

Mr. Shapiro said he felt a “unique responsibility” to speak out both because he leads a state founded on a vision of religious tolerance, and because he is a “proud American Jew.”

Indeed, his Jewish identity is intertwined with his public persona to a degree rarely seen in American politicians.

He is a Jewish day school alumnus who has featured challah in his campaign advertising and alludes to a collection of Jewish ethics in his speeches. In recent weeks, he offered an under-the-weather 76ers player matzo ball soup and celebrated the end of Passover with Martin’s Potato Rolls, a Pennsylvania delicacy.

“It’s not an easy time to be Jewish, and to be a Jewish politician,” said Sharon Levin, a former teacher of Mr. Shapiro’s. “Josh is front and center.”

Mr. Shapiro has also spent significant time in Israel, proposing to his wife in Jerusalem. Asked if, like Mr. Biden, he considers himself a Zionist, he confirmed that he did.

“I am pro-Israel,” he said. “I am pro-the idea of a Jewish homeland, a Jewish state, and I will certainly do everything in my power to ensure that Israel is strong and Israel is fortified and will exist for generations.”

He also supports a two-state solution, is a longtime critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said he mourned “the loss of life in Gaza.”

That approach is common among elected Democrats. But it is clearly at odds with the campus protests, which are often explicitly anti-Zionist.

The issue is virtually certain to divide Democrats on future presidential debate stages.

For now, Mr. Shapiro has not drawn the kind of backlash from the left that some other Israel supporters have, in part because he is not voting on foreign policy. And while another Pennsylvania Democrat, Senator John Fetterman, has sometimes engaged provocatively with pro-Palestinian demonstrators, Mr. Shapiro has a more measured, lawyerly style.

“It’s critically important that we remove hate from the conversation and allow people to freely express their ideas, whether I agree with their ideas or not,” he said.

Mr. Shapiro speaking at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event on Monday at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Credit…Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York Times

Tensions over Israel

Some Muslim leaders say Mr. Shapiro has not found the right balance in his post-Oct. 7 comments.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Philadelphia said in a statement that two of its board members had skipped an iftar dinner he hosted, arguing that he had “created much harm and hurt among Muslim, Arab and pro-Palestinian Pennsylvanians.”

“The governor, like the White House, is not fully able to see the deep level of resentment that exists about his stances,” Ahmet Tekelioglu, the executive director of that chapter, said in an interview. (In a statement on Friday, he also criticized Mr. Shapiro’s call to disband the Penn encampment.) “The governor has lost the trust of many in the Muslim-American community in Pennsylvania that had long considered him a friend.”

Mr. Shapiro, whose team has clashed with CAIR before, replied, “I’m not going to let one press release from one group that has its own agenda take away from the close, strong relationship I have with the Muslim community.”

“We have tried to create, at the residence and across Pennsylvania, a place where all faiths feel welcomed,” he said.

State Representative Tarik Khan, a Philadelphia-area Democrat who is Muslim, did attend the iftar. It included time for prayer and a “legit dinner,” he said, rather than “hors d’oeuvres and get the hell out.”

“At a time when there’s a lot of trauma, sometimes the easy thing is to do nothing,” Mr. Khan said. “If he didn’t care about our community, he wouldn’t have spent that time.”

Growing expectations

Mr. Shapiro faces different pressures from the Jewish community.

In the Philadelphia area, many know him or his family personally — or feel as if they do — and in some cases expect him to speak out frequently in support of Israel. But, said Jonathan Scott Goldman, the chair of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, his job is to lead the whole state.

“Jewish people want to and do claim Josh as their own,” Mr. Goldman said. “He knows he’s not just a Jewish governor. He’s a governor, and he’s the governor of all Pennsylvanians.”

In the interview, Mr. Shapiro reiterated that he was focused on that job.

But asked if — broadly speaking — he believed the country could elect a Jewish president in his lifetime, he replied, “Speaking broadly, absolutely.”

“It doesn’t mean that our nation is free of bias,” he said. “If you’re asking me, can the country rise above that, and elect someone that might look different than them or worship different than them? The answer is yes.”

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