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Jewish community members call on action from UNLV to address incidents

Updated May 23, 2024 - 6:42 pm

Members of Las Vegas’ Jewish community called on UNLV and the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents to take action on what they see as a rise of antisemitic incidents on UNLV’s campus.

“The silence is disheartening,” said Stefanie Tuzman, president and CEO of the nonprofit Jewish Nevada, at the Board of Regents meeting on Thursday. “While the academic year may have concluded, the absence of a clear stance from the university sends a message that these issues are transient and unworthy of address.”

Over a dozen people spoke during the public comment period about the safety of Jewish students and what they say is dangerous dialogue. Many referenced a commencement speech from a UNLV graduate who used that platform to speak about the Israel-Hamas conflict.

At the May 12 commencement ceremony at the Thomas &Mack Center, Yvette Machado-Tuinier called Israel’s actions a genocide, accused Israel of committing war crimes and lauded student protesters’ efforts to draw attention to the oppression of different communities, including Palestinians. The speech drew ire from some in the Jewish community, who said the speech contained antisemitic tropes and misrepresented Israel’s military response in Gaza.

The university sought to distance itself from the speech and previously told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Machado-Tuinier had changed her speech from what she originally submitted. The university said it understands the words spoken were hurtful to some graduates and said they do not represent the university’s views.

Machado-Tuinier has denied her speech was antisemitic and said those claims are a false representation of her message and attempt to shift focus from the “severity of ongoing suffering of the Palestinians, Congolese, and Sudanese people.”

“I offer love and solidarity for those experiencing the harms of oppression,” she said in a statement to the Review-Journal. “The arguments made based on the misinterpretations of my words are riddled with logical fallacies. At no point does my reverence and love for humanity, or my stand in support of oppressed peoples, represent violence or hate.”

Calling on more action

Members of Las Vegas’ Jewish community called on the university to do more than has been done so far, proposing taking disciplinary action on the graduate to issuing a statement condemning what they deem as antisemitic actions.

On Thursday, UNLV alumna Colleen Freedman urged the university to take action and ensure a similar incident doesn’t occur in the future. She requested the university clarify how the incident happened and explain any disciplinary action the university can take.

“I’m here today because the university that I proudly call an alma mater has failed to recognize my rights and the rights of others to sit in a public graduation ceremony, feel represented, included and safe,” Freedman said.

Gregory Brown, a history professor who helped found the Jewish Affinity Group at UNLV, said that while there have been no encampments or acts of violence on UNLV’s campus during the pro-Palestinian protests, there is still a hostile and aggressive environment for Jewish students. He said students for months have brought up concerns about incidents in classrooms and at student clubs, and rhetoric at protests calling for an intifada, which is an uprising against the global Jewish community.

Moshe Borvick, a husband of a UNLV student, criticized UNLV leadership for meeting with the pro-Palestinian protesters who call for disclosures and divestments from the Israel-Hamas war, and said it legitimizes what he called the group’s “intimidation tactics.”

“(The Anti-Defamation League) calls upon President (Keith) Whitfield and the board of regents to prioritize the safety and well-being of all students and take all necessary steps to ensure UNLV is a safe and welcoming place for Jewish students,” said Nevada Regional Board Chair Sam Schaul.

Giving protesters a place at the table will only incentivize further disruptions on campus, he said, and “antisemitism has been allowed to escalate for far too long with far too few consequences,” Schaul said.

In response, Whitfield said in a statement that the comments at the meeting resonated deeply with him.

“As long as I am President, I will fight against any semblance of antisemitism on our campus. You have my word on it,” he said in a statement. “However, free speech is the bedrock of our country. It is something that I and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, respect and uphold as an educational institution.”

Free speech should not be confused with antisemitic rhetoric, he said.

“We will not tolerate the violation of our rules and policies to include the disruption of the educational process and mission of our campus,” Whitfield said. “We continue to review our policies and are tightening up processes to further create a campus environment that better protects our students. I will not hesitate to get our university police involved to ensure the safety and security of everyone on our campus.”

Protests on campus

Pro-Palestinian groups have gathered at UNLV’s amphitheater, calling on the university to disclose its investments in businesses involved in the Israel-Hamas war, divest from those businesses and issue a statement supporting pro-Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students who face harassment.

The demonstrations on UNLV’s campus followed nationwide protests on college campuses protesting Israel’s offensive in Gaza after Hamas launched a deadly terrorist attack in Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostages. In response, Israel launched a war against Hamas that has resulted in the deaths of more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the Health Ministry there.

Machado-Tuinier has spoken in favor of the pro-Palestinian movement at government meetings, including a February Las Vegas City Council meeting and a December NSHE Board of Regents meeting. At that meeting, she described what she called the “horrific events occurring on Oct. 7” as not about religion, but what occurred when “a small defense group retaliated against their repressor in response to decades of brutalization and captivity — not in response to religion.”

She also denied in the earlier regents meeting that the pro-Palestinian protests are antisemitic.

“Regents, you should all know better. We trust you to know it’s wrong to associate an entire people with their wayward defense or extremist groups,” she said. “Second, it’s wrong to call the student disapproval of an extremist government as antisemitic.”

Regent Patrick Boylan spoke up Thursday in favor of holding meetings about safety and security measures to keep Jewish students safe and criticized his fellow board members for a lack of action.

“I think you have the people that can do something, that want to do something, but neither the administration nor this board of regents wants to do anything,” he said. “You all are afraid of your own shadows.”

Tuzman worries that the rise of antisemitism will spread beyond campuses to the broader community.

“The lack of action has left our students feeling unsupported and vulnerable,” she said. “It’s not just a campus issue; it’s a broader community concern that requires visible leadership and clear communication.”

Contact Jessica Hill at jehill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jess_hillyeah on X.

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