Closely tied to CWRU, Cleveland Jewish Community Leader made speculative comments against Muslims


Stephen Hoffman, the President of Jewish Federation of Cleveland, made controversial comments about anti-semitism in a talk, “Envisioning the Future of Jewish Cleveland,” in January 2015.

Stephen Hoffman—President of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland (Jewish Federation) since 1983 and member of the Case Western Reserve University 2016 search committee for the Department of Religious Studies’ Abba Hillel Silver Professorship in Jewish Studies—implied on Jan. 14, 2015 that many Muslims living in France were anti-semitic and that anti-semitism was taught in the Quran. Given Hoffman’s close ties to the university, some are concerned about what this means for the academic integrity of the university, as well as for Muslim students on campus.

Co-sponsored by Case Western Reserve University’s Siegal Lifelong Learning Center, the “Envisioning the Future of Jewish Cleveland” event consisted of an hour-long interview of Hoffman by CEO of Cleveland City Club’s Dan Moulthrop, in which the two covered topics ranging from what the primary goals of the Jewish community should be to the Jewish Federation’s educational and charitable outreach programs. Towards the end of the interview, however, Moulthrop and Hoffman crossed into more controversial territory as questions from the audience prompted a discussion of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the then-recent attack by ISIS on a kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes in Paris, France.

While discussing this attack, Hoffman said of Muslims in France that “it’s clear that the radicalized group [perpetrating the attacks] is small, but the next circle that tolerates attacks on Jews is larger, significantly larger. This isn’t to say by definition if you’re a Muslim, you’re anti-semitic, I’m not saying that. I’m saying there’s a lot of them, that are anti-semitic. And they’re bringing both the anti-semitic teachings that are in the Quran to bear, as well as the hatred from the Middle East in general.”

Hoffman went on to argue that while you can find passages that are anti-semitic in the Quran —as well as passages that say “don’t hurt the Jews,” you cannot find similar material with regards to Muslims or Arabs in the Torah. “We can debate this,” Hoffman said, “but I don’t accept the immoral equivalency argument.”

In a recent interview with The Observer, Hoffman was asked whether he believes that a segment of Muslims in France is anti-semitic. He replied that he does, but that he does not believe this is because of the teachings of Islam. “The high number of attacks that have been made on Jewish individuals [in France] by people of North African background are by people who happen to be Muslims,” Hoffman said. “I think that there are people in that community that think it is okay to attack Jews.”

With regards to whether this apparent anti-semitism is connected to the teachings of Islam, Hoffman, admitting he was not an expert, said, “I actually think it has a lot more to do with the anti-Israeli nature of the general Arab street. The Arab government used the anti-Israel position to divert attention from internal problems within their countries for a long time…. I believe that they’ve encouraged this kind of thinking because it focuses their anger on an external situation rather than internal…. So I don’t know that it’s religious versus more a reflection of geopolitical problems.”


CWRU Faculty and Student Response

When M.A. Hanna Professor of Political Science Pete Moore heard Hoffman’s Jan. 2015 interview, his reaction was one of censure. “There are legitimate concerns about anti-semitism in the world,” said Moore, “and to have it used to attack Muslims, that’s just despicable.”

“This is emblematic of [Islamaphobia],” Moore continued. “And what’s really troubling is that you can’t push this off to some uneducated, isolated opinion that’s not connected to this campus.”

In addition to being a member of the President’s Visiting Committee— which is “a group of community leaders with whom President Barbara R. Snyder meets twice yearly to share updates regarding the university’s progress,” wrote Bill Lubinger, Director of Media Relations and Communications at CWRU— Hoffman was also, as previously mentioned, a member of the 2016 search committee for the Abba Hillel Silver Professorship in Jewish Studies.

The function of the search committee, which was initially convened in the spring of 2016 after former Abba Hillel Silver Professor Peter J. Haas retired, is to recommend three candidates for the position to the Department of Religious Studies, which then considers the shortlist and recommends a candidate to the Dean. In order to recommend candidates to the Department, the search committee must reach absolute majority—  meaning that in this case, with the search committee composed of Hoffman, another community member recommended by Dean Cyrus C. Taylor of the College of Arts and Sciences and accepted by Hoffman, and four faculty members—the search committee did not necessarily have to take into account the opinions of non-faculty to make their recommendation to the Department of Religious Studies.

When various faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences learned that two non-faculty members would be serving on the search committee, they became concerned with what this meant for the CWRU hiring process. “Having chair donors or their representatives on search committees is a fundamental violation of academic integrity and faculty self-governance,” a faculty member wrote in a letter to Executive Chair for the search committee Sue Hinze. “It is our strong feeling that educational matters such as the hiring of faculty should be decided by actual faculty members with scholarly expertise in the field, not by people representing outside interests.”

The letter drew by a quick response by Dean Taylor, in which he addressed CWRU’s hiring process and reasserted his personal commitment to academic integrity and faculty self-governance. It was later resolved by a meeting in which all College of Arts and Sciences faculty reached a resolution urging… that “no new endowed chairs should be accepted if they include stipulations for donor input into the composition of search committees.” However, the question of what extemporaneous affect the presence of community members in university administration might have still remains.

The longstanding policy of the university is that “the views and opinions of those invited to speak on campus do not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration or any other segment of the university community.” But when community members are involved in university administration, what they say in public can have a significant impact on how the university and the university’s policies are perceived. The question now facing CWRU is to what extent they will allow community members to become involved in the university’s administration and how the line between community member and university staff member will be enforced when they do?

“This is beyond the issue now as it was framed last year,” Moore said, “because that was adjudicated. This is about an individual that at a minimum expressed grossly ignorant views …. and he sits on a hiring committee for religious studies. What does this say to the Muslim students on campus?”

Sonia Gilani, Vice President of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), said of Hoffman’s statements. “I think it just kind of instills a discomfort and unease, like ‘are my actions being construed in a way that I don’t mean them too?’… .I think that puts [students] on high alert. I believe that’s not fair…. Any student feeling like they need to be extra on guard versus another student who might be doing the exact same thing.”

When asked whether she believes that CWRU is welcoming to Muslim students, Gilani agreed that CWRU is a generally welcoming environment, and has been responsive to Muslim students individually as well as to the needs and desires of MSA as an organization.

One example that came to mind immediately, Gilani said, was the email MSA received from CWRU following the shooting of three young men from East African families in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Despite there being little media coverage of the shooting of these three men— two Muslim, one Christian— after the shooting occurred last spring, “someone higher up, a Dean, reached out,” said Gilani.

“[They] told us ‘if there are any members of your organization that do not feel comfortable, that need to talk about this, need to work through this—if there’s anything you need from us as an organization to support you at this time,  please let us know.’”

It has been over a year since Hoffman made his speculative comments against Muslims but academic integrity and inclusiveness, which, as some students and faculty worry, may still be vulnerable to political turmoils abroad and at home.