Kaler’s email puts CWRU and USG in national spotlight, bringing risk to students


Courtesy of Gabe Hernandez/San Antonio Business Journal

President Eric Kaler has brought national attention to CWRU following his Nov. 9 email about USG Resolution 31-15.

Shreyas Banerjee, Executive Editor

There was a clear look of relief on fourth-year Ethan Deemer’s face Tuesday evening on Nov. 8. Despite the contentiousness of the topic and the many years of heated debate surrounding the bill, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) of Case Western Reserve University had seemingly successfully navigated a vote surrounding a resolution calling on the university administration to divest from companies that support the “Israeli apartheid.”

While there were passionate speakers on both sides of the issue, and many student spectators usually not present for USG votes, pandemonium had not been unleashed during the General Assembly (GA). In fact, it was a rather respectful discussion, with arguments, counter-arguments and anecdotes, and it featured very few interruptions, name-calling or explicit dismissiveness of concerns. As the speaker of USG, it was Deemer’s responsibility to moderate discussion, and from his perspective all had gone well.

Addressing the speakers before votes were cast, Deemer thanked all for a “productive discussion,” and said he hoped the GA would be “a great starting point for collaboration on this campus.” The resolution passed by an overwhelming majority. When the results were announced, there were some cheers of jubilation and looks of disappointment, but otherwise it was a very reserved ending to what could have been an explosive evening.

“I had horror stories of what this was going to look like in my head,” Deemer said about the inflammatory language he expected. “I was in [the USG advisor’s] office this morning shivering and shaking, trying to think about what this evening tonight would look like.”

Those horror stories came true the next day when CWRU President Eric Kaler sent out an email to the CWRU community the next morning, Nov. 9, labeling the newly passed resolution as “an aggression towards the Jewish members of our community” and inherently antisemitic, while implying that USG members who supported the bill were encouraging “hate” and not engaging in “informed debate.”

While before only those who actively kept up with USG were aware of the bill’s passage, suddenly the entire campus community had been told by their administration about the existence of the bill and its “naïve” and “anti-Semitic” nature, and that their student representatives were responsible for it. Additionally, President Kaler’s comments had spread outside of CWRU, with national organizations and politicians commenting on the resolution and Kaler’s statement. CWRU students and their USG were suddenly part of a national debate they never expected.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC), a national Jewish advocacy group, praised President Kaler’s “bravery in clearly and forcefully condemning the undergrad student government” and his “courage and strong moral vision.” President Kaler is an alumnus of AJC’s “Project Interchange” program, as he participated in an AJC delegation to Israel in 2018 to meet with Israeli officials, policy-makers and educators when he was the president of the University of Minnesota. In an interview with AJC, he stated that before the visit he “believed a two-state solution was a relatively straightforward way to at least make some progress” but after meeting with experts on the Israel and Palestine conflict he realized that “it is not so simple” due to the presence of settlements and Israeli infrastructure in Palestinian territory, and that he “walked away with a better understanding of the realities of what a two-state solution would look like, and also the realities and difficulties of a one-state solution.”

Meanwhile, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, and its Cleveland Chapter released a public statement calling on Kaler to “apologize, retract his false statement, and meet with students” while also calling his statement “dishonest, dangerous and defamatory.”

CAIR national deputy director Edward Ahmed Mitchell said, “By slandering students for expressing support for Palestinian human rights and calling on the university to divest from companies that provide military support for the Israeli apartheid government’s human rights abuses, President Kaler has endangered the very students he is supposed to protect.”

Government officials from the Cleveland area have also commented on the USG resolution while specifically referencing Kaler’s statement. 

Newly elected congressman Max Miller, a Republican who represents many Cleveland suburbs, denounced the resolution and said he was “deeply disturbed by the CWRU undergraduate student government’s endorsement of the deeply antisemitic and wholly un-American [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)] movement,” saying he joined President Kaler “in denouncing this resolution and [urged] all Ohioans of goodwill to do the same.”

Congresswoman Shontel Brown, a Democrat who represents the city of Cleveland proper, also said she supported President Kaler’s statement, stating that “college campuses must remain free from anti-semitism and hate towards any group in order to foster respectful and honest debate.” Rep. Brown has been a staunch supporter of the State of Israel, having also gone on a trip to Israel in 2018 and received nearly $2 million in PAC spending by the Democratic Majority for Israel in her primary victory in 2021.

With more attention put on our USG than ever before, USG representatives have received an influx of harassment, threats and hate messages from around the country. Wanting to remain anonymous, a USG representative said they were losing sleep over the resolution and the ensuing harassment. They also expressed regret for running for USG in the first place. Another USG representative noted seeing some of their colleagues breaking down crying due to the messages they were receiving.

On Nov. 11, USG sent out an email to the CWRU student body to provide context for the resolution and clear up misunderstandings about its content. In their statement, USG noted that the debate surrounding Israel and Palestine “is incredibly nuanced and should be treated as such” and also condemned “any acts of hatred or discrimination towards any group on campus.” In their email they also included the text of the resolution, along with the minutes from the GA and urged students to read them and come to their own conclusions as to the tone of the debate and the intentions of all those who voted on the resolution.

“We knew this resolution wasn’t going anywhere,” one USG representative said. “Administration could have just let this die by not acting on it. Nobody even would have known about this if it weren’t for that email. Now we are dealing with all this shit.”

Multiple professors have expressed concern regarding President Kaler’s statement and the position it has put CWRU students in. One professor compared Kaler’s email with “dous[ing] [a fire] with kerosene.”

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, a professor in the Department of Philosophy, expressed dismay at the way the university administration had approached the issue, saying, “Without knowing whether there was a causal relation between President Kaler’s recent public letter and threats to USG officers, his letter clearly added fuel to the fire and legitimized an extreme and adversarial, even existentially threatening, interpretation of the situation. It put students at increased risk. This is unacceptable for a college president to do.”

He mentioned that many of his colleagues were discussing the best way to address and deescalate the situation, with some ultimately deciding to submit a Letter to the Editor through The Observer.

“Some faculty are scared of the president, with some saying that they will not publicly comment out of fear of reprisal during [promotion and tenure] review and anonymous letters have begun to circulate,” he added. He also expressed worry at reported antisemitic remarks appearing toward Jewish students in the aftermath of the events of this past week, especially on some social media platforms, like the anonymous app YikYak.

“What we need from the campus administration is a clear message that draws down reactivity in all quarters and helps secure a safe environment for all.”