Students Initiate Petition for Jewish Studies Department

Emma Brentjens ‘21

Staff Writer

Last semester, the Davidson community received a shock after the doxxing of two alleged neo-Nazis on campus. In response, many people within and outside the Davidson community started to voice concern over the college’s relative lack of courses pertaining to Jewish history and culture. A student working group comprised of 11 students, including Ellie Kincaid ‘20, Dahlia Krutkovich ‘21, and Severine Stier ‘19, wrote a petition calling on the school to offer a Jewish Studies program as “both a response to what happened last semester and a response to a greater gap at Davidson,” Krutkovich said.  

The working group formed shortly after Thanksgiving break and began meeting weekly in January. “Every word was deliberated; we’ve really put time and energy and intentionality into the composition of the petition,” Stier said. 

“I think one of the biggest challenges that we faced in writing the petition was trying to find a balance between emphasizing that we need a response to the Nazis and that this should be part of that response, and also not wanting to ground Jewish identity in trauma,” Kincaid said. 

Krutkovich agreed that “it was hard to write.” She added: “We wanted to hit on points like the fact that this would benefit Jewish and non-Jewish students [and] that this is something that our peer institutions have. It’s a lot of points to hit in 600 words.” 

The petition has received over one thousand signatures as of February 5th, but the group “never went into it with any number in mind,” Stier said. The group reported that many students conveyed that they did not realize the campus needed this initiative until they read their petition.

In researching Davidson’s 20 peer institutions, the working group found that Davidson lags behind in Jewish Studies. For example, Williams College offers a Jewish Studies program that includes courses in religion, classics, history, and sociology, among other departments [1]. The Jewish Studies department at Colgate University offers 10 courses in Hebrew, 17 courses in Jewish Studies, and a Jewish Studies minor [2]. Similarly, Vassar College has established Jewish Studies courses, as well as classes in other departments including English, history, and religion that count toward the major [3]. According to Dr. Scott Denham, a member of the German Studies department, “Any semester we have maybe three or four courses that would fit into a Jewish Studies curriculum, and you probably need twice or three times that many for a program to thrive.” 

Denham sees Jewish Studies taking the form of an interdisciplinary program like Environmental Studies or Africana Studies. “A Jewish Studies program would need to have three new positions,” he said. He described three options for tracks of focus: literature, archaeology and the ancient world, and politics and contemporary history. 

“We’re hoping that a Jewish Studies program would be a more expansive understanding of Jews as a living, breathing community of people with a variegated sense of identity,” said Krutkovich.  

Davidson Students in Solidarity with Palestine (DSSP), an organization formed in 2016, is one of many student groups to support the petition. Layan Anabtawi ‘19, DSSP president, thinks that “having a good range of Jewish Studies courses is valuable for Davidson.” She expressed concern, however, that the petition is “reducing [Jewish] history to the Holocaust, which is not true. I just hope people when they read the petition don’t think ‘Oh, this is going to be a Holocaust Studies department.’”

Anabtawi noted the need for a new tenured professor in Jewish Studies as Karl Plank, a Religion professor who teaches Modern Jewish Literature, plans to retire soon. “That’s what I’m for and that’s what DSSP is for, because we believe in representation,” she said. Anabtawi hopes “people continue pushing for [the program].” 

The Black Student Coalition (BSC) is another organization in support of the petition. Bry Reed ‘20, who has worked extensively on BSC’s Project ‘87, said that a “need for change is causing students to demand the college experience they want. The Jewish Studies petition is yet another example of students demanding the change they deserve.” Reed believes that the college, “in keeping pace with our ever-evolving world, must make the changes necessary to give students, especially the most marginalized of us, the lives we deserve.” 

Itziri Gonzalez-Barcenas ‘19 and Osama Syed ‘19, the Student Government Association President and Vice President respectively, also spoke in support of the petition. Gonzalez-Barcenas said that as an Africana Studies major, it is “exciting to see another group of students do the work that other students have done” in creating a new program. “Davidson will be a more inclusive and better place because of it,” she added. Syed agreed: “it’s not only going to benefit a specific group.”

This semester, a group of students—including some from the working group—are involved in an effort separate from the petition to “illuminate the historical context of being Jewish at Davidson, and also more broadly Jewish life in the American South,” said Stier. This independent study, taught by Denham, is currently titled The History of Jews and Jewishness at Davidson.

The study “is centered largely on oral histories,” said Stier. Krutkovich, who is also in the class, said, “I’m invested in the oral histories because I think we’ve lost a lot of stories.” The group of eight students hopes to publish their final project, a written history, by May 1st. Though the deadline is ambitious, Stier is not concerned, explaining that “if this isn’t complete by May 1st, we have students here who will be able to pick it up over the coming years.” 


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