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While interning at AIPAC this past summer and planning for his role as president of the University of Illinois pro-Israel advocacy group, Illini-PAC, senior Josh Cooper (’11) had no idea just how proactive he would have to be on campus this year. What had been a normally quiet campus in regard to the anti-Israel scene, suddenly was a big national news story hotspot these past few weeks. Quoted in all those news stories was Josh Cooper, who petitioned the campus Board of Trustees to vote against hiring Professor Steven Salaita.

Following a Board of Trustees meeting, where Josh spoke, the University of Illinois board voted last Thursday not to hire the controversial professor, finalizing a decision that created backlash on campus and from academia nationwide. The decision came after Salaita was found to tweet contentious anti-Israel comments over the summer. Read more details of the case in The Chicago Tribune.

According to Josh, concerns over the professor’s tweets began in the summer when a U of I student wrote an article that shed light on the Salaita’s comments. “Over the course of two days, the article circulated like wildfire.” A friend of Josh’s then started an email campaign that elicited hundreds of responses in order to inform campus administration of the comments. By summer’s end, Chancellor Phyllis Wise decided to rescind the professor’s job offer.

Once back on campus in recent weeks, word got out that students angered by the university’s decision to withdrawal the job offer planned a protest at a meeting of student organizations with the chancellor. Josh attended that meeting as well and spoke there on behalf of students on campus who supported the chancellor’s decision. The next day, he started a petition to show just how many students supported her decision. And at the Board of Trustees meeting last week, Josh presented that petition with 1300 signatures, while giving another speech on the matter. (Read Josh’s speech below.)

Following the vote, says Josh, “Protestors were screaming outside the campus union, but this was the first time I have ever seen that. For those five minutes, you would think you were on a hostile campus. But it’s usually not like that.”

About the whole experience, Josh says,  “This was a great learning lesson for me. My whole idea coming into the school year was to be proactive in what Illini-PAC does. This shows there are these groups on campus, and we have to be ready with a response.”

Josh’s interest in Israel advocacy was sparked by his senior year Israel advocacy course with Rabbi Michael Myers. (The Gorenstein family, who sent all of their children to ICJA, initiated the course, committed funds and were involved in the course’s development and in raising more of the necessary funds. The family’s efforts are in memory of their father and grandfather, Sam Gorenstein.) In that course, says Josh, they discussed issues that college students face. “Rabbi Myers would challenge our typical thinking about Israel and throw out those attacking words to see how we would respond to them. That kind of message really sparked my interest in knowing the facts and being proactive. I found a group on campus that did exactly that.”

For students on college campuses, or headed there soon, Josh recommends they be prepared to advocate for Israel and for what they believe in. “On every campus there is a group that will try to misinform people, and as alumni of ICJA, who were so privileged to grow up in this environment, we have an obligation to advocate for our country and people.”

Josh adds that advocacy doesn’t have to be launching a petition or speaking to the campus board of trustees. Instead, Israel advocacy can exist in all the small conversations among friends and classmates, sharing Israel’s reality with those who are less informed.

Josh, who will graduate in the spring in political science and economics, plans to make aliyah and join the Garin Tzabar, an organization that helps North Americans make aliyah and enlist in the IDF.


Josh’s Speech to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees

Good Morning Chairman Kennedy and Members of the Board of Trustees.
My name is Josh Cooper. I am a senior In LAS.

I am humbled to appear before you to represent the 1300+ students who signed a petition in support of CHANCELLOR WISE and her decision.  The names of each of these students were collected in the last 48 hours—many more will sign in the coming days.

EVERY ONE OF THESE NAMES — ON these 68 PAGES – is a CURRENTLY ENROLLED STUDENT HERE AT UIUC. These students have endorsed the following statement:
And I quote:

Chancellor Phyllis Wise took a courageous stand in favor of civil discourse, good citizenship, respect for our neighbors, tolerance, decency and high standards. Now, it is our turn to take a stand in favor of our Chancellor. Chancellor Phyllis Wise is a thoughtful and innovative leader for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Campus. She has a vision for excellence, and
passion for the core missions of teaching and research. She also has a big heart along with a deep and abiding concern for the well-being of ALL students. Some faculty and staff on campus seek to bully and intimidate the Chancellor with no confidence votes, name-calling and diploma burnings. We are proud of our Chancellor and her willingness to insist on high standards for tenured faculty at this campus.

Chancellor Wise, we admire your courage, your wisdom and your ongoing efforts to ensure civility on our campus. We especially admire your efforts to bring students from very different backgrounds together as one ILLINOIS family. Thank you Chancellor Wise. When you stand up — we stand with you — in favor of the strong values of good citizenship that built this great university.

CHAIRMAN KENNEDY and TRUSTEES, We are by far, the largest number of students who have expressed, in writing –a position on this issue. The vast majority of students on this campus are NOT walking out of class – NOT encouraging boycotts and NOT making excuses for vulgar, hateful statements from prospective faculty that would embarrass our university and diminish its great reputation. We — and those who supported our petition, respect our system of governace – where a public institution is accountable to the public. Each member of the University of Illinois Board is called a TRUSTEE because you are entrusted by an appointment from the Governer of Illinois to protect the values, integrity and standards of this great institution.

When a candidate for a tenured faculty position holds a press conference across the street and demands that a University hire him – and threatens to sue the university if we don’t – that — in my view, expresses contempt and intolerance for our system of public accountability.

This is a serious matter. Hate Speech is never acceptable for those applying for a tenured position. Incitement to violence is never acceptable. And yes, there must be a relationship between free speech and civility. The lack of civility itself is a mechanism for silencing alternative views.

Did you notice that in the past few days, the leaders of PENN STATE and UC BERKELEY have FOLLOWED THE Chancellor’s lead—speaking out in favor of the necessity of civility on their campuses?

I can tell you that I personally know many, many students who would feel intimidated by the actions of a faculty member who endorses physical violence against his political opponents. And yes, I haven’t met a single student who strongly supports this faculty candidate who doesn’t agree with most everything that this candidate says.

Tolerance is judged not by how you treat people who you agree with. Tolerance is judged by how you behave toward people who have views that are different from your own. This candidate is completely intolerant of anyone who doesn’t agree with his views.

This University and Chancellor Wise were correct to reject this candidate. I respectfully urge each of you to stand firmly by this decision and thereby uphold our high standards and our cherished traditions of inclusiveness, civility, mutual respect and tolerance.

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