Photo Credit: converse.edu
Professor Jeffrey Poelvoorde

It’s become increasingly common in recent years. Companies require their employees to undergo “sensitivity training.” Employees say nothing and do as they’re told.

Professor Jeffrey Poelvoorde won’t stand for it, though. When asked recently by his employer, Converse College, a private college in South Carolina, to watch two videos –“Diversity, Inclusion and Equity” and “Unconscious Bias” – he flatly refused and published a 2,700-word open letter explaining why. “I do not tell President Newkirk or Provost Barker what to read or watch or think. I demand the same respect from them,” he wrote.

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Now, he’s in danger of losing his job. To learn more details, The Jewish Press recently corresponded with Professor Poelvoorde, who is actually an Orthodox Jew who converted to Judaism as a teenager.

The Jewish Press: Why did Converse College mandate that its faculty watch these videos? Is there any evidence that the faculty is racist such that making them watch these videos would be necessary?

Poelvoorde: The videos have been offered on a voluntary basis by our Office of Diversity and Inclusion for several years now. But on June 2 – in response to the killing of George Floyd and other racial items in American life – the president of Converse College announced that viewing these materials would be mandatory.

The president offered no evidence regarding the presence of racism at Converse. Mandating that we view these “training” videos is part of her embrace of the notions of “systemic racism” and “unconscious bias,” which have become unquestionable orthodoxies in academia and popular culture.

Why won’t you watch these videos?

I can’t comply with this mandate for three reasons:

1) I’m not a racist. I don’t believe race is the definitive element of human identity and don’t measure humans by that standard. I don’t need to be “cured” of a disease from which I don’t suffer. I also don’t agree intellectually with the proposition that America is a racist country or that Converse College is a racist institution.

2) I find the whole “diversity” industry to be a fraud. Its materials are stale and infantile. To force us to pretend that these training videos are serious exercises in understanding the complexity of the human condition is an insult to our intelligence and our integrity.

3) I have devoted my entire professional life to the idea of the liberal arts, both as a body of learning and as a living community. The president’s order trashed the core values of my profession and my community, and I could not let this serious breach pass unchallenged. I’d rather lose my job than participate in an action that renders my entire life a falsehood.

In your open letter, you compare yourself to medieval rabbis who were forced to debate Christian theologians. Please explain.

Forced to defend Judaism and their Jewish brethren, these rabbis summoned their best arguments and refused to back down – often at the cost of their lives. They were both unfree and free at the same time.

But this is the very essence of Jewish identity! G-d does not always grant us the circumstances we might wish in life, but He always grants us the freedom to rise above those circumstances with the gift of spiritual and intellectual freedom….

In your open letter, you also praise Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), a black leader known for advocating a more patient, less revolutionary response to discrimination. Do you agree with Washington? If yes, why?

Booker T. Washington has always been one of my heroes. He was engaged in his time in a great debate with W.E.B. Dubois over how to respond to the genuinely systemic racism of their day, when blacks in America faced Jim Crow, segregation, and often unrestrained mob violence.

I would say both these great men grasped part of the truth on how to respond to persecution and injustice. Sometimes you must endure and sometimes you must confront. But Washington stood for the deeper truth that to render yourself a spiritual victim to your oppressor means granting him victory.

That lesson is what Jews have understood for millennia, and it’s a vital one today. We live in an age of victimization. We’re creating a vulnerable and angry generation that believes that freedom means taking offense at everything and everyone around you and then assaulting everything and everyone around you.

If any people in world history understands oppression and injustice, it is Am Yisrael. Jean-Paul Sartre claimed Jews have survived because they resented the anti-Semitism of their oppressors, but he got it completely wrong. Life, freedom, dignity consist more in standing for something than in standing against something – even if one must oppose the wrongs of the world.

You write in your letter that Converse College’s leaders “pledged to address…the ‘systematic racism'” in American society. Did they provide any evidence that systematic racism against blacks exists in the U.S.?

Is there anti-Semitism in America? The brutal headlines of the last several years confirm what we all know. Yet, is America a “systemically” anti-Semitic country? I don’t believe so.

I have lived as an Orthodox Jew my entire adult life in 15 states and in both large cities and small towns. I have studied and taught American principles as a political scientist my entire life. I know what American stands for and what our successes and failures as a nation are.

Abraham Lincoln argued that our country began in a dedication to freedom and equality for all – imperfectly, to be sure, but our country and its people have struggled to correct its sins and have made progress not by tearing down its ideals but by ever-more-successfully trying to live up to them. To correct American injustices we need to become more American.

You’ve stated that you’ve been discriminated against at Converse over the years for being Jewish and a conservative. Can you elaborate?

Regarding the bias against conservatives in American academic life, I cannot add much more to the well-documented truth that dissent from standard progressivism is a professional liability for faculty and a persecutorial hell for students.

One of the reasons I feel contempt for the standard definition of “diversity” is the obvious hypocrisy that the most critical kind of diversity – diversity of thought – is ignored regularly by the academic community. I don’t think I would stand a chance of being hired today by the same institution that hired me 34 years ago: wrong gender, wrong religion, wrong ethnicity, wrong politics.

As for anti-Semitism, Converse includes Jewish faculty and students, but I have been its only Orthodox Jew. I’ve had a wonderful life at my college. I’ve known great friendships, great teaching, and great fun and uplift. And Converse allows me to practice my religion.

But the same administrator who at this very moment is touting the mandatory diversity videos at Converse is the same administrator over the years who has disparaged my observance of Shabbos and Jewish holidays as a dereliction of duty and unprofessional – not to my face but behind my back to my colleagues.

What led you to become interested in Judaism at age 14 and later convert?

I am a professor and a trained thinker, writer and speaker. Yet, it is difficult for me to express the overwhelming power of my identification with the Jewish people that overcame me 54 years ago. I cannot explain it, but I can describe it.

I became interested in Judaism in June 1966 at the age of 14 when my cello teacher recommended Leon Uris’s Mila 18. I read it in three days. I was raised in a Midwestern American family and had never understood or encountered the enormity of evil. The heroism of the martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto and the very existence of the Jewish people whom the fires of Auschwitz could not vanquish seemed to me to be the concrete embodiment of “Therefore choose life” – and was testimony to a power of goodness beyond the power of any evil the world could summon.

It’s hard, even now, 54 years later, to explain the choice that overtook me. I wanted to be part of the people whose life was the most potent affirmation of life and its goodness, visible proof of G-d’s presence in the human condition.

I began to read Jewish history and study Hebrew and move towards conversion during my high school years in East Moline, IL. I contacted the Hillel rabbi, Elbert Sapinsley, at Northern Illinois University when I began my freshman year at in 1970. That spring, I underwent a Conservative conversion.

By then, I was active in Hillel and had many Jewish friends in Chicago. My friend Nate Gordon, the president of Hillel, was studying at Yeshivas Chesed l’Avraham-Nachlas David to retain his 2H draft deferment, but who really enjoyed yeshiva study and persuaded me to join him, which I did. That began my trek to Orthodoxy and an Orthodox conversion.

Were there any books of Jewish thought that you found particularly helpful during this time?

Mikol melamdai hiskalti, but the theologian who most confirmed my experience and understanding of Judaism and the task of Jews on this earth is Yehudah HaLevi in his remarkable work The Kuzari. Israel is the “visible miracle” that proves the existence and presence of the loving, just Almighty One.

As a student of western philosophy, I am aware of the various proofs of G-d’s existence, but that rational foundation is not the foundation of my desire to get up each day, turn to the Creator in gratitude and prayer, strive to improve myself as a human being and Jew, and leave the world a better place than I found it.

That foundation is the Holy One of Israel who has saved, does save, and will save His people until the time when, in the fullness of His love, the universe will be perfected through the coming of Mashiach and the reunification of our loved ones through the vanquishing of death.

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