Secular university’s head of Holocaust studies finds ‘warmer welcome’ at Catholic university

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Boston, Mass., Apr 19, 2024 / 11:50 am

Mary Jane Rein decided to leave her job as executive director of the Holocaust studies center at the secular Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, in hopes of finding a “warmer welcome” at a nearby Catholic university in the same city. 

Rein, who is Jewish, announced that she was resigning in an April Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Why I’m leaving Clark University,” following an incident at an event in which students from Clark heckled her as she attempted to introduce the evening’s speaker, an Israeli military reservist. 

“There is no joy in working on behalf of those students who would, with the support of university leadership, try to silence me in public rather than engage with me civilly,” she wrote. “I can’t invest my time and efforts to advance an institution that lacks the strength of character to protect diverse points of view.”

Clark University has since issued a statement to the media denying any wrongdoing.

But Rein has already moved on to her new role at the Augustinian-run Assumption University in Worcester to launch the Center for Civic Friendship, an institution with a stated mission to be a national resource on “civic friendship, its possibilities and boundaries, and what makes it harder or easier to achieve,” the center’s website says.

Assumption is led by Greg Weiner, the first Jewish president of a Catholic university in the United States.

“To my surprise as both a scholar and a Jew, I feel a warmer welcome and more commonality of purpose at a Catholic institution than at Clark, a secular one,” Rein wrote in her op-ed.

“I find common cause with Assumption and have chosen to align myself with its mission to pursue truth in the company of friends. Its commitment to a style of learning that acknowledges and respects different opinions gives me hope that universities can lead us toward a better future,” she wrote.

Rein’s departure follows 20 years with the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, an undergraduate and Ph.D. program studying the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and other mass atrocities.

Her parents’ extended families were victims of the Holocaust, Rein wrote in the piece. 

CNA reached out to Rein for comment but did not receive a response.

What happened at Clark?

On March 13, Rein, a self-proclaimed Zionist, helped host a pro-Israel lecture at nearby Worcester State University, along with one of Worcester State’s history professors and the advocacy organization Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.

The lecturer was a man named Shahar Peled, a soldier of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who was to speak about his experience as a first responder after the Oct. 7, 2023, attacks on innocents in Israel by Hamas, Rein wrote in her op-ed.

The event was attended by protesters who “repeatedly” interrupted the lecture, stood up and made statements, rang their cellphones, and even pulled a fire alarm, forcing the evacuation of everyone from the auditorium, according to Rein.

Students are shown in a video of the event online yelling at the speaker, calling the IDF “terrorists” and the soldier a “genocide supporter,” while an alarm is heard going off and police are shown directing people to leave the event.

Rein also said that she was heckled at the talk by “a trio” of Clark University Ph.D. students from the Strassler Center who attended the lecture and whom she is familiar with.

When Rein was being introduced so that she could introduce the soldier, one of the Ph.D. students “shouted,” demanding that Rein’s university title not be used, according to her op-ed.

Rein wrote that the same student spoke at a question and answer session after the talk and accused Israel of committing genocide in its military response in Gaza. The three students then approached Rein after the event, demanded that she resign from her position at Clark and threatened to have her “investigated,” Rein wrote. 

A “senior administrator” at Clark then “admonished” Rein the next day, directing her not to use her university affiliation with events not sponsored by Clark, calling it “highly problematic,” Rein continued.

Rein, who said she never mentioned her title, wrote that she asked the administrator if the university would hold others at Clark to the same standard. 

The administrator replied that while faculty members drawing on their “research and expertise” may “speak freely,” an “administrator in an executive position like yours running a center” would create “confusion” if her title was used, according to Rein.

“I suspected I was being asked to censor myself on the basis of my Jewish identity and support for Israel, as I inferred there would be professional consequences if I presented that disfavored view,” she wrote.

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In a statement to the Worcester Business Journal, Clark denied allegations of admonishing Rein. 

“Ms. Rein was not admonished,” the statement said. “As a non-faculty administrator of the Strassler Center, Ms. Rein was provided guidance after the event about appropriately clarifying when participation in future activities is in a professional or personal capacity.”

“This is important because it avoids confusion by making clear when an administrator is representing the university. We would provide this guidance to any administrator at Clark University regardless of religion, identity, or political views,” the university wrote.

The school also said that if the interruption had occurred on Clark’s campus, “we would have intervened and handled the disruption consistent with our community standards and policies articulated in our Student Code of Conduct.”

“As specified in our Code of Conduct Clark students are responsible for their behavior outside the university’s confines. However, the university may invoke disciplinary action when notified of violations of federal, state, and local laws,” the statement said.

Catholic universities a haven for Jewish students

“I am ready to sign on to a different cause, one rooted in respect, honest inquiry, and the free exchange of ideas in the context of civic friendship. I will be joining Assumption University, where I will help launch the new Center for Civic Friendship,” she wrote.

Her departure to a Catholic university comes as a number of Catholic universities have sought to make themselves more hospitable to Jewish students amid the war between Israel and Hamas since the Oct. 7 attack on innocents in Israel.

Since the war began there have been several reported instances of pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses across the nation that have resulted in the harassment of Jewish students. Many reports have indicated that Jewish students feel unsafe on campus.

Last October, a coalition of over 100 institutions called Universities United Against Terrorism denounced the Oct. 7 attacks, adding that they “stand with Israel, with the Palestinians who suffer under Hamas’ cruel rule in Gaza and with all people of moral conscience.”

Many of those institutions are Catholic, including Assumption University, Catholic University, Franciscan University of Steubenville, University of Notre Dame, Mercyhurst University, and Salve Regina University, among others.

All of the schools in the coalition vowed to offer Jewish students an “expedited” transfer process, Stephen Hildebrand, Franciscan University’s then-vice president for campus affairs told The Times of Israel last November. Hildebrand said that several Jewish students had reached out to the school at the time with interest in transferring.

However, a school spokesman told CNA Thursday that ultimately none ended up doing so but the offer still stands.

“It just seemed so obvious, the right thing to do,” Hildebrand told the outlet. “To make our Jewish brethren aware if they need help that we are here as a safe haven.”

“We are doing this because of our Catholic faith, not in spite of it,” he said.


Joe Bukuras

Joseph Bukuras is a journalist at the Catholic News Agency.  Joe has prior experience working in state and federal government, in non-profits, and Catholic education. He has contributed to an array of publications and his reporting has been cited by leading news sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America. He is based out of the Boston area.

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