Loyola President Fr. Garanzini speaks out

Loyola President Fr. Garanzini speaks out photo

Loyola University Chicago President Father Michael Garanzini.

Warm and welcoming, Father Michael Garanzini is a man who puts you immediately at ease. Chatting with him in his lakefront office feels like schmoozing with an old friend. But as Loyola University Chicago's 23rd president, whose tenure in office spans 14 years, Fr. Garanzini has little time for small talk. Beneath his calm and jovial visage lie a deep intellect, strong faith, and a steady moral compass-assets he uses to traverse a sometimes tense and divisive atmosphere on campus.

I spoke with Fr. Garanzini after Loyola's student government on March 26 narrowly passed a resolution to divest from companies that do business with Israel. The student body president vetoed a similar resolution last year. The university has stated that it will not abide by such resolutions.

The nation's largest Jesuit Catholic university, Loyola welcomes Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others among its more than 58 percent of students who are non-Catholic. 

During our conversation, Fr. Garanzini described his approach to dealing with the Israel-Palestine issue on campus within the framework of his educational mandate.

JUF News : Fr. Garanzini, what do you think is at stake in the campus debate about Israel and Palestine?

Father Garanzini: We need an Israel that's stable so that the [Jewish] dreams that have existed for centuries can be realized. The world settled the issue after a tragedy of unspeakable proportions in Europe by offering Israel a place to go back home and I think the two-state solution sounds like the most reasonable one.

What I see happening now that is very disconcerting is a rise of what I don't think is only anti-Israel sentiment, but a kind of resurgence of anti-Semitism, as if the Jews have some kind of magical power over the rest of the world, which has to be fought. That's the way the Jews were portrayed negatively and unfairly in the past.

There's something in the air again that is anti-Semitic and that's very troubling.  

How do you feel about the political debate on campus?

When our students take up the issue, I applaud them. We have Muslim, Christian, and many Jewish students who love to come here because their faith is respected. We need a Loyola in this town so that every issue is not secularized. Loyola is a place where the religious dimension of all these issues can come out.

But when the students choose an avenue of what I would call political coercion, we've tried to explain that they're heading in a direction that is only divisive. They love the idea that they are a united student body, that they are one family. They like to talk like that. They like the fact that they can discuss things in a forum. But when they want to make decisions without thoroughly studying the issue or when they split as they did on this issue, down the middle, after hours and hours of debate, they split [the student body].

I tried to point that out to the president and vice president of student government. I said you don't have a united position. You just saw how terribly torn your fellow students are about the issue. Well, it won 16 in favor, 15 against, and two abstentions. I said if you want to play the numbers, it's really a 17-16 vote, but let's forget about the numbers. You don't have a mandate to speak out on anything. What you have is a divided student body and did you see the pain that it caused just discussing this?  Do you think you're smarter than all the people in the UN or all the governments that are trying to settle things in the Middle East? 

I said stay away from making these kinds of pronouncements. They don't do you any good. And I said, some of this smacks of anti-Semitism. I just fear and feel that, so I'm warning you because that has no place. I don't care what you talk about with academic freedom, but that has no place on this campus.

Don't you think the students believe that through their actions they're going to change the world?

I went to St. Louis University in the late '60s, so I understand student activism. Throughout that period we kept trying to find the source of what was really problematic. We debated those things. We didn't want our country in a war that we felt needed to be settled peacefully.

I don't see that in this resolution. As American citizens if you want to say the United States should or shouldn't do something, discuss whether the Republicans should have invited or not invited Netanyahu. Discuss whether you want President Obama to do more to solve the problem. Take a stand on solutions for peace, not on sides in this issue because the sides seem to be pretty divisive.  

When you say anti-Semitism, how do you parse and understand what is opposition to Israeli policy, and what is anti-Zionism? 

Given the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, it's important for Christians to be careful in this argument not to fall back into a general anti-Semitic position out of some visceral hatred of Jews. That's what I'm worried about and this is just slightly beneath the surface. We see these anti-Semitic groups cropping up especially in Europe today. It's a very thin line and Christians should be more than careful not to cross it because they have used religious excuses in the past for some horrible crimes.

The last time I wrote back to the president of student government, after they'd sent me an open letter, I said, "You know, it is ironic that I am writing you this asking you to be cautious on Good Friday when you receive this, because it was precisely on a day like this that Christians used to do horrible things to Jewish people throughout Europe." 

It's ironic and sad that we're talking about his very thing at Passover.  I said, it's just a very thin line here and that's what I worry about. We are not in the position to claim the moral high ground.

It seems that the tactic of boycott divestment, and sanctions has made it impossible for people who at the end of the day need to make peace.

Exactly. To me the conclusion to a discussion that the students had on these issues, should not have been a resolution about boycotting, but should have been a resolution about getting closer. We here in the States--Jews, Christians, and Muslims--could be an example of how one works for peace, if they would talk together. What America has to offer to the world is our capacity for tolerance and, in fact, moving beyond tolerance to embracing other people, other cultures, and religious differences. That's not what this resolution demonstrated.

When we had some of our most tense moments, for example, at 9/11, there was no incident here, there was no problem here. We talked and we learned that we need each other and we need to maintain our sanity while we discover what is at the root of what was going on. It was an example of the best we can offer here.

To rush to list whose side you think people are on, and to condemn certain sides, is to me un-American. There's kind of a patriotic obligation involved in this question for all of us, and I think I can appeal to all students whether they have faith or not, and whether they think they have a stake in this or not. In a very tense situation we need to model the tolerance and the inclusion that we stand for. 

So I was very disappointed that they took the route they took. 

Is there something about this generation of students that fuels this adversarial and contentious environment?

This generation is searching for how to become citizens of a global world that's so highly divided in many, many ways. They do see themselves as part of a big world unlike previous generations. They have the notion that they don't belong to a single community or a single state or a single nation because they know they're going to live all over the place. So they're global in their thinking.

But we have not shown them what civil discourse looks like. Our national discourse is not very civil. We don't know how to talk to each other without talking over and past each other. People are trying always to stake out a position to get some kind of galvanized base. It's not a very good way to do most business.

Do you find openness here for students to hear the directive from their faith?

The kids take their faith very seriously. Right on the same corridor in the student center there's a Christian chapel, a Punjab for the Hindus, two Muslim rooms (for men and for women), and Hillel. That has sent a signal that this place is about religious tolerance, freedom and inter-religious dialogue. They're put next to each other so that they have to talk. They're very open to this and that's why the politicization about this issue is just so difficult. It's our duty to keep working at teaching what real discourse looks like.

Do students of every faith learn about Jesuit values?

What's happening after this resolution, for example, is very much a part of the Jesuit thing, pushing the students to reflect on whether or not this action solved anything, confused anything, hurt anything, contributed positively or negatively to their life together. So I'm not completely hopeless about what's just happened and not completely disappointed. The year isn't over yet and we're pushing the student government to reflect on what they did and whether or not it solved any problem. 

So how do you manage this? 

Getting our hands dirty in these kinds of issues is part of what an educator does. These kinds of issues are really what we're about and if you're not going to learn them here, I doubt you're going to learn them out on the street or after you graduate because you're going to be in a job, living more and more with your own kind all the time, you know, in your own little world, which usually gets pretty small.

Does the plight of Christian communities animate students?

It animates us Jesuits. There's a lot of people feeling very threatened and it looks like extremism is succeeding in driving out minority communities of all kinds. Unless we bring that part of the world into the human democratic family, it's going to splinter even more. Maybe our students need to see that age-old religious-ethnic-racial rivalries are deep in our genes, and that what we understand by sin is almost genetic. It's in us; we pass it on. It doesn't take much [to reignite] these ancient rivalries when there's economic difficulties or social difficulties.

What we saw in the previous century was atrocities committed ostensibly in the name of atheism, and what we see in the 21st century is atrocities being committed in the name of bad religion and fundamentalisms that are taken to the extremes. That's worrisome for a man in religion, because the last thing we need is for people to turn away from God because God is so misused by all these false religious movements. We have a real challenge, those of us that are interested in preserving faith, because I think a lot of young people are going to be extremely turned off to the whole notion that theology, any belief system, has anything of value for their future.

When you have no faith, or bad faith, you have license to do anything. 

What do you hope and dream for the future of Loyola? 

Because we take faith seriously, we have an opportunity to be a training ground for people who know how to deal with these issues. Dismissing faith as irrelevant is a modern tendency, but that's not the way the world lives. So I think we could be a place where kids actually learn that respect and interreligious dialogue are the way of the future or there is no future. 

This issue we've been discussing is precisely a good issue to discuss. Getting the students to hold back from thinking they have solutions is extremely important for us because a resolution is not a solution. 

Aaron B. Cohen is vice president of Marketing and Communications for the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. 

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