Collin Boots | Let's discuss the persecution complex

The Devil's Advocate | Not getting special privileges for your religion is not marginalization; it’s equality.

· April 1, 2014, 6:32 pm   ·  Updated April 1, 2014, 11:47 pm

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I n her recent guest column in the DP, entitled “Let’s discuss sensitivity,” Shana Frankel asks: “Why do I, as a religious Jewish student, feel marginalized in my college experience” when we claim to be such a politically correct and culturally sensitive campus?

I believe Shana is sincerely presenting her feeling of marginalization, but I have the same question: Why does she feel marginalized? The examples she gave of marginalization struck me as poor justification.

According to data collected by Hillel, Jewish students make up 30 percent of the student body at Penn. For comparison, American Jews make up less than 2 percent of the United States population and less than 0.25 percent of the world population. In addition, Hillel is easily the single most influential religious organization on campus, hosting over 50 student groups and representing a more powerful national organization.

So please forgive me if I’m reluctant to accept claims of marginalization from Penn’s Jewish community. Still, let’s look at the specific claims in more detail.

Shana writes, “When I go to an event advertising food ... My first thought is, ‘Is it worthwhile going to this event when I cannot eat anything here because I keep kosher?’”

First, I understand that free food is a draw for college students, but if the only reason you’re attending the event is for the food, perhaps you’re simply not interested in the event.

More importantly, this complaint boils down to, “I’m being offered free food but I don’t want to eat it.” I fail to see how adding “because of my religion” to that summary would constitute marginalization. Keeping kosher, unlike a food allergy, is a free choice to restrict your own options.

However, the most important example Shana provides of “structural marginalization” is “Penn’s policy on religious and secular holidays.” She correctly points out that professors are required to make allowances for religious absences, allow students to make up work and to schedule homework and exams around the more observed and well-known holidays. To me, this seems a fairly reasonable accommodation.

But Shana is not content with the current process. “I should not have to defend my need of missing class due to my religious observance,” writes Shana. “Asking for time off from class when I am spending nearly $50,000 a year ... is marginalizing.”

So the official school policy gives Shana an unquestionable reason to miss class and requires professors to work around her religious calendar when scheduling exams, all for the meager fee of talking to her professor, and that’s “structural marginalization?”

If that counts, then what about when my class of 100-plus students had a lecture canceled outright for Yom Kippur because roughly 15 students in the class were Jewish? By my estimates, I paid roughly $250 for that hour of education, and it was not provided so that a religion I don’t follow could be accommodated.

Also, as an atheist, I imagine I would have a much harder time qualifying for the same exemption if I wanted to celebrate the National Day of Reason, Darwin Day or any other equally made-up holiday. Yet Shana’s made-up holiday automatically gets special accommodation because it’s her religion.

David McDevitt, president of the Drexel Freethought Society, put it best in the comments: “Having you follow the same procedure as everyone else is not marginalizing, it’s treating you equally.”

In case you still think Penn should be more accommodating, I want to leave you with the story of J. Paul Grayson. Grayson, a sociology professor at York University, rejected a request by a religious student to be exempt from group work because his religion would not permit him to meet in public with a group of women. However, the Dean of Faculty ordered him to allow the exemption, and in order to not affect the “course experience of our female students, ” Grayson should make sure they “are not made aware of the accommodation.” Like a good sociologist, Grayson surveyed another class to gauge their reaction to the plan. The female students in particular were outraged.

Is this the sort of response we should also expect from Penn administrators? I think not.

Collin Boots is a master’s student studying robotics from Redwood Falls, Minn. Email him at cboots@seas.upenn.edu or follow him @LotofTinyRobots.

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