By Guest Writer Ararat L. Osipian
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is asking state universities to fill the survey regarding the number and ages of students who sought gender dysphoria treatment, including sex reassignment surgery and hormone prescriptions. This survey has been sent to the universities by the state’s budget director, Chris Spencer: “Our office has learned that several state universities provide services to persons suffering from gender dysphoria. On behalf of the Governor, I hereby request that you respond to the enclosed inquiries related to such services.” The survey is to be completed as part of the obligation to govern institutional resources and protect the public interest.
It did not take long for Democrats to respond. House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell said that “We can see cuts in funding for universities to treat students with this condition, and I think an all-out elimination of services is certainly on the table.” According to Driskell, the Floridian Governor is trying to remake the state’s universities “in his own image” as far as what can be taught and how students can be treated. Driskell warns of dire consequences: “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s a really terrifying place that we’re at in Florida history. What can happen is a brain drain where we have Florida students not want to stay here and attend school at our public colleges and universities.” The Department of Education suggests that the survey was released the same day the university presidents in Florida voted to support DeSantis’ anti-woke agenda and to reject “the progressivist higher education indoctrination agenda.” DeSantis is building a case to “Make America Florida,” but the country may not be receptive to any ideas entangled in potential human rights violations. Instead, diversity, tolerance, equity and inclusion have to be at the core of educational transformation nationwide.
Florida memo asks universities to “provide the number of encounters for sex-reassignment treatment or where such treatment was sought” as well as data for students referred to other medical facilities. The survey requires “a breakdown by age, regardless of whether the student is age 18 or older, of people prescribed hormones or hormone antagonists or who underwent medical procedures like mastectomies, breast augmentation or removal and reconstruction of genitals.” This request appears to be in line with other right-wing initiatives focusing on reshaping higher education. Republican lawmakers in Florida introduced bills that would have barred state colleges from spending any money on programs that promote “diversity, equity and inclusion or critical race theory,” while the Texas Senate gave initial approval to a bill that aims to ban teaching critical race theory in public colleges.
Those who think that this is a rather unusual information request should turn to the U.S.’s strongest ally, Ukraine, most known for being a victim of Russian military aggression. Aside from the war, Ukraine’s universities are known for high levels of corruption, including the unfortunate incidents of antisemitism in academia. DeSantis’ request for details on transgender university students pales in comparison with what one can find in Ukraine’s offices of authority when it comes to information requests.
In 2020, Ukrainian police made a request for a list of Jews—including Jewish students enrolled in local universities—in Ivano-Frankivsk, a region in Western Ukraine. This official request was made by the Department of Strategic Investigations to Yakiv Zalishchyker, the head of Kolomyya’s Orthodox Jewish community. The letter was signed by Mykhaylo Bank, a high-ranking officer who handles organized crime. Such a request appears to be outrageous, given that during the Second World War, many Jews were murdered by the Nazis in Ukraine, including in western parts of the country. Figuratively speaking, the map of modern Ukraine is littered with hundreds of sites of the deadly Holocaust, and Kolomyya is one of them.
When it comes to details, DeSantis appears to be a modest amateur. While the Florida administration suggests protecting transgender students’ identities when completing the survey, the Ukrainian authorities want everything: charter of Jewish community’s organizing body, full list of the community’s members, all personal information, phone numbers, home addresses, list of members enrolled in local universities, names of these universities, faculties, and departments. The original letter, published by The Jerusalem Post, reads, verbatim, bullet point 3: “…the full list of the students of Jewish ethnic origin that study in higher education institutions in Ivano-Frankivsk region, and are part of your community, with names of these higher education institutions, faculties/departments, all personal information, cell-phone numbers, and home addresses.” It is no wonder, then, that Ukraine has become a classical example of brain drain that Florida lawmakers are so scared of.
The letter specifies the main task of the Department of Strategic Investigations is to fight criminal groups that are transnational or specifically ethnic in nature. Are Jewish students in Ivano-Frankivsk equated to an ethnic extremist transnational criminal organization? Why were the police particularly interested in Jewish students in the city? That would seem particularly odd if crime prevention was their supposed purpose.
Antisemitism observed in Ukraine’s Western regions enters universities through the actions of state bureaucrats and through the expressions of local professors. The request lodged by the police in Kolomyya is more akin to racial profiling than any kind of organized crime prevention work. This is done instead of confronting discrimination and hate crime. What else would one expect from the country where even librarians ask patrons about their ethnic origin during registration. The notorious Stalinist 5th paragraph—stating ethnic origin of each individual in official documents—is alive and well. The right answer for librarians is “Ukrainian, of course.” But what is the right answer for the Ukrainian authorities? In the Soviet totalitarian regime, personal ID documents and state records included ethnicity, placed in section 5. In choosing between the ethnic origins of the parents, some individuals preferred non-Jewish ethnicity, because Jewish origin would imply state discrimination, including in access to higher education. This creates a misleading would-be dichotomy between Jewish ethnicity and the “right” ethnicity. The issue was highlighted in literature on ethnicity-based discrimination in totalitarian regimes.
The scandal in Kolomyya gained some attention from the international community, including even US lawmakers. US Senators Jacky Rosen and James Lankford, who serve as co-chairs of the Senate’s Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, made an official statement condemning the incident. The senators stated that they are “gravely concerned by reports that a high-ranking Ukrainian police official requested a list of all Jews in the city of Kolomyya as part of an inquiry into organized crime.” According to the senators, the incident “evokes darker times when European Jews were forced to register their personal information,” referring to the forced registration of Jews by the Nazi occupation authorities during the Second World War.
It is clear that both Florida and Kolomyya requests are scandalous. It is good that civil society stays alert to prejudice and discrimination, that such requests cause an uproar both among the general public and academics, and that this uproar is reflected by the free media. However, in addition to giving proper responses to such ungrounded information requests, there are key questions to be asked. Firstly, why do such unusual information requests even exist? And, how do state officials find it possible to make such requests?
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26), “Everyone has the right to education…. higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, …” This equally applies to the US and Ukraine. It is not clear, how listing students of Jewish origin—as is the case in Kolomyya—or counting transgender students—as is the case in Florida—would promote understanding, tolerance, friendship, and the maintenance of peace in society.