Title media by
Lina Petronino

At the heart of Northeastern University’s campus sits the statue of a man, smiling at passing students and unassumingly stroking the cat that sits beside him. Behind him resides a building in his name: Shillman Hall. For many he is a beloved symbol of the university and a character that keeps us all company. However, a deeper look into the man behind the bronze figure reveals a history of Islamophobia and Zionism that makes him entirely unfit to represent any institution. Northeastern, a university that parades its diverse population but does little to protect it, should have both removed Shillman’s statue and severed his influence with the administration decades ago.

Robert Shillman is a 74-year-old Northeastern engineering graduate of 1968, founder of machine-vision giant Cognex and a Northeastern founder trustee. He has donated large sums to Northeastern University over the years, the most notable being the $3 million which funded the construction of Shillman Hall. 

Education, however, is not his primary focus. For years, he has been using his money and influence to promote Zionism, the violent establishment of the Israeli state through occupation of Palestinian land and Islamophobia, across the world.

In 2013, Northeastern students re-established the Northeastern chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine (NUSJP) organization. The participants primarily held peaceful protests and meetings within their community for the innocent civilians being murdered and displaced in Gaza. Shillman and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) filed a Title VI complaint with Northeastern University, threatening legal action over the re-opening of the school’s chapter of  SJP. 

This document demanding the restriction of NUSJP activity came alongside multiple death threats to SJP’s faculty advisor, Professor Shahid Alam, as well as a documentary film targeting the entire organization. The members of NUSJP reported various discriminatory incidents on campus, but instead of offering these students protection, the school began canceling their events without notice and mandating supervision by Northeastern Police. 

Under pressure from the ZOA, fronted by Shillman, Northeastern eventually suspended the SJP in March of 2014. The school’s administration also banned former SJP members from holding positions in registered campus organizations and threatened to expel two members—both suspiciously women of color—from the university entirely. The SJP’s last act as an organization was flyering dorms, which Northeastern referred to as “vandalism” and cited as justification for NUSJP’s dissolution.

In 2015, Shillman donated $2 million to the Horowitz Freedom Center (HFC), an organization identified as a hate group by law centers and criticized for its anti-Muslim stance. The Center has a long history of targeting Muslims, including funding an “Islamo-fascism awareness week” program on college campuses. They have also called for profiling of what the Center referred to as “potential terrorists” by focusing on Islamic and Palestinian people. Despite claiming he donated to the center only to promote free speech and liberties, Shillman said the director of far-right media outlet The Rebel was “fighting the good fight” in starting what was called an anti-Muslim crusade. 

Additionally, in a 2015 interview, Shillman declared himself a “big supporter” of the Islamophobic cartoon-drawing contest of the prophet Muhammad hosted by the HFC, which was meant to ridicule Muslim beliefs and figures. In Islam, it is disrespectful to picture the prophet Muhammad in any art or imagery, making the contest a blatantly contemptful event. 

The contest was later the target of a shooting, which Shillman called a “terrorist attack on the American way of life.” Shillman compared blaming the hosts of the event for inciting violence to “blaming a victim of rape for wearing high heels,” implying there is nothing wrong with mocking Islam, and dangerously painted the contest as the innocent victim. 

Shillman ignored protest of his statements and requests for an apology, and continues to fund HFC’s Shillman Fellows in Journalism program, which employs student journalists focusing on “radical Islamic terrorism,” and publishes titles such as “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam.” One of the fellows who went through Shillman’s program was Katie Hopkins, a far-right media personality known for demonizing Islam and referring to refugees as cockroaches. She has also called for a “final solution,” a Nazi euphemism for the Holocaust, to violently eradicate all Muslims.

Shillman has further supported the spread of disinformation through donations to far-right outlets such as Project Veritas and Jihad Watch, directly funding the publication of pieces that call Islamophobia “the American way.” All the while these outlets excuse the genocide of Palestinians, the murder and abuse of other Middle Easterners in Israel and the human rights violations committed by the Israeli government. Shillman has also publicly supported the ZOA, which has endorsed Steve Bannon, and has claimed that the conservative publication Breitbart has “fair-mindedness towards Israel and the Jewish people.”

In 2017, he donated close to $214,000 to the legal defense of a Dutch politician indicted for hate speech against Muslims. Shortly afterwards, Shillman voiced his unwavering support for then-president Trump’s Amicus travel ban, which aimed to subordinate Muslims. Shillman has been cited by the Supreme Court as having “developed a keen interest in the threat that Islamic terrorism poses.” Though it was not explicitly labeled a Muslim ban, Trump had confessed more than once that this was the true intent of the ban. The Supreme Court itself recognized that the travel ban could not exist without perpetuating anti-Muslim rhetoric; it stated explicitly the ban could not survive a constitutional review because it was proposed out of anti-Muslim hostility and remains involved in it. 

Since Oct. 7, when Palestinian military group Hamas attacked Israel, the Israeli government has been leading a relentless crusade against Palestinian civilians. As of Dec. 4, which marks 60 days since the beginning of the genocide, at least 16,000 Palestinians have been killed. 7,000 of these violent deaths have been children, whose lifeless bodies have been recorded with limbs and faces burned and blown off. 

Palestinian journalists are losing hope of survival, sharing farewell posts where they typically do photos and videos of Gaza. Israel has rejected global efforts, including those from the United Nations, to declare it unlawful to shoot at unarmed Palestinian civilians. The plethora of war crimes they have committed has become innumerable. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), dubbed the Israeli Occupation Forces, have obliterated hospitals, killing newborns and thousands of patients. They have fired on ambulances, admitted to planting weapons and spreading propaganda and kept non-convicted Palestinian prisoners tagged like cattle, in conditions resembling concentration camps. 

Despite the intentional starvation and drought inflicted upon the Palestinians, Israel has outlawed the collection of rainwater, and destroyed water storage containers, tankers and tractors in Gaza. Over 25,000 tons of explosives have been dropped on the Gaza strip, equivalent to 2 nuclear bombs. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has called Arabs “animals” and “children of darkness,” and has been cited reveling in the idea that he will be able to wipe all Arabs and Muslims off the map. He has threatened other Islamic countries, such as Iran, and has bombed Lebanon in the past.

Following World War 2, the United Nations drafted the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which has become the foundation of international humanitarian law. They protect wounded and sick soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilians -- including those in occupied territory -- from the most common atrocities witnessed in World War 2: murder, mutilation, torture, and unfair trial. In the full length of the document, withholding water and medical supplies and attacking hospitals, even if they house opposing forces, are outlined as war crimes. Israel has violated a vast majority of these agreements tens, and in some cases, hundreds of times over.

Over the course of at least a decade, Robert Shillman has used his vast wealth and the influence it affords him to dehumanize and delegitimize the existence of Arabs and Muslims, especially in the West. He is a proud Zionist and this violent effort guides his values. And yet, Northeastern University lets him sit. A school that prides itself on a diverse population, that totes the promise of fostering discussion in a safe environment, that teaches thousands of the students Shillman tries so hard to erase, continues to condone Islamophobia by displaying proudly both his name and his face like a banner across our school. They continue to let him sit, and they let him pet his cat and they let him smile sweetly at passersby. Worst of all, they let that smile turn to a sneer when an Arab student goes to class, and when a woman in a hijab sits at a neighboring bench. They let him serve as a reminder to these students that they are not safe on their campus, and they let him empower the students and faculty on campus who agree with his dangerous beliefs. It is time that Northeastern gets rid of both the man and the statue.