Antisemitism on Campus: Old Wine in New Bottles
As someone who has been critical about the sometimes overheated reaction to what is taking place regarding Jews on campus, I also believe it is vital to monitor the situation closely and to be able to reevaluate as things may change.
I still believe that the vast majority of Jewish students have normal lives on campus where they can be comfortable in their own skins and with their Jewish identities. That is why a recent survey suggesting that more than 50 percent of Jewish students experienced antisemitism in one form or another was disturbing. This survey – which in my opinion was flawed — was not a helpful reading of what is going on.
And yet, something is changing. We need to identify what it is and deal with it — without declaring the sky is falling.
Historically, many campuses, particularly when it comes to faculty, have a reputation of being left-wing or at least very liberal. Since the vast majority of the Jewish community has identified itself in a similar fashion for decades, there seemed to be no problem.
Together with this, however, polls of the American people in the last few years appear to indicate an increasing gap in attitudes toward Israel between those who identify themselves as conservatives and those who identify themselves as liberals. The latter are increasingly questioning Israeli policies and expressing interest in a more balanced American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is this evolving phenomenon which, I believe, is lending force to the anti-Israel forces on campus. Let’s be clear: There has always been a measure of left-wing opposition to Israel on campuses, whether from faculty or some student groups.
For sure they are more organized today. Students for Justice in Palestine, the main organizing force behind the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns, has refined and intensified its tactics and is popping up on new campuses every month or so. Regardless of the fact that the BDS campaign has not gained much traction on campus in terms of having any impact against Israel – many, if not most, of the boycott votes have been soundly defeated – it is creating a great deal of noise on campus and beyond, raising a lot of attention, and contributing to the sense of discomfort of Jewish students.
But the biggest change is the fertile ground in which the anti-Israel community is sowing its seeds.
The trends that are appearing relate to the perception of Jewish students and their relations with other minority communities. There are suggestions that Jews do not qualify for participation in minority community activity on campus, for two reasons: 1) They are deemed people of privilege, not minorities worthy of special attention; and 2) their assumed support for “colonialist, apartheid” Israel puts them in the camp of would-be oppressors rather than targets and opponents of prejudice.
Recent incidents at UCLA and Stanford bring this disturbing phenomenon into focus. At UCLA, a student leader had her qualifications for a Judicial Board position come under question due to her Jewish identity and affiliation with the Jewish community on campus. At Stanford, a Jewish student running for a position in student government was asked how her Judaism might influence her position on divestment from Israel.
What was so stunning to the student applicants was not that they were asked about their views on Israel – they were aware that, unfortunately, these bodies supported boycott actions against the Jewish State. Rather, that there was no shame in introducing the candidates’ Jewishness as the critical factor in assessing the candidacy.
It is this linking of attitudes toward Israel and attitudes toward Jews that raises concern about the future of Jewish life on campus. Larry Summers, when president at Harvard, foresaw this back in 2002 when there was an effort to bring a divestment campaign to the university.
He, most importantly, rejected it, decrying the abhorrent comparison of democratic Israel to apartheid South Africa. He then went on to explain that while not all who advocated divestment from Israel were motivated by antisemitism, even those who weren’t created a climate making antisemitism more palatable by the assault on the good name of the Jewish State.
In effect, the attacks on Israel on campus are unleashing inhibitions against expressions of anti-Jewish prejudice and beginning to legitimize attacks on Jews on campus.
While much of this is in a nascent stage, it is important to deal with it now on several levels.
First, greater efforts must be made to generate a more balanced view of Israel and the region among minority students. Some are undoubtedly locked in to their anti-Israel perspective for ideological reasons. But many others are certainly open to hearing a different take on the Middle East. Not one in which Israel is always in the right, but a complicated narrative about competing interest and needs.
Second, it must be made clear that whatever one’s views on the conflict, treating Jews differently is unacceptable and it is what it is, anti-Semitism. University officials must speak out clearly and unequivocally against even the slightest hint of singling Jews out that way.
Third, we must continually assess the status of Jews on campus in a calm and rational way, distinguishing between the real challenges Jewish students face without sending alarm signals which could undermine the normal life on campus that exists for most of them.
Jews in America have made too much progress over the last half-century to cause us to overreact. Still, we cannot afford to be complacent. We have to address these campus issues now before they expand further and spin out of control, truly creating a widespread worrisome atmosphere.
Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.