Fighting Back Is the Best Way to Combat Antisemitism on College Campuses
According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents on American college campuses nearly doubled from 2014 to 2015. Antisemitic assaults (on- and off-campus) also spiked dramatically, from 36 to 56.
How can Jewish students combat campus antisemitism, and what can the larger community do to help? I suggest a pro-active strategy.
Consider British Jewish student Zachary Confino’s recent groundbreaking settlement of his complaint about antisemitic harassment. After opposing a BDS resolution, Confino suffered some 40 attacks, which his university reportedly did nothing to stop. Among other things, he was called a “Jewish prick” and a “stupid Israeli twat,” and was told that Hitler was “on to something.” After his complaint, the student union publicly apologized and agreed to pay token damages of £1,000 (about $1,300).
Like Confino, American Jewish students should consider suing those responsible when their rights are violated. To paraphrase University of California at Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman, that includes when debate crosses the line of civility into threats, harassment, incitement, and defamatory speech.
Not every wrong has a remedy, but many of the most oppressive antisemitic tactics are amenable to suit. At the May 18 UC-Irvine “protest” by demonstrators shouting slogans like “All white people need to die,” “long live the intifada,” and “f*** the police,” Jewish students were chased and others led away by police escort. Putting people in fear of harm constitutes assault, and it sounds like that is what happened at UC-Irvine. Bring legal action against people who do such things.
Where there is evidence that organizations solicited or organized illegal conduct, sue them too. Given Students for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP’s) self-congratulatory Facebook post, that may be true of the recent UC-Irvine incident. It was true of UC-Irvine’s Muslim Student Union (MSU), which “planned, orchestrated and coordinated” the disruption of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s 2010 speech.
Where a public university repeatedly fails to protect Jews’ free-speech rights, especially compared to protections it affords other groups, and/or funds organizations targeting Jews, students should explore its potential liability for discrimination and/or free-speech violations.
Jewish communal organizations can help with legal representation and financial support. As the Southern Poverty Law Center and an Israeli group, Shurat HaDin, have demonstrated, lawsuits can defeat or at least weaken hate groups. Rather than expecting individual students to take on large, well-resourced organizations, the Jewish community should offer its own resources to combat them.
University administrators should also play an active role, rather than sitting passively by while the collegial atmosphere of their colleges is destroyed. They have many tools at their disposal. As UC-Irvine’s Chancellor Gillman noted last May, and San Francisco State University President Leslie Wong observed after the Barkat incident last April, universities can discipline offending students, suspend student groups organizing disruptive conduct, press criminal charges, or file civil suits for trespass. And, if they don’t do it already, then universities should incorporate discussion of this behavior into new-student orientation and explain that it will not be tolerated. They should also sanction faculty who violate the rights of students or of other faculty members.
Finally, when antisemitic behavior becomes criminal, district attorneys should step in. After students disrupted Ambassador Oren’s aforementioned speech, ten students were convicted of disturbing a public event. Other criminal charges that may apply in similar cases include trespass and disorderly conduct. And, of course, assault and battery can and should be criminally prosecuted when they occur, as in a 2014 incident (not involving antisemitic or anti-Israel conduct) where a UC-Santa Barbara professor attacked a pro-life demonstrator.
The point of lawsuits and administrative sanctions is not just obtaining satisfaction for past wrongs, but discouraging similar conduct in the future. Perpetrators may think twice if they know they will suffer serious consequences.
Rather than being hounded, harassed, humiliated, and intimidated into silence, Jewish students can seize the initiative. The Jewish community, the universities, and the criminal justice system should aid them. Together, they can face down the rising tide of campus antisemitism.
The author is an attorney who has previously written about antisemitism and criminal justice.