Is There a Campus Antisemitism Pandemic?
It is difficult to find many bright spots in our current situation beyond the heroic efforts of first responders and health care professionals; however, I do take some pleasure in the fact that the Israel-haters were sidelined by the closure of college campuses.
The coronavirus also suggests a way of looking at the malignancy of antisemitism. If we look at campuses, for example, would the situation best be compared to the common cold, the flu, or COVID-19? Do students face an annual outbreak, like the flu, or has there been a growing pandemic? Certainly, the global nature of antisemitism is comparable to a pandemic; however, on the granular level, it may be more like the flu, potentially serious, but not unusual, and not increasing in virulence or transmission.
One flu-like campus affliction is Israel-hate weeks. These are held annually on dozens of campuses and have increasingly been recognized as irritating but ineffectual. Jewish students and professionals have become inoculated to the bug, and most find ignoring the provocations is the best medicine.
This year, most schools closed before the hate began — so, naturally, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and other Israel deniers took their campaigns online. Unlike the campus where they have a potentially broad audience, Zoom meetings, tweets, and other posts mostly reach the antisemitic choir.
Much of the hysteria about the situation on campus began in 2015 when we saw a dramatic surge in the number of divestment resolutions on college campuses. The number increased from 19 to 27, and the fear was that this was the beginning of an exponential increase in attacks on Israel. This fueled the expansion of pro-Israel campus organizations and funding from philanthropists.
In the succeeding years, there were 18, 18, 14, and 10 votes on divestment, respectively. In the abbreviated 2019-2020 term, only one resolution was proposed (Columbia cancelled a planned referendum), and it was approved but vetoed by the student government president at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). There was one other vote, at UC Irvine (UCI), which had gained a reputation as perhaps the most anti-Israel campus in America in 2012-2014. This year, the student government voted to repeal the divestment resolution adopted in 2012-13. While UCI has not completely shed itself of that bad reputation, divestment has not come up for a vote in six years.
In the last 15 years, a total of 131 BDS measures have been considered by student bodies — 89 were defeated (68%), including those vetoed by student government presidents or repealed. Those votes were limited to a total of 68 schools, less than 2% of America’s 4,298 four-year colleges. A total of 38 schools have approved divestment, and, as I have noted in the past, this is usually based on the vote of a tiny minority of students.
The efforts of pro-Israel groups and donors no doubt played a role in preventing the BDS campaign from becoming a pandemic. The fact that BDS advocates lost most of the votes and not a single university divested may have also contributed to the realization that even the minimal gains BDS advocates believed they got from publicity for their cause and pushing Jews’ buttons were not worth the condemnation from university officials.
This year, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger spoke out against a proposed referendum. He said there was no consensus to change the university’s investment policy, and that the proposal was “unwise, analytically flawed, and violates my sense of fairness and proportionality.”
When the idea of boycotting Sabra hummus was raised at Dickinson, Provost Neil Wasserman said, “We think boycotts interfere with the free flow of exchanges of ideas and peoples, and so we oppose them.” He added the school’s current policy “confirms our ongoing relationship with Israeli academic institutions.”
At George Washington University, after the unwise choice of a BDS supporter as interim dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs (who has since been removed from consideration as the future dean), University Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs M. Brian Blake said, “The university’s policy on the BDS movement is very clear — GW does not support divestment or other actions called for by BDS.”
After the student government at UIUC voted to divest (before the president’s veto), the university issued this statement: “Illinois Student Government (ISG) is an independent organization that can pass non-binding resolutions on any topic it chooses … but does not represent the university administration … and the university has no plans to act on this one.”
When Tufts SJP won the Collaboration Award for the antisemitic “Deadly Exchange” campaign, which claims that Israel’s training of US police forces in anti-terror operations harms people of color, the school’s president Anthony Monaco, Provost Nadine Aubry, and Deans James Glaser, Jianmin Qu, and Nancy Thompson issued this statement: “We strongly disapprove of this award in light of SJP’s concerning policy positions, including its association with the BDS movement, elements of which we view as antisemitic.”
Meanwhile, the BDS movement has had zero success off-campus and created a backlash, with Oklahoma this week becoming over the 30th state to adopt an anti-BDS law.
Beyond BDS, certain groups have promoted the idea that Jewish students are in physical danger when only a handful of physical altercations affecting Jews have occurred in the last several years. Most incidents on campus are one-off occurrences, such as a swastika drawn on a Hillel building. These are disturbing but have little or no impact on the campus over the course of a year. Also, even as the number of antisemitic incidents surged 12% in our wider community over the last year, the number declined on campus by 7% according to the ADL.
The 186 incidents occurred in a population of 200,000 Jewish students attending hundreds of colleges across the United States, and were spread over the course of a school year. A much higher percentage of students have told pollsters that they have experienced some form of antisemitism; nevertheless, should we regard this as a pandemic?
Even the flu seems a bit of a stretch since the antisemitism virus is not physically hurting students. The current version has some distinctive aspects but differs little from the strain students have suffered with for decades. Sadly, there is no vaccine for the disease of antisemitism. We can treat it with therapeutics like education and attack it with legal measures, but we know it will strike again next year.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books.