Tuesday, August 16th | 19 Av 5782

January 3, 2022 2:17 pm

The Cycle: How Antisemitism Takes Root on College Campuses

avatar by Maddie Solomon


The New York University campus. Photo: Cincin12, via Wiki Commons.

It starts with a newspaper article. A student writes a piece to the student body, saying that all Jews are “white.” This is usually penned by either a non-Jewish student or someone unfamiliar with the diversity of the Jewish experience (or someone who doesn’t know that many Jews with alleged “white” skin do not identify that way).

Then a professor promotes a course on Israel-Palestine with a known terrorist on the cover. Next, a student group encourages their members to harass students in their local Hillel, and the school does nothing or throws only crumbs. The rest becomes an intense blur: the graffitied walls, the apartheid weeks, and the chants of Jewish supremacy. The students that start the cycle graduate, but not before they can call on an incoming class to repeat it.

The cycle is rather predictable. Antisemitism has a way of signposting itself, whether it was the Spanish Inquisition or the Soviet Union’s anti-Jewish policies. These incidents are no longer shocking — but they should be. Currently, the places where the cycle takes root most often represent the pinnacle of academic success: the Ivy leagues and the top colleges in the nation.

The incidents range from microaggressions to acts of violence. In 2021 alone, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) members encouraged students to no longer eat at Israeli restaurants in the area. At Vassar, student organizers included a caricature of a blood-thirsty parasitic Jew in their event advertising. At Rutgers, Jewish students were verbally abused and had their car tires slashed.

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At NYU, an academic department hosted a virtual talk where two panelists publicly endorsed Hamas. At Middlebury, posters for a vigil honoring lives lost to Israeli-Palestine violence were vandalized; a student leader on campus equated the vigil with the “All Lives Matter” movement. At UMass Boston, SJP organizers led a march to prominent Jewish institutions, culminating in an event with participants shoving a Zionist in the crowd and spitting on him.

At the University of Michigan, red handprints were painted on a Hillel building. At Princeton, students yelled antisemitic jeers at a Jewish student walking during commencement. At the University of Pennsylvania, the college held an event called “Jews and the Religion of Whiteness.” At George Washington University, a fraternity house was broken into and the culprits destroyed a Torah scroll, desecrating the space and pouring laundry detergent all over the Torah.

These are just a few examples for this year alone — and they’re just a fraction of the incidents reported annually. But these are not just incidents. They represent a pattern: ideology, violence, justification, codification, repeat. People only desecrate Torahs and attack Jews in an environment that cultivates prejudice, rationalizes the behavior, and penalizes dissent.

For a long time, we treated various forms of bigotry as treatable via a college education. But now these institutions are actually fomenting bigotry.

College institutions cannot create a more compassionate citizenry, nor can they save our democracy. Like any institution worth critiquing, they are victims of the culture they create. And the more faith we put in our top colleges to properly grapple with questions of antisemitism, the more room they have to evade those questions.

College newspapers must have fact-checkers to double-check the ethos and accuracy of articles, and root out conspiracy theories that reiterate centuries-old, antisemitic tropes. Professors should be trained in cultural competency, and take seriously the concerns raised by their students. University presidents should work in consultation with Jewish organizations to better understand how to best address the prejudice on their campuses.

Ultimately, the cycle is disrupted when it is forced to confront a variable it did not account for — a professor who calls out antisemitic language, the way they would for any other marginalized group. A student group that’s put on probation for vandalizing school property, rather than being celebrated or ignored. A discrimination complaint that is investigated from start to finish, rather than sitting idle in someone’s email. A student who converts their sadness and anger into action, and creates a movement — a group of Jews who will follow in their footsteps.

Will we disrupt the cycle? Or will we simply be cogs in the machine, churning it out?

Maddie Solomon is a recent graduate from Occidental College, originally from Denver, CO. Her work has been published in The Denver Post, The Jewish Journal, and Women’s Media Center.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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