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March 1, 2022 12:09 pm

A Clear Guide for Combating Campus Antisemitism

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avatar by Miriam F. Elman and Joshua Suchoff


Burruss Hall at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

On many US college and university campuses, openly Jewish and proudly Zionist students are being demoralized, excluded, and even penalized. Anti-Israel activism has become both more personal and insidious. Gone are the days when Jewish and Zionist students only had to worry about boycott and divestment motions fielded in student governments. Now, more and more of these students are reporting being harassed and ostracized. Scorned for their attachments to Israel, most still don’t live in fear of physical attacks on campus. But a significant number of them say that they have tried to hide their identity just to fit in.

A few months ago, JewBelong put out a call to college students to share their stories about campus antisemitism. The responses revealed a troubling pattern: students forced to confront callous peer-on-peer intimidation, in most cases on their own and bereft of any institutional support.

The anonymous personal accounts in the JewBelong compilation bear a striking resemblance to other recent incidents that have garnered national attention. Take, for example, the depressing case of undergraduate student Rose Ritch, the former vice president of the University of Southern California student government. Ritch was bullied into resigning her leadership position because she identified as a Zionist.

Or consider the sickening uptick in incidents targeting Jewish property on campus — a Hillel entryway sign defaced with curses at the University of Oregon, mezuzahs torn down at Indiana University, and a sukkah vandalized with “Free Palestine” spray-painted on the inside at the University of California. And that’s on top of the now ubiquitous swastikas.

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With all this going on, it’s no wonder that Jewish and Zionist students are concealing their identities. On far too many campuses, it has become a necessity for mental health. Cutting edge research recently published by our organization, an educational nonprofit that combats campus antisemitism and works to improve the campus climate for Jewish and all students, finds that American Jews are more likely to be the victims of hate crimes at colleges and universities than all other minority groups.

Alarmingly, this research shows that young Jews are also more likely to suffer bias incidents on campus than at any other location.

And it is not just undergraduate students who are facing these challenges. Jews enrolled in graduate programs are also feeling the pinch. At the University of Chicago, the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter launched a campaign to convince peers to boycott “Shi**ty Zionist Classes” — including one taught by a Jewish woman and Ph.D. student.

Recently at NYU’s law school, dozens of graduate students who will soon enter the legal profession or the professoriate, have enthusiastically embraced BDS, choosing to express their solidarity with Palestinians by demonizing Israel and denying the lived experiences of fellow Jewish-Zionist students.

And at Virginia Tech, graduate students recently witnessed their representative body, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, pass an academic boycott resolution against Israel, while trafficking in incendiary language that equated the complexities of Israel’s majority-minority relations to the history of racial injustices in America.

These cases underscore the heart of BDS activism on campus today — where anything that might normalize the study of Israel is rendered suspect and illegitimate.

But the problem is not simply a matter of students behaving badly. There is also a significant and growing faculty dimension to anti-Israel hostility on campus.

Like students, Jewish and Zionist faculty are contending with vehemently anti-Israel colleagues. In some cases, they may even serve in supervisory roles — such as chairs or deans. Pro-Israel academics, especially junior faculty and those on non-tenure-track and contingent appointments, are particularly vulnerable. These academics are increasingly worried about the potential risks to career advancement that would inevitably come from being branded as racist and anti-progressive — solely due to their support for the only democratic, pluralistic state in the Middle East.

Faculty have long mobilized in support of BDS — by working to shutter study abroad programs to Israel, or refusing to write recommendation letters on behalf of students wanting to study there. But following the May 2021 Israel-Hamas hostilities, this faculty involvement has gone into hyperdrive.

An unprecedented wave of statements condemning Israel issued by dozens of academic departments has now created a formal politicization of academic programs at many schools, basically baking anti-Israel and anti-Zionist group think into both pedagogy and department decision-making. Meanwhile members of the Middle East Studies Association, a prominent society of primarily US-based faculty specializing in the Middle East/North Africa region, are voting over the next few weeks on a resolution to implement an academic boycott against Israel.

Despite all of this, there are ways to walk back the damage — if faculty and university leaders are willing to take on the responsibility for action.

First, faculty need to help students understand how legitimate and warranted criticism of Israel crosses a line when it peddles in tropes and canards about Jews, and presents the Jewish state as the embodiment of evil. Faculty in Jewish and Israel Studies can educate students and even professors about the complexity of Jewish identity and experience, which can lead to a greater sensitivity about anti-Jewish language and motifs. But faculty in other disciplines can also weigh in effectively when criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic. For example, at Yale, a STEM professor’s recent expression of profound disappointment in the Yale College Council’s outrageous demonization of Israel has helped to galvanize his school to confront antisemitism.   

Second, university leaders need to ensure against the abuse of official university channels for the dissemination of anti-Israel propaganda in the name of academic departments, centers, and institutes. To be sure, the bedrock principle of academic freedom gives faculty the right to speak publicly on controversial matters without fear of retribution. But anti-Israel department statements — like those issued by more than 120 Gender Studies programs last spring — suppress the voices of dissenting department members who may believe differently. And it is hard to see how Jewish and Zionist, let alone Israeli, students can feel welcomed and respected in academic units that so thoroughly disregard their values, beliefs, and lived experiences.

Lastly, both faculty and university leaders must serve as a moral compass to set the tone on campus. Administrators should respond forcefully and unequivocally to antisemitism, just as they would to other expressions of hatred and bigotry — and faculty should insist that they do. But university leaders also need to work with their faculty members to move beyond statements, and develop action plans with measurable goals and concrete benchmarks geared toward fostering a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for Jewish and all students. This must be done while also encouraging dialogue and debate on contentious topics. Fortunately, a number of public and private schools are now setting this example and developing models for others to adopt, from the University of Southern California and Colorado State University, to Tufts University, New York University, and San Francisco State University.

Civil rights and educational organizations can also offer resources and guidance regarding best practices for academics and campus administrators. Our organization recently released “Antisemitism, Jewish Identity, and Freedom of Expression on Campus: A Guide and Resource Book for Faculty and University Leaders,” which introduces, contextualizes, and analyzes the pressing concerns and needs of Jewish and Zionist students, faculty, and staff — and offers model ways in which faculty and university leaders can effectively respond to and improve the campus climate for Jewish and all students.

Together, faculty and university leaders must work to ensure that the academy remains a tolerant and supportive space, where reasoned thought and open inquiry thrives, and everyone’s perspectives are valued.

Miriam F. Elman is the Executive Director of the Academic Engagement Network, and an Associate Professor at Syracuse University, where she serves as the inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence. An award-winning teacher and scholar, in 2018 The Algemeiner listed her among the top 100 people worldwide who are positively influencing Jewish life.    

Joshua Suchoff is the Managing Director of the Academic Engagement Network, and a former Wexner Foundation Field Fellow. He has been active in grants management and nonprofit organizational advancement and development for nearly 18 years.

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