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April 26, 2022 11:39 am

Universities Should Exercise Moral Leadership to Address SJP Antisemitism

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avatar by Raeefa Z. Shams and Miriam F. Elman


The New York University campus. Photo: Cincin12/Wiki Commons.

When does anti-Zionism become antisemitic? Anti-Israel activists often attempt to shield themselves from accusations of bias and bigotry by claiming that they’re merely making a political critique. But for those law school students at New York University who recently used conspiratorial and racialized language reflecting age-old antisemitic tropes, the excuses don’t hold up.

More than 100 Jewish students called on the university to forcefully and unequivocally condemn a host of list-serv messages penned by NYU Law Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and allied groups.

These Jewish students are absolutely right to declare that references to “Zionist-funded US and Western media,” “the Zionist grip on the media,” and “Ashkenazi Jewish whiteness” cross the line from legitimate criticism of Israel to blatant antisemitic rhetoric.

It is important to acknowledge the uptick in such Israel-related antisemitism.

As the Academic Engagement Network (AEN) highlights in our latest major publication, “Antisemitism, Jewish Identity, and Freedom of Expression on Campus: A Guide and Resource Book for Faculty & University Leaders,” SJP chapters on campuses around the country, and especially at schools on the east and west coasts and in the Chicago hub, are increasingly trafficking in antisemitic expression, targeting mainstream Jewish student organizations, and ostracizing fellow Jewish peers and faculty members.

Recently, the SJP chapter at the University of Chicago urged students not to take “sh*tty Zionist classes,” taught by two Jewish women, one a visiting Israeli professor and the other a graduate student.

SJP chapters at Rutgers and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have harassed Jewish students at Hillel buildings during the Passover holiday. Student leaders of CUNY Law’s SJP chapter recently said during a protest in New York City that “Zionist professors are not welcomed” on campus, and demanded that “Zionist students” not be in “spaces where Palestinian students are.”

This spring semester, SJP chapters on multiple campuses are hosting the incendiary Palestinian activist Mohammed el-Kurd, who has said that Israelis have “an unquenchable thirst for Palestinian blood,” describes Zionism as a “genocidal” and “sadistic” “death cult,” and insists that Israelis are akin to Nazis.

Furthermore, this obnoxious trend to marginalize Jews on campus is not confined to SJP and other explicitly anti-Israel groups. At American University, the Muslim Student Association just pulled out of an interfaith Seder/Iftar event due to Hillel’s support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

These actions have consequences — a recent AEN-supported research paper found that colleges and universities with an active SJP chapter suffer 253% more antisemitic bias-reporting incidents than campuses without one.

All of this creates a campus climate where Jewish and Zionist students, such as those who wrote to NYU’s administration, feel increasingly unsafe to publicly express their identity. A just-released survey by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found that nearly 23% of American Jewish millennials agreed that the statement “anti-Israel climate, on campus or elsewhere, has forced me to hide my Jewish identity” described their own views “very well” or “somewhat well.”

Campus administrators must ensure that their institutions remain places that promote civic discourse and create a supportive environment for all students. This requires that university leaders develop and implement robust action plans, involving educational programming and trainings around Jewish identity, the Jewish experience, and antisemitism. Anti-Israel groups and activists, and the campus community as a whole, need to better understand how targeting “Zionists” isn’t an automatic get out of jail free card for hateful expression. Since Zionism is a central component of Jewish identity for most Jews on campus, antisemitic bigotry can’t be avoided simply by replacing the word “Jew” with the word “Zionist.”

To be sure, criticism of Israeli government policies, along with its state and society, is not necessarily antisemitic, but rhetoric that delegitimizes and demonizes Israel and normalizes violence against Israelis must be called out for what it is: anti-Jewish hate speech that’s antithetical to the values of any academic institution.

Thus, it is encouraging that NYU Law School Dean Trevor Morrison recently sent a statement to students emphasizing that “NYU Law condemns as immoral the intentional killing of civilians. … That includes, but is not limited to the recent attacks in Israel,” and that a broader statement from NYU and NYU Law highlighted that those institutions “vehemently reject and condemn anti-Semitism.”

NYU should also be lauded for actively engaging in antisemitism awareness education. The school’s Office for Global Inclusion, Diversity, and Strategic Innovation, and its Center for Global Spiritual Life are admirably taking important steps to address and reduce campus antisemitism. More universities should follow their lead.

As incidents on campuses around the country indicate, there is an urgent need for university administrators to exercise moral leadership through explicitly condemning antisemitic rhetoric and holding accountable those who seek to polarize and create divisions on campus, including by disciplinary action up to suspension or expulsion for antisemitic discrimination and harassment. Above all, university leaders need to act as the campus moral compass — encouraging discourse that respects and uplifts all students, regardless of their background.

Raeefa Z. Shams is Director of Communications and Programming at the Academic Engagement Network (AEN). Miriam F. Elman is Executive Director of AEN and a faculty member at Syracuse University, where she holds the title of Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence.  

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