Is It Time to Rethink the Relationship Between Jews and Elite Universities?
In recent years, antisemitic incidents, including the decision by Ben & Jerry’s to boycott Israel, resulted in kosher supermarkets pulling the ice cream brand off its shelves. In 2020, a spike in antisemitic attacks provided the catalyst for the “No Hate, No Fear” rally, which drew crowds of protestors to New York City.
While said events captured the attention of thousands of American Jews, far fewer seem willing to confront the proliferation of antisemitism at US universities. I, too, struggle with whether combating campus antisemitism requires a stronger resolve to remain within the system or if we’re aiding efforts to delegitimize Israel by sending Jewish children, along with hefty tuition payments, to schools that are promulgating an illiberal and anti-Zionist pedagogy.
For example, two weeks after I attended a college information session with my daughter, The Harvard Crimson student newspaper reversed its 2002 announcement opposing the antisemitic BDS movement, and published an editorial publicly supporting divesting from and boycotting Israel.
The Crimson’s endorsement of BDS underscores the powerful influence of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Bolstered by its partnership with American Muslims for Palestine and other groups, SJP has successfully organized the consideration of 153 BDS resolutions in student governments since 2005.
In the 2020-21 academic year, student governments voted to support 11 of the 17 BDS measures introduced. Comparatively, in 2015, two BDS resolutions were passed by schools in California. In 2019, Brown University became the first Ivy League school to pass a divestment resolution, with approximately 70 percent of students who voted backing the referendum. In 2020, 60 percent of undergraduates who votes at Columbia University approved the school’s first-ever Israel boycott resolution.
Universities with sizable Jewish populations openly curry favor with antisemitic speakers and associations. The Biden administration is currently considering subjecting New York University, whose student government adopted a BDS resolution in 2018, to continued Federal monitoring requirements following several instances of harassment targeting Jewish students. In one example, The Washington Free Beacon exposed SJP distributing a school-wide email to NYU students alleging that the “Zionist grip on the media is omnipresent.” In 2019, the administration gifted its annual President’s Service Award to SJP, to recognize the group’s “extraordinary and positive impact on the university community.” That same year, NYU invited Steven Thrasher to speak at its doctoral convocation ceremony, where he urged “non-cooperation” with NYU’s Tel Aviv campus, while applauding SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace for their championing of BDS.
According to a 2021 report by Jewish on Campus, universities that saw the highest rates of antisemitism were in the northeast, where a large concentration of US Jews resides. And many of the schools where Jewish students face institutionalized discrimination are the same establishments that offer attractive amenities such as kosher dining options and daily minyanim. Yet, even within communal life, there is bigotry.
For the second year in a row, pro-Palestinian demonstrators at Rutgers University hurled eggs and antisemitic epithets at the AEPi fraternity house as Jewish students held their annual Yom Hashoah commemoration. The incident follows Chancellor Christopher Molloy succumbing to SJP pressure and apologizing for his original university-wide statement in 2021 condemning antisemitism.
In his letter, Molloy expressed remorse that his message “failed to communicate support for our Palestinian community members.” While in 2015, Rutgers University was ranked first as the largest public university for Jewish students, its status has since been replaced by the University of Florida. The pandemic’s aftermath is testing the viability of Jewish loyalty to universities like Rutgers. Tiring of faculty promotion of left-wing ideologies, more Jewish students are choosing to be educated elsewhere.
In his piece for Tablet, journalist Liel Liebovitz makes the compelling case for sending “our best and brightest to college in Israel.” Not only is higher education in Israel affordable, costing a fraction of what it does in America, but Liebovitz also advances the idea that, in Israel, idealistic young Americans will gain a deeper appreciation of the challenges facing the country, while strengthening their bonds with Israeli Jews.
The Brandeis Center’s 2021 national poll of Jewish fraternity and sorority AEPi and AEPhi found that 50 percent of respondents hide their Jewish identity on campus. Over half of those surveyed avoid expressing their views on Israel for fear of being verbally attacked or marginalized by their professors. Studying in Israel would relieve Jewish students from carrying such a burden, while granting them the ability to learn in a country whose economic growth last year was its fastest in 21 years, surpassing global projections. What’s more, Israel’s emergence as an intellectual and strategic hub is evidenced by its universities, three of which are placed among the top 100 leading academic institutions.
The allure of a warmer climate or learning in the world’s sole Jewish homeland does not diminish the responsibility that American universities have in ensuring a safe environment for their Jewish students. For some, ambition and circumstances render abandoning these institutions an impossibility. For others, corrective measures are needed to justify the expense and time devoted to studying in establishments that espouse anti-Zionism. Whatever one’s choice, it’s now clear that alternative options exist.
Irit Tratt is a writer who resides in New York. The author’s work has appeared in The American Spectator, The Jerusalem Post, JNS, and Israel Hayom.