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October 3, 2022 11:05 am
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Palestinian Groups Attack and Demonize Jews as New Semester Begins

avatar by Alexander Joffe

Opinion

Bascom Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Photo Credit: Richard Hurd / Flickr

The BDS movement began the academic year with vandalism and harassment aimed at Jewish and pro-Israel students.

At Cornell University, graffiti of a Star of David equaling a swastika — and the slogan “Burn prisons, free them all, Attica to Palestine” — was found near the Hillel office, while a banner with the same slogan was hung from the law school opposite the Hillel. In response, the university president issued a statement denouncing in the “strongest possible terms all forms of hatred and bigotry.” A rally was also held in protest, and the student government passed a resolution condemning antisemitism.

At the University of Wisconsin, the first day of classes was disrupted by chalkings around campus that stated “Zionism is racism,” “Zionism is genocide,” and “There are Zionist orgs @UW They Have Blood on Their Hands.” In response, the university vice chancellor stated that the school was “disappointed” that the day was “marred” by the chalkings.

The university’s local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter defended the graffiti in a series of long social media postings, which attacked Israel and the United States as “illegitimate settler-colonies,” condemned the university and its “entire racist, colonizing ass,” and alleged that its members had been harassed by Jewish students.

In a later response, Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin then added that “Our Student Affairs leadership has reached out to SJP’s leadership and will be speaking to them to emphasize the impact of their actions and the harm caused by these chalkings.”

Observers noted that the university’s free speech defense — and its call for Jewish students to “embrace vigorous, honest debate” with antisemites — would be inconceivable had other minority groups been targeted, as would efforts to “educate” racists. A series of antisemitic incidents had previously occurred at the Madison campus during the Spring semester, including direct harassment of Jewish students.

Similar vandalism was noted at San Francisco State University and Sacramento State University. The chancellor of the University of California system issued a statement condemning these and other antisemitic incidents, but noted that “we seek to nurture an environment where all members of our University community are safe and welcomed, with the space to speak, be heard and be engaged on challenging issues and topics.”

In response to complaints filed last year, the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education announced it was opening an investigation into the University of Vermont, regarding the treatment of Jewish students. The complaints recounted a number of incidents of intimidation and harassment that created a hostile environment for Jewish students on campus.

Specific incidents included Jewish students being denied membership in a campus sexual assault awareness group and a “socialist revolutionary group” because they were “Zionists,” and a teaching assistant who had posted on social media that she would give Zionist students lower grades. Rocks had also been thrown through the windows of the campus Jewish center. Meetings with the university’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) personnel resulted in no action. In one case, the DEI director allegedly mocked Jewish students’ complaints.

In response, the university president, Suresh Garimella, called the allegations “false claims” and “uninformed narratives.” He added that “Exploitation of fear and divisiveness by advancing false claims that UVM failed to respond to complaints of antisemitic behavior creates confusion and a sense of insecurity for the entire community.” With regard to specifics, Garimella stated that the university was powerless to act against the student groups, that the rocks had been thrown to wake a sleeping student, and that no student had lodged complaints against the teaching assistant. Jewish groups denounced the president’s statement.

The response of UC Berkeley Law School officials to the decision by several student groups to exclude “‘Zionist” speakers — and to demand that all students groups do so similarly — downplayed BDS-related antisemitism. Dismissing the extent of pressure on student groups to conform, Erwin Chemerinsky, the law school dean, expressed surprise that the issue had even been noted off campus and expressed his concern that “media is using this minor incident to paint a misleading picture about the nature of my law school, my campus and higher education.”

Chemerinsky went on to state “that students have the right to take a position on this, like all issues, even if I disagree with them or find their views offensive,” and that “it also is important that I express support for the Jewish students who are understandably upset by the message.” The remainder of his message tacked incoherently between expressions of support for free speech (in the form of institutionalized discrimination), support for Jewish students, many of whom (although pointedly not all in his account), “consider questioning the existence of Israel as a form of antisemitism,” and bland calls for civility.

The seriousness with which universities treat antisemitic incidents was also called into question at the City University of New York (CUNY). The administration initially announced that chief diversity officer Saly Abd Ala, a former lawyer with CAIR-Minnesota, would investigate longstanding complaints regarding antisemitic discrimination at Kingsborough Community College. The assignment was quietly withdrawn after protests from Jewish groups. The central role of the faculty union in facilitating antisemitic abuse of Jewish faculty has also brought into focus legal challenges to laws that give public worker unions an organizing monopoly and prohibit individuals from resigning from the union.

The CUNY chancellor, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, had previously refused to attend a New York City Council meeting on antisemitism at his institution. But Rodríguez did announce a partnership to expand Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative at CUNY, “which works to end antisemitism and build safe learning environments in which all students can thrive, regardless of race or religion.”

The campus obsession with Israel was demonstrated by a study that noted almost 1,500 articles on these topics were published in 75 college newspapers during the last five years. Approximately 30% of the articles presented Israel in a negative light, as did over half of the opinion pieces.

September culminated with vandalism during Rosh Hashanah, as swastikas were found carved into the door of a Jewish student’s room at Trinity College as well as in a bathroom at American University. Additionally, antisemitic flyers were distributed at the University of Michigan, and eggs were thrown at a Jewish fraternity at Rutgers University. A seemingly coordinated series of BDS rallies and events were also held at eight different universities over a four-day period during the week prior to the holiday.

In the political sphere, the appearance of Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate State Senator Darren Bailey at a Palestinian-American association in Bridgeview raised concern at several levels. Bailey spoke before a map in which Israel was erased and the entire region was labeled “Palestine.”

In an interview, Bailey was then asked about Democratic Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, who has strongly supported anti-BDS legislation. Bailey stated:

I’ll always stand on the constitution and it sounds like some of those values are being stepped on right now. … And that makes sense, that’s what’s taking place in every aspect of government with this governor of ours. He doesn’t follow the law, he doesn’t follow the constitution. So the constitution will always be front and center. The Muslim community, the Arab community will always have a seat with me as we learn together, work together, and live together.

Bridgeview is the center of a large Palestinian-American community. The Bridgeview mosque is well-known for its radicalism, and for having been used to raise funds for Hamas. Although Bailey had previously alienated the Illinois Jewish community with remarks comparing abortion with the Holocaust, the fact that a Republican candidate was willing to speak against anti-BDS laws reflects to the power of Palestinian-Americans in Illinois politics.

Bailey’s willingness to attack anti-BDS laws is seen as unusual for some Republicans. In contrast, Democrats remain torn over Israel. This was demonstrated again in September by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who in a speech to Americans for Justice in Palestine Action and leading BDS group American Muslims for Palestine stated “among progressives, it has become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government,” and that “we will … not accept this idea that you are progressive, except for Palestine, any longer.”

Tlaib was immediately accused of antisemitism by a number of House Democrats, including Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), who stated, “There’s nothing progressive about advocating for the end of Israel as a Jewish State,” and Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) who said, “people can absolutely hold progressive values and support Israel’s right to exist.”

The author is a contributor to SPME, where a version of this article was first published.

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