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December 19, 2022 11:49 am

A Father’s Perspective on Campus Antisemitism

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avatar by Jon Falk


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

University of Wisconsin students returned to campus this semester to find hateful antisemitic messages chalked onto campus sidewalks. Hillel and other Jewish student organizations were attacked with the age-old antisemitic blood libel trope of “having blood on their hands.”

Elsewhere, a heckler stood outside the main gate to Queens College in New York City, and shouted racist and antisemitic conspiracy theories through a megaphone, at students walking to class. He yelled that Jews “will literally rape your mother in front of your face … they have their own banks …[and] were siphoning the wealth of Germany.” At Wellesley College, the student newspaper editorial board endorsed and encouraged the alarming Mapping Project, which places a potential target on 500 Jewish and Zionist organizations in Massachusetts.

There is no doubt that the experience of being a Jewish college student has changed from when I was in college. Today, being a Jewish student leader can often mean battling antisemitism. It means combating the rise of white supremacist ideology on campus and beyond. It means unprecedented violence in Jewish spaces. And it means countering anti-Israel hatred and attacks on Jews for their real or presumed support for Israel.

The antisemitic chalkings in Wisconsin, the vile verbal assault in New York, and the op-ed in Massachusetts targeted Jews for the imagined sin of supporting the Jewish state. Scapegoating “the Jews” for global challenges is one of the oldest expressions of antisemitism. And Jewish college students are its newest target.

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Even if we set aside for a moment the well-documented spike in national antisemitism, the climate on university campuses is something to notice. Hillel International last year recorded more than three times the number of hateful acts targeting Jewish students than it did just four short years ago. In one generation of students, anti-Jewish hate on college campuses tripled.

But the change is measured by more than statistics. It’s also found in the rising level of open hostility facing our students. When campuses re-opened after long COVID-related closures, students returned eager for connection and a resumption of normalcy. Instead, they too frequently found that the hate festering underground had erupted onto the campus quad with unabashed anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rhetoric and actions.

The radical polarization of our national politics and cultural zeitgeist coincides with a rising tolerance for apathy about direct attacks on Jewish students, Jewish spaces, and Jewish symbols. To be clear, extremist elements from across the political spectrum are guilty of tolerating — and even encouraging — these disturbing actions, and their dehumanizing and debilitating effects on the wellbeing of Jewish students.

This troubling environment can impact every part of a Jewish student’s experience. A recent joint survey by Hillel and the ADL found that 15% of Jewish students across the country feel the need to hide their identities at their own schools for fear of being harassed. Many report feeling safe only at Hillel and other Jewish spaces on campus. And some have unenrolled from their chosen universities because they felt marginalized as Jews.

This is vastly different from my own time on campus 15 years ago. When I was a student at Muhlenberg College in the mid-2000s, I encountered one antisemitic incident during my four years of student leadership. Of course, one incident of hatred is one too many, but in my work, I am supporting multiple campuses in confronting incidents of antisemitism on every single week.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that Hillel buildings, relationships with our professionals, and Hillel events around campus remain a safe space for Jewish college students. We are responding to the change in the campus environment as well. Hillel is working with local campus administrators and local law enforcement to ensure that hate against Jews is recorded and investigated. We are fighting back against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that targets Jewish students. We are unapologetically Zionist and are challenging all students — Jewish and non-Jewish — to see the complexity of seeking peace and security in our  Jewish ancestral homeland.

Jewish students need to know that campus administrators and faculty understand the threats against them, take them seriously, and put policies in place to protect them. They need their peers to comprehend the generational trauma of persecution that today’s Jewish college students are dealing with. They benefit when other student organizations and teams stand with them in solidarity against hate.

Despite the challenging environment on campus, Hillel is seeing rising participation in its programming and Jewish learning at colleges and universities across the country. Jewish students are exploring and celebrating their connections to Israel and learning about the history and challenges of the modern Jewish state, its politics, and its people. Our students are seeking out vibrant Jewish life, and they are thriving.

While being a Jewish college student today can be complicated, Hillel is there to empower Jewish students to own their Jewish story and proclaim their identities on campus with pride. I know that being a Jewish college student will evolve again before my own young daughters step onto campus 15 years from now, and I also know that Hillel will be there to support them, as it has been for the past 100 years, to create new generations of joyful, meaningful, and connected Jewish life on campus.

Jon Falk is the Associate Vice President of Hillel International’s Antisemitism and Israel Action Program and strategic response.

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