I’ve Been Asked to Help Tackle Antisemitism at George Washington University; Here’s My Take
by Sabrina Soffer
A few years ago, a Hidden Brain podcast entitled “Passion Isn’t Enough” explored how we’ve come to deal with politics as an entertainment sport — engaged for the “feels, the thrill of debate, [and] scoring points.” This emotional and often-times “uncritical” approach aggravates partisan divides.
Eitan Hersh, an associate professor of political science at Tufts and author of “Politics is for Power,” considers the process “self-defeating.”
The same phenomenon is playing out regarding controversies about campus antisemitism. We may not realize it, but most stakeholders are actually on the same team — rallying for a campus culture that celebrates academic freedom, freedom of speech, diversity, equity, and inclusion for all. The differences lie in how we get there.
Incidents of antisemitism are becoming ubiquitous at American universities. The editorial board of “The Hatchet,” George Washington University’s student newspaper, opined recently that a “pattern of discriminatory conduct in the classroom” is indicative of the broader cultural problem. Just as in the past, Jews are being blamed as a scapegoat for many problems. And as we’ve seen before, what starts with the Jews, won’t stay with the Jews.
Hatred toward Jews is not a Jewish problem. At some point, it catches up to society as a whole. German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, a former victim of Nazi persecution, is best remembered for his statement, adapted here to present context in its poetic form:
First they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Jewish
Then they came for the Muslims
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Muslim
Then they came for Black people
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Black
Then they came for the LGBTQ+ community
And I did not speak out
Because I wasn’t one of them
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.
In 2021, antisemitism in America reached an apex for modern times. On campuses, antisemitism has escalated too, notably through anti-Israel hostility during the 2021-2022 academic year. In 2021, the Brandeis center reported that 65% of openly Jewish students felt unsafe, leading 50% to hide their identity. Campus community members must disavow any nonsensical blame-games and confront anti-Jewish bigotry head-on.
My own school, George Washington University, has not been spared from this wave of hate. A number of my Jewish friends tend to conceal their Jewish insignia when walking around campus. They’re often confronted or heckled. “It’s just not worth it,” one student told me. In 19th century Russia, concerned with pogroms, Jewish poet Yehudah Leib Gordon once counseled: “Be a man on the streets and a Jew at home.”
Is this really how we go about being Jewish on our diverse and inclusive campuses? Would this be accepted for any other minority?
One friend of mine was recently spat on at our school’s main plaza. “I guess this is the reality of being a Jew in this great country,” he said.
As anti-Jewish bigotry around campus becomes normalized, many students tend to avoid controversial topics or certain courses because of the “angst” this may produce. Some are so uncomfortable that they “dread” going to class. And when students struggle to “eat or sleep” to the extent it leads to clinical depression, there’s clearly a problem that must be addressed. Many Jewish students feel uniquely targeted and betrayed — not only by their peers, but by administrations that fail to hold perpetrators accountable.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the feelings and symptoms described by Jewish students arise from severe bullying, which could lead to “poor psychiatric conditions in midlife.” Bottom line, subjecting any member of a campus community to shame, denigration, or suppression is a violation of the duties a school owes to its students.
To address the worsening situation on campus, the George Washington University Student Association recently approved a Special Presidential Task Force to Combat Antisemitism. Its broad mission will consist of tackling antisemitism on campus through assertive, yet collaborative and constructive dialogue, in order to bring about civility and restore trust on campus.
As the new Commissioner heading the task force, I plan to recruit 10 students — Jews and non-Jews — to fill multiple roles including data collection and analysis, reporting, budgeting, and education. The diversity of members is imperative: Bringing diverse skills, views, and concerns is the most effective approach to managing the issues we face.
The task force will produce a research report of campus incidents, including their severity and frequency. Students will be tasked with interviewing victims and perpetrators to understand the root causes of antisemitism on campus — both intentions and impacts. This will help students better identify and deal with hostile behaviors disseminated in the classroom, online, and in social circles. My team plans to work with experts to learn about Jewish history and that of antisemitism over the last millennia in order to better understand how old falsehoods are repackaged and promoted through social media and other means.
Healthy dialogue among students, faculty, and administrators is key to healing the rifts in our community despite the possible discomfort involved in these discussions. It can help us understand each other’s beliefs so that we can decide on which behaviors to accept, reject, or change.
To this end, my first proposal involves an anti-bullying policy drafted by the AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to documenting, investigating, and combating antisemitism on US campuses.The policy ensures the protection of Jewish students from bullying under university bylaws.
I’m strongly committed to integrating Jewish students into diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) curriculum beyond its current implementation. My campus’ resources on antisemitism mainly focus on antisemitism through the lens of white supremacist neo-Nazism without much concern for the far-left. The liberal form of antisemitism that champions the Palestinian cause through BDS-rhetoric has become perhaps the most insidious form. Rather than constructive criticism, demonizing the so-called “colonial, genocidal, and apartheid regime of Israel” is revered in academia.
Liberal social justice spaces tend to betray their progressive values by creating environments inhospitable to Jews and shutting down dialogue. This ideology is woven into the fabric of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel that fuels the antisemitism promoted by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).
Many openly Zionist students at GWU have been blocked on Instagram by the SJP. The newly formed task force will attempt to reach out to students to engage in candid conversation. We may not immediately change minds, but open dialogue will enable the sharing of perspectives and experiences.
A college education is, after all, intended to lead students on a bridge of self-discovery through dialogue and engagement. If we disagree, all the better: In the words of Gandhi, “honest disagreement is a good sign of progress.” But disagreement must never come at the expense of feeling vulnerable, denigrated, and suppressed. Free speech can only exist where all can agree to mutual respect. Principles driving our behaviors must shift to make campus environments truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
By Sabrina Soffer, the commissioner of the Presidential Task Force to Combat Antisemitism at George Washington University.