An Encouraging Example Can Show the Way Forward for Combating Campus Antisemitism
by Shira Gould
Antisemitism has plagued society throughout history, evolving over time and disguising itself as compatible with society’s values. The same scenario is playing out today, including on too many college campuses.
According to the 2021 ADL-Hillel Campus Antisemitism Survey, 31% of Jewish students on college campuses in the United States reported having witnessed or experienced bigotry against Jews. While university leaders commonly release statements condemning antisemitic incidents after they occur, school administrators, educators, and staff can and should do more to actively prevent this hate.
The University of Denver (UD)’s Chancellor, Jeremy Haefner, is one example of an administrator taking strong action against antisemitism. During the week of February 9, one identifiably Jewish student opened his door to find it smeared with pork (a meat that is religiously prohibited in Judaism). That same week, two other Jewish students opened their doors to find that their mezuzahs (sacred scrolls affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes) were ripped off. These are egregious acts of classical antisemitism — attacks on Jewish ritual and religious practice.
Chancellor Haefner’s office promptly released a strong condemnation of the incidents, investigated them thoroughly, and even found four of the perpetrators. Equally notable is the tenacity with which he showed his support for the Jewish students in his school: initiating educational programs about antisemitism through the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) office, encouraging students to attend that week’s Shabbat dinner at Hillel, and generally uplifting the student body by calling on them to do better by their peers moving forward. The administrative response at UD was an excellent model for what to do after antisemitic incidents on campus, but the real test is whether administrators will take proactive action to support their Jewish students.
Condemnations are an excellent way to support Jewish students in the aftermath of hateful acts, but it’s even more important to prevent as many incidents as possible in the first place. While Chancellor Haefner’s office is working to produce educational materials about antisemitism in the aftermath of the incident, other university leaders should prepare and use those types of materials for proactive education. University leaders would be well advised to take advantage of resources that already exist. For example, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, the consensus definition of antisemitism developed by international experts and leaders in Jewish communities, is an excellent educational tool that should be utilized when teaching about antisemitism. It is already used by hundreds of governments, organizations, schools, and institutions (including the United States Department of Education) worldwide to help identify instances of antisemitism and to educate the public on how antisemitism might manifest across various settings.
Many schools around the country already implement anti-bias trainings that educate students about the lived experiences of other historically oppressed communities. There is no reason that antisemitism should not be part of this training. Using the IHRA definition in these trainings to help students understand the complexities of antisemitism is a great place to start. Then, the training can focus on teaching students, faculty members, and staff about the Jewish experience in America and on college campuses, Jewish diversity, and the history of antisemitism. This type of training could go a long way in promoting understanding and building allies on campus.
Proactively promoting events that are planned by Jewish students to celebrate and educate about the Jewish community is another great way for administrators to communicate to the wider student body that Jewish life is valued. By engaging with Jewish life on campus and meeting regularly with Jewish students, administrators can lead by modeling appreciation, respect, and interest.
These are just a few ways that campus leaders can promote tolerance, acceptance, and appreciation of Jewish life on their campuses, but the point is that Jewish students need administrators to take concrete action against antisemitism before it strikes. Statements of condemnation are great when needed, but unfortunately administrative action often ends there and it is not enough. Rather than telling Jewish students that they are valued and supported, it’s time for campus administrators to commit to showing it.
Shira Gould is a Campus Strategist for StandWithUs, a non-partisan education organization that supports Israel and fights antisemitism.