Fighting Campus Anti-Semitism Before It Explodes

It is not unreasonable to believe that something terrible could happen when activists with grievances return to campuses, warns Jeffrey Herbst, and colleges currently aren’t ready.

July 19, 2021
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Colleges and universities should prepare for the possibility of an explosion of anti-Semitism on their campuses in the fall. We must do better than we did in the past in fighting this old hatred, and the time to act is now.

Prompted by the May conflict between Israel and Hamas, anti-Semitic incidents across the nation doubled. Forty-one percent of Jews indicate that they have concerns for their physical safety because of the violence in the Middle East. As Jews are now being beaten in the streets of major cities, it is not unreasonable to believe that something terrible could happen at colleges when activists with grievances about the most recent round of violence return to campus.

Even before the most recent conflict, college campuses were the locations for some of the most pointed and fraught interactions over Israel. Perhaps a firecracker will be thrown into a room where pro-Israel students are meeting, causing a fire and deaths; perhaps a riot will break out when a pro-Israel speaker is presenting and some students will be trampled; or perhaps one or more Jewish students will commit suicide because of ceaseless online bullying.

At the moment, colleges and universities are not ready. Recently, in my role as president of American Jewish University, I interviewed Jonathan Greenblatt, national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, about the current spike in attacks against Jews. Of note, Greenblatt said, “From an institutional basis, we’ve seen a lack of courage among university presidents broadly.” He is reflecting a Jewish community that is increasingly concerned about the welfare and safety of Jewish students and the less-than-forceful response by university leaders who are otherwise extremely sensitive to any manifestation of prejudice on their campuses.

The indicators on college anti-Semitism have been flashing red for some time. Hillel reported that anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses rose to an all-time high in 2019-20, even with many closures due to the pandemic. The drumbeat of anti-Semitic incidents has grown disheartening. At the University of Southern California, a Jewish student was forced to resign as vice president of the student government after harassment because of her pro-Israel stances. At Arizona State University, “Hitler Was Right” posters have had to be taken down several times. And at the University of Connecticut, there have been repeated incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti and verbal insults.

While the incidents vary, the anti-Semitism that students confront has increasingly migrated from classical Jewish hatred to attacks wrapped up in criticisms of Israel and Zionism that then spill over into anti-Semitism and occasionally violence against Jews as Jews.

Unfortunately, when confronting hate against Jewish students, college leaders may be unable to rely on practices and systems that have been established to promote inclusion. Many campus officials, especially in student affairs offices, are apt to consciously or subconsciously code Jewish students as “white” and therefore not vulnerable to the hate that is directed toward communities of color. It is, in fact, not true that Jewish students are all white. The recently released Pew study on American Jewry found that 15 percent of Jews under 30 years old identify as Hispanic, Black, Asian or multiracial. Of course, students considered white should not be subjected to hate.

Finally, fighting anti-Semitism is hard because legitimate criticisms of Israel can and should be voiced. As the former head of the Newseum, which celebrated free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, I firmly believe that more debate is better about the Middle East, and every place else. However, the bullying, threats and now possibilities of violence against Jewish and Zionist students have become so pervasive on many campuses that campus officials must act without in any way hindering legitimate debate.

The leaders of the campuses noted above each condemned anti-Semitism after uproars and protests. However, the damage had already been done. The old playbook, where campus officials express regret after an episode of anti-Semitism, is simply no longer good enough. While college leaders might want to devote August and September to celebrating the return of students after the long quarantine, they must act pre-emptively to prevent ugly things from happening at their institutions.

College and university leaders must speak out before an incident against anti-Semitism, just as they now talk about opposing other forms of hatred unprompted. While the traditional official statements are good at opposing anti-Semitism (not very hard), they tend not to explore the link between violence in the Middle East and the harassment of Jewish students on campus.

College and university leaders must also ensure that their campus colleagues understand the very real vulnerabilities of Jewish students, even if it means working to change attitudes and processes within campus offices they may not see as their writ, including anti-Semitism.

Finally, they must work hard to promote constructive debate about the Middle East. Instead, for instance, of hoping that a speaker does not provoke an outcry, university leaders might seize the initiative and invite a broad array of speakers on Israel and anti-Semitism to campus to model what constructive dialogue, debate and disagreement can look like.

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Higher education cannot afford to lose another constituency given the increasing skepticism about our mission and operations displayed by the public and state legislators. No group has benefited more from higher education than the Jews, but they, too, can abandon support of colleges and universities if they believe that Jewish students are not only under threat but also unprotected until it is too late.

And beyond self-interest, if universities are not resolute centers for the safe exchange of ideas, then what, really, are they for?

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Jeffrey Herbst is president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He was previously president and CEO of the Newseum and president of Colgate University.

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