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While the recent Ye—Kanye West—controversies put antisemitism in the mainstream news, there has been a regular stream of reports and studies issued about the rise in antisemitism across the United States, including on college campuses, over the last several years. For the Jewish community, it often feels like we are alone in our struggle to fight this rising tide. Especially on campus, where there is a strong commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, it can seem that antisemitism is not taken as seriously as other manifestations of bias or is only condemned in general terms alongside other forms of identity-based discrimination.
Antisemitism emanating from the right is easy for campus administrators to identify and condemn. They understand that Nazis and swastikas are bad, and when they hear rhetoric about Jews destroying “white man’s America,” they understand how it is connected to other forms of hate, which they are committed to upending. The fact that these ugly messages about Jews come from the same sources that denigrate other minority communities makes it an easy decision for administrators to publicly condemn them.
Campus officials have a much harder time understanding antisemitism on the left, especially when it is connected to Israel. These anti-Jewish messages often bubble up on campus from those who are themselves deeply motivated by antiracist ideologies and the fight against injustice. In addition, administrators tend to view the denigration and vilification of Zionism as a political debate, rather than as a deeply hurtful attack on Jewish identity, which can sometimes target and exclude individual Jewish students. Even when vehemently anti-Israel rhetoric, which is protected speech, rises to the level of pervasive harassment, which is not protected, administrators often remain silent.
An underlying reason campus administrators have trouble recognizing this type of antisemitism is that they are unfamiliar with Jewish identity and the history of antisemitism. They tend to view Judaism as a set of religious practices and beliefs and do not understand the concept of Jewish peoplehood or its implications for a connection to Israel. As a result, they fail to grasp how the demonization and delegitimization of Israel can be felt by many Jews on campus as a personal affront on their identity. Additionally, without a solid knowledge of historic anti-Jewish tropes, they are unable to identify antisemitic themes in rhetoric surrounding Israel. All this is further exacerbated by the fact that the American Jewish experience tends to be seen through the lens of Ashkenazi Jewry and an assumption of whiteness, which brings with it a set of stereotypes about power and privilege that can animate antisemitic conspiracy thinking.
The good news is that campus administrators are expressing an interest in learning more about Jewish identity and antisemitism—and various Jewish educational and civil rights organizations are focusing more of their efforts on providing such professional development opportunities. My own organization, the Academic Engagement Network, for example, launched the Improving the Campus Climate Initiative (ICCI), aimed at partnering with midlevel administrators so that they can better meet the needs of the Jewish community on campus. Through consultation on best practices to respond to antisemitism, education and training on Jewish identity and the Jewish experience and programmatic guidance to foster Jewish inclusion, ICCI provides campus officials with the knowledge and tools to better support Jewish students, faculty and staff.
As part of ICCI, campus administrators also have the opportunity to participate in the Signature Seminar Series, a yearlong professional development program with experiential learning components in Washington, D.C., and Israel. The immersive Israel Experience allows campus administrators to deepen their insight into the diversity of Jewish experience and better understand how Israel plays a central role in Jewish identity. It also gives participants a deepened appreciation for diversity and coexistence within Israeli society and allows them to witness firsthand the complexity of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
While many campus administrators previously left the concerns of the Jewish community to an interfaith office, Jewish student life groups like Hillel or campus clergy, our hope is that educational opportunities like these can lead to an acknowledgment that the campus Jewish community—just like other minority groups—belongs centrally within the university’s DEI efforts. With research showing that four out of 10 Jews under the age of 30 do not identify as Jewish by religion, a shift on campus toward recognizing the Jewish community as a cultural and ethnic group—and not exclusively a religious one—would be a positive step, since the needs of many Jewish students fall outside the concerns of religious accommodation and can be more effectively addressed within a DEI framework.
Across both public and private universities, many campus leaders, including those tasked to create and foster a more inclusive, diverse and welcoming learning environment, are beginning to understand that they have a responsibility to address the needs of Jewish students as part of their mandate. Today, they are more receptive to offering professional development opportunities to their staff about Jewish identity, antisemitism and Israel and are starting to take their obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act more seriously. For instance, New York University developed a detailed blueprint to address antisemitism, which includes the creation of a working group to promote understanding, a communications strategy about community values and policies, and education and training opportunities.
Colorado State University has developed an action plan to support Jewish inclusion on campus, and a Presidential Task Force on Jewish Inclusion and the Prevention of Antisemitism was converted this past summer to a permanent Advisory Council on Jewish Inclusion, which is housed in CSU’s Office of Inclusive Excellence. The university is engaged in ongoing work integrating antisemitism awareness education into its DEI programming, academic coursework and professional development for university administrators and staff, as well as for faculty and student leaders.
The University of Southern California also recently released a report through its Advisory Committee on Jewish Life detailing about two dozen recommended action items, such as fostering campuswide discussions on antisemitism, highlighting the work of Jewish organizations and individuals in university communications, and expanding DEI-related trainings and educational programs to include Jewish perspectives.
Professional development focused on the Jewish experience and antisemitism will help administrators expand their understanding so that they can more effectively support their campus Jewish communities. In order to create a truly inclusive campus environment, it must be a space where all students—regardless of what group they identify with—feel safe and supported. Addressing antisemitism needs to be viewed as a shared struggle alongside combating the marginalization of all identity-based groups.