7 ways universities can begin to challenge anti-Semitism on campus

(RNS) Once upon a time, there were red lines between criticism of Israel's policies, denial of Israel's right to exist, and full-blown anti-Semitism. Those lines have increasingly blurred, and in some cases, they have disappeared.

(RNS) I attended a university with many Jewish students. One year during Hanukkah, a student lit a menorah in his dorm room, left the menorah unattended, and accidentally set fire to his room.

The next day, I overheard some students snickering in the cafeteria: “Do you think that the Jews are going to burn down the entire dorm and dance around it?”

Fast forward to this week. An online survey of 1,157 students, conducted by Trinity College professors Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar found that more than half of American Jewish college students report they have experienced anti-Semitism on campus.

Anti-Semitism has become politically correct — even chic.

Just in the last few weeks:

  • University of California, Davis, students voted on a resolution to endorse a boycott of Israel — accompanied by the cries of “Allahu akbar.” Then, to top it off, a Jewish fraternity was painted with swastikas.
  • At UCLA,  questions arose over a Jewish candidate for the Judicial Board of the Undergraduate Students Association Council. Most people agreed that Rachel Beyda was eminently qualified, but some wondered if her religion posed a conflict of interest in relation to campus organizations opposed to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Her candidacy was ultimately approved.

“Haters gonna hate,” they say — and in this case, the haters are students, faculty members, and administrators. Imagine being an undergraduate and standing up to a professor who is trashing Israel. Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine actively nurture hatred of Israel. The hate takes the form of advocacy for boycott, divestment and sanctions, anti-Israel rallies, verbal attacks, vandalism, and even physical threats.

Once upon a time, there were red lines between criticism of Israel’s policies, denial of Israel’s right to exist, and full-blown anti-Semitism. Those lines have increasingly blurred, and in some cases, they have disappeared.

If you want to read an excellent literary exploration of campus anti-Semitism, check out Nora Gold’s recent novel, Fields of Exile. It tells the story of Judith, an idealistic graduate student in social work at a Canadian university. She loves Israel but realizes her department is a hotbed of anti-Israel activism, which exists under the guises of tolerance, diversity, and the cult of Palestinian victimization. She is increasingly marginalized. Her story does not end well. It is a wake-up call.

How do we begin to fix this situation?

  1. College presidents can speak out on the issue of campus anti-Semitism — just as European leaders have spoken out against anti-Semitic acts. How about a joint statement from a broad coalition of presidents and chancellors, in a full-page ad in The New York Times?
  2. Student governments can condemn anti-Semitism. The University of California, Berkeley just did that.
  3. Remind people that anti-Semitism is as unacceptable as racism, sexism, lookism, classism, etc. In the current taxonomy of “isms,” the hatred of Jews winds up on the bottom. Often, it is justified in the name of protesting Israeli actions. Anti-Semitism should be named and exposed.
  4. Bring thought leaders and faculty members to Israel, in order to expose them to realities on the ground.
  5. Work with the Anti-Defamation League to make sure campus anti-Semitism is on its agenda. Make sure local ADL directors and staff members have relationships with campus leaders.
  6. Educate young Jews so they can understand and fight back against anti-Semitism. Tell Jewish parents: The only way your kids will be able to respond to the challenges on campus is for them to continue their Jewish education beyond the tender age of puberty.
  7. Continue to strengthen Hillel. Jewish students need to know Hillel and other Jewish student organizations are where they will find community and support. Hillels can continue to reach out to other campus organizations, especially other religious organizations, and continue to strengthen those relationships. They are crucial in difficult times.

There is an old cliche: “The war has come home.” Forgive the military metaphor, but this is a war — a war for the heart, mind, and soul of the American university. If American academia looks the other way as Jewish students are intimidated, then they will cease to have any kind of moral force. They will have squandered their intellectual legacy.

If the Jews lose this war, then everyone loses. Too much is as stake to let that happen.


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