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Campus anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish problem

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

Ah, college memories!

I attended a university with many Jewish students. One year during Hanukkah, the Jewish students’ organization sponsored a menorah-lighting, which ended with a group of us dancing the hora around the menorah.

A few evenings after that, 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?" Echoes of the accusations of the Jews burning down the Reichstag in Germany, 1933.

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

Anti-Semitism has become politically correct -- even chic.

Just in the last few weeks...

  • At UCLA, members of the Undergraduate Student Association argued that Rachel Beyda shouldn’t be appointed a justice to the Judicial Board of the Undergraduate Students Association Council. Most people agreed that she was eminently qualified. But, she is Jewish, and several of her fellow students made vague references to this being a "conflict of interest, because of her involvement in the Jewish community."The reason why this should be a conflict of interest? Totally unclear and unstated. Ultimately, Rachel's candidacy was approved, but the whole incident was, to say the least, unsettling.

"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 and advocate terrorism against Israel. The hate takes the form of BDS, anti-Israel rallies, verbal attacks, vandalism, and even physical threats. This movie makes the threat real and palpable.

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, and she has spent much time in the Jewish state. As the story unfolds, Judith comes to understand that 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 wakeup call.

How do we begin to fix this situation?

  •  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?
  • Student governments can condemn anti-Semitism. That’s what UC-Berkeley just did.
  • Remind people that anti-Semitism is as unacceptable as racism, heterosexism, sexism, lookism, classism, etc.  In the current taxonomy of "isms," the hatred of Jews winds up on the bottom -- and it is even justified in the name of protesting Israeli actions. Anti-Semitism should be named and exposed.
  • Bring thought leaders and faculty members to Israel, in order to expose them to realities on the ground.
  • Work with the Anti-Defamation League to make sure that campus anti-Semitism is on its agenda. Make sure that local ADL directors and staff members have relationships with campus leaders.
  • Jewish educational institutions – day schools, religious schools, youth groups, summer camps -- need to educate young Jews so that they can understand and fight back against anti-Semitism. Make this an educational priority. Tell Jewish parents: the only way that 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.
  • Continue to strengthen Hillel. Jewish students need to know that Hillel, and other Jewish student organizations, is where they will find community, spirituality, Jewish content – 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 cliché: “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 entire intellectual legacy.

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