The campus of University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., showing Sather Tower in addition to a number of other academic buildings.

Is anti-Semitism really increasing on US college campuses? (COMMENTARY)

The campus of University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., showing Sather Tower in addition to a number of other academic buildings.

The campus of the University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., showing Sather Tower in addition to a number of other academic buildings.

(RNS) Is anti-Semitism rising on U.S. college campuses?

According to most statistics, yes -- but the phenomenon is far more complicated than it first appears, primarily because everyone oversimplifies it.

The data, and the anecdotes, are shocking. In a study conducted in spring 2014 (notably, before the Israel/Gaza conflagrations of last summer), 54 percent of Jewish students said they had personally witnessed or experienced an anti-Semitic incident. And in just the last two months, swastikas have been painted on walls at the University of California's Berkeley and Davis campuses and at New York’s John Jay College.

But what do these incidents mean? There is a great reluctance even to engage with the question.

Among liberals, even though it is obvious that many of these incidents are motivated in part by Israel/Palestine politics, no one wants to give hatred a pass. A swastika is a swastika, graffiti is graffiti, and collective guilt -- in this case, blaming all Jews for specific actions of Israel -- is always wrong.

Conservatives, meanwhile, routinely conflate anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speech. The far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center, for example, recently released its list of the American college campuses with the “worst anti-Semitic activity.” But many of those activities were protests of Israel. Extreme, perhaps, and unfair; but not really the same as anti-Semitism.

The fact is, the borders of anti-Semitism are permeable. Human speech does not divide neatly into “hate speech” and “political speech.” Thus, if we are to avoid the over-generalizations, we must be more rigorous in our definitions of the phenomenon or we risk diluting the evil of anti-Semitism itself.

In fact, a swastika is not just a swastika. Consider an anti-Israel protest that depicts an Israeli flag with a swastika on it. Offensive, to be sure. But what is it saying? It's saying that Nazis are bad, and that the Israeli government is Nazi-like.

Now consider an anti-Semitic incident in which someone sprays a swastika on a synagogue door. Also grossly offensive, to say the least. But it is saying something very different. It is saying that Nazis are good, and we should finish the work they started.

The same symbol thus has two nearly opposite meanings.

Of course, vandals and thugs are not careful semioticians. Anti-Israel sentiment all too easily slides into anti-Semitism, and that’s the point. The dual meaning of the swastika is surely not lost on those who make use of it; they know it is a way to hit Jews in the gut. By way of analogy, one may depict African-American politicians or celebrities in many ways, but not by using imagery of animals or apes; that crosses the line into racism, regardless of its supposed motivation.

It’s also true that when someone punches a Jewish student in the face (as a Students for Justice in Palestine activist did recently), it’s an act of hate -- and the exact source doesn’t matter much to the kid whose nose is broken. Even if the Israel/Palestine conflict is causally responsible in some way, the thug is morally and legally responsible -- as are activists who are irresponsible with their reasoning and rhetoric.

At the same time, this is not, as one politician put it recently, “anti-Israel feelings serv(ing) as a shield for anti-Semitism.” It’s not as though, secretly, the activist has long hated Jews but now finds an expedient way to express it. The opposite is likely true. Most likely, she has soaked in extreme anti-Israel propaganda, which outrageously depicts Israelis as not just unjust, or responsible for an unjust occupation, but bloodthirsty, callous, animalistic and greedy.

The hate did not garb itself in politics. The politics garbed itself in hate. Still wrong, still contemptible -- but different.

Or take the accusation of dual loyalty, which for Jews again harks back to Nazi propaganda, not to mention the Dreyfus Affair and centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. At UCLA recently, a student government board asked a Jewish candidate if her Jewishness could lead to bias and conflicts of interest. The condemnation was swift.

But this particular student is active in Hillel, the national Jewish student organization, which bans any speech or organization -- including at co-sponsored programs -- that supports the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement. Hillel's national president recently pulled out of the conference of J Street, a Zionist organization deemed not pro-Israel enough by his donors. Hillel routinely tells only one side of the story and promotes trips to Israel, which do the same.

Is it not appropriate to ask about conflicts of interest if a student is both working with student government and with a student organization that bans certain groups?

Once again, however, the boundaries were blurred. The student government board didn’t ask about her Jewish organizational activities; it asked about her Jewish identity. This crossed the line, because it made her suspect for who she is -- even if she might actually be suspect because of what she does.

On the other hand, let’s recall that just a few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu purported to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish people when he “warned” Congress on Iran. Of course, many Jews (myself included) protested that he does not speak in our name. Is it wrong for a thug, protester or naïve student government officer to draw the same conclusion as the prime minister of Israel?

And what about Islamophobia? Many of the same people complaining of anti-Semitism say things like “force is all the Arabs understand” or, in the words of Pamela Geller, that this is a battle between “civilized man and barbarian.” It may be accurate to call ISIS barbarians, but all Arabs? All Muslims? All Palestinians?

The factors that differentiate anti-Semitic from anti-Israel speech are subtle. Are symbols or themes from anti-Semitic history being used, even if only subconsciously? Are Jews (or Israelis) depicted as evil, monstrous or less than human? Is collective guilt assumed based on identity? And finally, is the intent to terrorize, wound or harm?

To be sure, some of these factors are present in anti-Israel rhetoric; many of them are absent in expressions of anti-Semitism. But that doesn’t mean that making such distinctions is invalid. It means the phenomenon is complicated -- and that oversimplification makes it worse.

(Jay Michaelson holds a doctorate in Jewish thought from Hebrew University, a J.D. from Yale Law School and nondenominational rabbinic ordination.)




  1. Leave it to an editor from the Backward to suggest that involvement in Hillel should disqualify you from student government. But only if they don’t mention that you’re Jewish.. All this article does is repeat what’s already been repeated ad nauseum: criticism of Israel does not equal anti-Semitism, but too often recently it’s bled into the latter. Unfortunately this article subtly blames Israel for this phenomenon, rationalizing that because Netanyahu (whom I have no love for) claimed to speak for all Jews, all Jews are responsible for his government’s actions. Remind you of anything? #nostraaetate

  2. What is the point of this thumbsucking? To inhibit someone you dislike from capturing your rhetorical / terminological flag?

    Israel does not have many ‘critics’ outside of Israel itself. Israel has enemies.

    Everyone has their niche causes, but when masses of people (and governments in diplomatic fora) have the same niche cause, you’re likely smelling manure. The conflict between Jew and Arab in Israel and adjacent territories has some unusual features, but the quality of treatment the Arab populations receive would not ordinarily attract much attention even if their problems were not self-inflicted. There are many other more poignant situations the world over, situations not made intractable by the political dispositions of the ‘injured’ party.

    That aside, when the ‘solution’ to these conflicts bruited about amounts to the liquidation of an extant political society, you have to ask whether it matters a rat’s ass whether you brand such sentiment…

  3. Many of the same people complaining of anti-Semitism say things like “force is all the Arabs understand” or, in the words of Pamela Geller, that this is a battle between “civilized man and barbarian.”

    Has anyone uttering either judgment ever suggested an extant political society in the Arab world should be liquidated by dismantling its institutions and allowing its enemies unlimited immigration into its territories?

  4. This is particularly relevant, given today’s opinion piece by David Brooks in the NYT, where he makes exactly the mistakes that Dr. Michaelson cites: Conflating criticism of Israel on US campuses with anti-Semitism.

    (And I must add for clarity: Brooks also cites very clear examples of anti-Semitism from the Middle East and Europe.)

  5. I find the contrasting examples about uses of the swastika especially interesting. It’s worth noting that various kinds of Nazi images have been slapped on Israeli politicians–by other Israeli politicians!

  6. Right. Viewing Jews as (and I quote) “bloodthirsty, callous, animalistic and greedy” isn’t antisemitic if we are careful to say “Israelis” instead of “Jews.” Of course.

    You graciously allow that it might count as “extreme anti-Israel” rhetoric, but surely not as antisemitism, even if “bloodthirsty, callous, animalistic and greedy” is exactly how antisemites have portrayed Jews since antiquity. The magic word “Israelis” just wipes that history away. Of course.

    Personally, I think these Anti-Colonialist, Social Justice Freedom Fighters should go one step further and just say “the Juice” instead of “Israelis.” Like, “Oh, the Juice are at it again, drinking the blood of Arab children in their vile rituals. Does evil never rest?” That way nobody can cynically try to link their perfectly sweet, innocent and rational criticism of Israeli policies with corny old anti-Semitism to begin with. “What, me? I said the Juice. J-U-I-C-E. You know, with the hook…

  7. …noses and the circumcisions. Juice, not Jews. Juice.”

    Say, what’s with RNS cutting off comments with an elipsis before the allotted 1000 character limit? An “Israeli” plot, no doubt.

  8. The writer fails to cite Natan Sharanky’s “3 Ds” piece of a decade ago, in which he attempted to show when criticisms of Israel should be viewed as anti-Semitism. The three are: double standards, demonizing, and delegitimizing.

    While the 3 Ds are not perfect (what is?), it’s pretty silly (and wheel-reinventing) to raise the subject without reference to them.

  9. The bottom line is that when Jews who wear Jewish garb such as yarmulkas risk being assaulted when filing past pro-Palestinian gatherings of far-left or radical Islamist groups on campus, that’s anti-Semitism.

    Moreover, the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism becomes even less neat and tidy when you realize that Jewish identity historically has been about nationhood or peoplehood as much as religion. To the extent that Zionism means the belief that the Jews have a right to establish sovereignty in at least a portion of their ancestral homeland, anti-Zionism means de facto opposition to Jewish nationhood.

  10. Implying that Hillel, the Jewish students’ association, is somehow right-wing is pretty surreal.

    And to split hairs over the difference between swastikas painted on Israeli flags vs. on synagogue doors is pretty lame. In fact, the second is doubly offensive, because it is saying that the lone Jewish state in the world, formed from the ashes of the Nazi Holocaust, is itself Nazi.

  11. Pan, obviously, I agree….and Natan Sharansky’s 3Ds are helpful here….particularly the “d” of demonization.

  12. The anti-Israel people on campus typically use the same words of demonization against Israel that historically have been used against Jews.

    They hold Israel to an impossible double standard compared to other nations.

    And they use arguments whose avowed purpose is to question the very existence of the state of Israel.

    Three strikes and you’re out……it’s clearly anti-Semitism.

  13. They say they’re not anti-Italian….just anti-Italy.

    They oppose the right of any Italians to sovereignty over even a single square inch of Italy.

    They deploy every hateful anti-Italian stereotype in their arguments.

    And they hold Italy to standards to which no other nation is held.

    But they’re not anti-Italian…..of course not…..

  14. David Horowitz can be very abrasive indeed, and is extremely conservative, but is he “far right?”

    Is he David Duke…..part of the militia people…..the head of a white supremacy group?

    This is the boy-who-cried wolf problem. If you label everyone you hate as far right, what do you call someone who truly is far right — like Duke? Far far right? Far far far right?

  15. Those who excuse antisemitism, as this disgusting author does, is morally reprehensible. Shame on Mr. Michaelson, who warped opinions are an elixir that allows antisemitism to flourish.

  16. the author may have a lot of interesting degrees, but in the end he is a self hating Jew who wants more to be loved by his liberal intellectual friends than to stand with his people.

  17. but is he “far right?”

    No, he’s a common and garden Republican, secular in his outlook. He’s not vocally antagonistic to social conservatives, but he does not subscribe to their program. He’s a militant re educational policy and foreign policy and not much invested in other issues.

  18. “It’s also true that when someone punches a Jewish student in the face (as a Students for Justice in Palestine activist did recently), it’s an act of hate”

    –This incident should be clarified. Anti-semitic slurs were used which makes it a racist or “Hate” attack, at least in part. If I get into an argument with a Jewish person over Palestine and I punch him, the fact that he is Jewish alone does not make my action racist or an act of “Hate”. It *could* be racist however as I said the punch alone would not make it so.

  19. Duke would probably be a far right extremist. Horowitz is definitely far right. Much of “the right” would be embarrassed by his views.

  20. He’s probably a “post-Zionist,” which is short-hand in Israel for a person who can’t reconcile his socialist universalism with Jewish particularism…..or for that matter, particularism of any kind.

    These folks are like what someone once said about Rousseau — they love humanity but not real people.

    They love “the masses,” but not real families, communities, or nations.

  21. That’s the sense I get, too. Not a far right guy by any means.

  22. I assume if you were present in 1948 and told to leave your home, your things, and your village, or be removed, you would of course throw up your hands and say, “Well, we can’t complain, what are we–anti-Semites!? No, let us leave the home of our fathers and fathers’ fathers, and go on our way.”

    And really, I mean how dare Sitting Bull fight against Custer! What a racist!

  23. Pan sounds eminently sensible and rational when we get him away from cultural issues. Get the booze away from the booze hound and sanity returns.

  24. “Christian,” there are numerous accounts that refute your recitation of the tired old anti-Israel propaganda line about what happened in 1948. But the greatest refutation are the many hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs directly descended from the many Arabs who did not flee in 1948. If the Jews made a calculated decision to drive the Arabs from their midst, they did a very poor job of following through.

  25. You’re a political sectary and you fancy you’re normal. You are not, and David Horowitz is not a controversial figure in any strand of conventional starboard literature.

  26. For the most part, that did not happen. The Arabs lost a war in 1948 and 1949 that they sought out. Masses of Arabs left to clear the decks for an anticipated invasion and some were ejected by the Haganah in the course of military operations.

    Actually, the Arab refugee problem was modest in comparison with population movements in Europe at the time, but we are not bedeviled by Silesian Germans as we speak because the Silesian Germans found a place in their host loci and got on with their lives, as did Greek Cypriots after 1974, as did Balkan Vachs after 1920, as did Sephardic and Oriental Jews after 1948.

  27. Yahweh will soon make all matters right through his Kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44), by the millennial rule of his son, Yeshua (Isaiah 11:1-9), in the near future, and every nation on earth will receive its grand blessings (Revelation 21:1-4), including worldwide peace and brotherhood of man, as promised to Abraham and his descendants.

  28. There will be no more prejudice, hate or war on the entire planet to gain exclusive control of land until the end of time, and all man’s governments will no longer rule over all the masses, to their detriment, as they most assuredly do today.

  29. I hate anti-semitism. The only defense of it comes from religion. So I have to hate religion for perpetuating it.

    There is no secular reason to hate jews. And this is one of the benefits of being Atheist. Jews are just like the rest of us once you realize that we are all the same species; homo sapiens, meaning ‘wise man.’

    Alas. If only we could act like it by sticking with the Atheism we were all born with.

  30. Netanyahu has repeatedly stated he will not recognize the statehood of a region of Arab peoples, and has supported Israel’s “right” to unrestrained immigration into that region. And those are rather common political views to hold for his whole political party. Seems to fit precisely what you asked, though.

  31. Atheist Max, you are deluded if you think anti-Semitism comes only from religion.

  32. (1) Jewishness is defined by religion and/or nationhood.

    (2) Its religious expression is Judaism and its national expression is Zionism.

    (3) Stephen despises both Judaism and Zionism.

    (4) Stephen hates both expressions of Jewishness, but, of course, Stephen doesn’t hate Jews……Of course not…He just hates everything they’re about, that’s all.

  33. Jack,

    What is the non-religious argument for anti-semitism?

    Atheists have no reason to hate anyone over matters religion. We don’t believe any gods – there are no ‘chosen’ people. There are no ‘holy’ people. And there are no ‘infidels’.

  34. @Jack,

    “(1) Jewishness is defined by religion and/or nationhood.”

    “Jewishness” is not the question.
    A Jewish person believes in Yahweh as his God. There is no secular argument for hating such a person for a belief in Yahweh.

    “(2) Its religious expression is Judaism and its national expression is Zionism.”

    “Zionism” is not the question either! Not all Jews are Zionists.
    A Jewish person believes in Yahweh – as long as belief is his identity there is no secular reason whatsoever to hate a Jewish person.

    Only religion commands hatred of Jews for their beliefs.
    Only religion commands hatred of Christians for their beliefs.
    Only religion commands hatred of Muslims for their beliefs.
    Only religion commands death for beliefs.

    Atheism & Agnosticism command NO HATRED or death for a person’s belief.
    ONLY religion commands hatred for believers – and that is why it is fundamentally wicked, barbaric and inhuman.

  35. You’ve got to be kidding, Max.

    Hitler and his Nazis slaughtered 6 million Jews based on race and descent alone. Jews who were atheists were just as endangered as Jews who were theists.

  36. Max, I was addressing Stephen, not you. I just answered you in a separate post.

  37. @Jack,

    Hitler the Christian Fascist !?
    You have GOT to be kidding!
    Hitler was motivated by his deep Christian roots – 100% religion!

    “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! In boundless love as a Christian …How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison…
    “I recognize more profoundly than ever before.. it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. OUR Lord Jesus is A Soldier for God.
    “As a Christian I have no duty to allow my self to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice…For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people.”
    -Adolf Hitler, in a speech on 12 April 1922

    Hitler’s first peace treaty was the Vatican Koncordat in 1933…Hitler chose the bishop for Germany!

    Good grief!

  38. Stephen, you’re not a Jew. Your mother wasn’t Jewish nor was your father, and you were not raised as a Jew, but like many wannabes, you pounce on the slightest sign or clue that somewhere in the past, there was someone on either side of the family who was a Jew. Probably you were told that a million times by rabbis and others in the Jewish community and now you’re taking it out on the Jewish people, especially rabbis. Couple that with your hard-left, Berkeley-like hatred of Zionism and the result is a witch’s brew of medieval anti-Zionism and modern anti-Zionism.

    You are just another Jew-hater, that’s all.

    And as to the subject matter, yes, anti-Semitism is on the rise on college campuses, and the very views you’re peddling here are being vocalized on campus. You are part of the problem, not the solution. There are too many Stephen Lewises on campus, stirring up hate.

  39. Sorry, I obviously meant medieval anti-Semitism….not medieval anti-Zionism. But the point still stands, Stephen. Although you haven’t been in college for a half century, your posts strongly reflect the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism being directed at Jewish students on too many campuses across the nation.

  40. Max, think……Given that the Nazis didn’t care what religion Jews practiced or didn’t practice, but simply hated them as a people group and wanted all of them dead because of it, then obviously, the Nazis’ motive for hatred must have transcended traditional Christendom’s anti-Semitism, even as it used that anti-Semitism to whip up hatred against the Jewish people.

  41. So according to Stephen Lewis, Israel is a “monster,” the Jews of Israel are guilty of “racism and genocide,” American media is run by “Jewish communities,” and Zionism equals “terrorism.”

    But Stephen will have you know that he is not an anti-Semite.

    Right, and I am the Prince of Wales…..

  42. @Jack,

    “Gott Mit Uns” was emblazoned on every Nazi belt buckle. It means “God on our side.”

    Christianity – the belief that God supported the killing of Jews – is how Germans lived with themselves! It is how MILLIONS rationalized and justified their actions as they willfully slaughtered the ‘Christ killing jews who ate christian children.’

    HITLER was the greatest Christian of all time – by Jesus’ own standards.
    No better example of the parable of the Minas ever lived:

    “Bring to me those who would not have me as their King and execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    The Nazis were just following orders. As any good Christian would tell you – following Jesus is the only thing that matters.

  43. Max, you are only showing your ignorance of Nazis and the Holocaust.

    If the Nazis were driven simply by traditional Euro-Christendom’s anti-Semitism, why did they hunt down anyone with Jewish blood, even Christians who had not a single hint of any interest in anything remotely Jewish?

    I realize you’re not exactly a font of general knowledge, but I shouldn’t have to instruct you on such basics that everyone should know by now.

  44. And of course, Max believes Hitler was a truth-teller and could be relied upon at all times to give an honest accounting of his own thoughts and beliefs…..

    If you have such an admiration of the monster as to believe his every word, then maybe the ADL should keep a watchful eye on your activities, Max.

    But even based on that standard, it’s obvious from the quotes Max posted that Hitler did not believe even the basic doctrines of Christianity. He transforms Jesus into an Aryan warrior against the Jews, rather than a Jew who died under Pilate (as the Apostles Creed states), replaces the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace with the Nazi doctrine of salvation by race, and, as history shows, sought to create his own “Reich” churches which smuggled in Marcion’s old 2nd century heresy by ripping the Old Testament out of the Bible.

    If Hitler did or said any of that during the Middle Ages, he’d have been put on trial for heresy and possibly been burned at the stake.

  45. Jack,

    “it’s obvious from the quotes Max posted that Hitler did not believe even the basic doctrines of Christianity.”



    Religion is a complete FREE FOR ALL! ANYTHING GOES!

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine and Execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    Hitler was Christian – He followed Jesus! He was blessed by the freakin’ POPE FOR GOODNESS SAKE!
    He was never even ex-communicated by the CATHOLIC CHURCH!!


    Religion is fundamentally immoral! It is a parlor trick!
    Shame on you for defending Hitler. Good grief!

  46. Max, you were mistaken. Own up to it and move on to the next topic.


  47. JACK,

    If you say Hitler lied about his Christianity, why do you keep bringing Hitler into every conversation? He is not only evidence of why Christians are delusional – he is evidence that Christianity is a tool to delude others.

  48. Nice try, Max, but I brought up Hitler to refute your erroneous claim that all anti-Semitism is motivated by religion. This is nonsensical when it comes to Hitler, because he targeted anyone of Jewish descent, irrespective of religion. He saw Jews as a race that needed to be exterminated…..and thus he went after anyone of Jewish descent, from observant Jews to atheists to Christians.

    There was no way out for anyone of Jewish descent……there was no religious change of any kind that a Jew could make to appease Hitler.

    Therefore, Hitler’s anti-Semitism was an example of anti-Semitism which had no relation to religion, either on the part of the persecuted or the persecutor.

    So grow up, be a man, admit you’re wrong, and move on to something more productive.

  49. Jack,

    “Move on”

    There is no secular argument Anti-Semitism.
    If one has no religion there is no “wrong” religion.

    Furthermore, Hitler hunted down blood lines because Christianity and paganism teaches that blood carries sin.
    Not only must one be religious to hate Jews, one must be religious to be motivated to kill them.

    Move on, your own self.

  50. Wrong, Max. Racial anti-Semitism of the Hitlerian kind targets races, not religions, for extermination. It has absolutely nothing to do with religion. It’s based on pseudo-scientific ideology that says that “unfit” races should be exterminated.

  51. “The hate did not garb itself in politics. The politics garbed itself in hate. Still wrong, still contemptible — but different.”

    Ah, yes … this is a serious bone to pick.

    Thanks for the article, Jay.


  52. Just as in the 2nd Century B.C., so now, so always. There will always be Antiochian Jews; apologists for those who would oppress them and sometimes even joining in. Trying to put their foreskins back on in order to be accepted by the alien, these diaspora Jews never learn from their own history. That is, no matter how much they try to be Hellenists, or Spaniards or Germans, their adversaries will never let them. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is only the latest excuse in a history of excuses for something that seems written into very DNA of humanity.

    I am no apologist for Israel or even a gentile Christian Zionist. And I certainly hold no doctorate from a Hebrew Univ, Yale or rabbinical school. But perhaps, that gives me an advantage; in the ability to see clearly what is at the end of my nose.

  53. In today’s subjectivist social construct of realities, you are the Prince of Wales.

    I think I am; therefore, I am.
    — Descartes (re-incarnated)

Leave a Comment