Jewish students facing rising antisemitism on campus are sick of being harassed and intimidated
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that last year saw the single largest number of antisemitic incidents—assaults, harassment, and vandalism—in the U.S. in the almost half-century they’ve been calculating the figures. The 2021 number jumped 34% over the previous year, with incidents of violence almost tripling what we saw in 2020. More broadly, an ADL survey found that 24%—just under a quarter—of U.S. Jews experienced at least one antisemitic incident (verbal/online or a physical attack) last year—and thanks to Elon Musk, it’s only getting easier for antisemitism to spread virally.
The White House organized a Dec. 7 roundtable discussion of top Jewish leaders, led by Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, to address what he characterized as this “epidemic of hate.” Much of the worst of it—including a large portion of the violence—comes from right-wing and/or white supremacist extremists, often connected to lies and conspiracy theories about Jews and the supposed “replacement” of white Christians in America.
At the Dec. 7 gathering, Deborah Lipstadt, the Holocaust scholar and White House special envoy on antisemitism, connected the dots on a number of right-wing conspiracy theories: “Antisemitism is the death knell of democracy. The antisemite believes Jews control the government, the press, the media—and therefore democracy is an illusion.”
Right-wingers from Trump (not for the first time) to Kanye West (and he just keeps getting worse, now saying he likes Hitler and “loves Nazis”) to the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor, Doug Mastriano, to Nick Fuentes, have spewed antisemitic rhetoric in just the past few weeks alone. One wonders what sorts of bile come out when the three of them get together for dinner at Mar-a-Loser. The Republican Party as an institution has laid out the welcome mat for those who hate Jews.
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The reality is, however, that the recent spike in antisemitism comes from across the political spectrum—including wherever on that spectrum you want to place the Black Hebrew Israelite lies NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving has been spreading of late, or even, yes, Dave Chappelle’s highly problematic Saturday Night Live monologue (which has not aged well, given Ye’s continued descent into pure Nazi-dom). As recent events have demonstrated, this kind of hate also exists even in some of the most staunchly progressive places in America—namely, college campuses in the bluest parts of our country.
An ADL survey of 756 current college students conducted last fall found that “32 percent of Jewish students experienced antisemitism directed at them, and 79 percent of those students reported that it happened to them more than once during the last academic year…. In addition, 31 percent of Jewish students witnessed antisemitic activity on campus that was not directed at them.” In other words, almost two-thirds of Jewish college students were directly involved in at least one incident over the past year.
According to a survey done by Alums for Campus Fairness, 95% of current Jewish students and recent grads (out of 506 surveyed) considered antisemitism to be “a problem on their campuses,” with 75% calling it a “very serious problem.” Just under 80% had “experienced it personally”—having either been the victim or witnessed the event. This survey was cited in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, written by a bipartisan, multiracial, and multi-religious group of 39 members of the House of Representatives. The letter stated: “This wave of antisemitism has had a detrimental impact at many American colleges and universities,” and called on the OCR to take action. And action is necessary.
The federal Department of Education has opened an official investigation into antisemitic incidents at the University of Vermont. This is, to say the least, incongruous with the fact that UVM hosts one of the most extensive programs in Holocaust Studies in America, and that there is an official minor in Holocaust Studies for undergrads. Nevertheless, UVM has apparently become a hotbed of antisemitism.
A teaching assistant with responsibility for grading students tweeted the following on April 5, 2021: “is it unethical for me, a TA, to not give zionists credit for participation??? i feel its good and funny, -5 points for going on birthright in 2018, -10 points for posting a pic with a tank in the Golan heights, -2 points just cuz i hate ur vibe in general.” (Birthright Israel is a free trip to Israel for Jews that is meant to strengthen their Jewish identity and bond to the country.)
Another post included this TA reveling in the “serotonin rush of bullying Zionists on the public domain…next step is to make zionism…worthy of public condemnation.” This attitude exemplifies the ADL’s characterization of increasingly powerful elements on college campuses that aim to make rejecting Israel and/or Zionism “core elements of collegiate life or as a requirement for full acceptance in the campus community.”
In Sept. 2021, a group of apparently drunk students began hurling rocks and “items with a sticky substance” at the building that houses the UVM Hillel—the primary cultural and religious student center on campus for Jews. From the official complaint filed with the DoE: “When one student living in the dormitory portion of the building called out to the perpetrators and asked them to stop throwing things, one of the students responsible for the rock-throwing responded, ‘Are you Jewish?” This was not a random act of vandalism.
Additionally, students were excluded or expelled from UVM student groups, including one supporting sexual assault survivors, if they were perceived as Zionists. One group, a book club, changed its constitution such that new members had to publicly renounce Zionism in order to join. Whether these actions—as opposed to the obviously unacceptable vandalism or threats to discriminate in grading—qualify as antisemitism is a more complicated question, one we’ll explore below.
On the one hand, all groups, including student groups, have the right to set the criteria for membership, as long as they don’t discriminate in ways that violate the law. The complicating factor here is that there are competing definitions of what it means to be Zionist. Anti-Zionists have long sought to define the term, going back at least to the U.N. resolution passed in 1975 (thankfully repealed in 1991) that claimed, “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”
For most who call themselves Zionists, however, the term simply means believing that Jews need a country where they can absolutely count on finding refuge—in no small part because elements within the non-Jewish world have tried (and almost succeeded) to wipe them off the face of the earth. Anti-Zionists reject the idea that such a state should exist. The ADL defines Zionism as “the movement for the self-determination and statehood for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland, the land of Israel.” The Jewish people have the same right to a nation-state as any other self-defined national group that wants one.
One can identify as a Zionist, and yet offer serious, fact-based criticism of Israeli government policy—under once and apparently future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that government has done plenty to earn such disapproval—as well as support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. And let’s get another thing straight: criticizing Israel does not equate to antisemitism. Full stop. Criticism of Israel is antisemitic only when it seeks to spread hatred of Jews by employing tropes (the ADL cites, for example, “invoking dual loyalty, conspiracies of Jewish/Zionist power over a country’s policy and using classical antisemitic imagery to characterize Israelis”) steeped in bigotry, or when it judges Israel differently than all other countries. It’s absolutely possible to do the former without engaging in the latter.
Let’s return to what student clubs at UVM (and elsewhere) are doing. In two separate, recent surveys, 80% of American Jews expressed that supporting Israel’s existence is a core element of being Jewish. Thus, for most Jews, telling them that it is not enough to stand against the oppression of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, they must also oppose the idea that Israel should exist as a homeland for Jews, in order to be accepted as full members of the campus community, is tantamount to saying they must reject their Jewish identity. The members of no other group on campus in America today are being forced to make a similar choice.
The Department of Education has also launched an inquiry into recent incidents of antisemitism at the University of Southern California, the most widely known of which centered on a student, Rose Ritch, who was elected to a campus-wide student government office and then essentially forced to resign after a campaign of harassment. The report stated that “students falsely equated Ms. Ritch’s support for Israel, the Jewish homeland, with hostility towards Palestinians and thereby justified her removal from USG.”
Furthermore, according to a press release from the group that filed the complaint, The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, “Her posters were repeatedly vandalized and the campaign posters of other Jewish students running for student senate were torn down. Ritch was also bullied and harassed repeatedly on social media, and the ongoing and persistent harassment continued after she was elected.”
Another DoE investigation involves the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This one also includes vandalism, such as the Nazi swastika appearing on campus, as well as the destruction of religious objects, and pro-Israel students being insulted with the epithet “Nazi.” The report cites “an alarming increase” in antisemitic hate in recent years.
These and other incidents (most disturbingly for me personally are the ones at my alma mater, Brown, which include swastikas carved into a wall and a tree) connect to a larger trend across American college campuses, many of which target Jewish students in a way connected to criticism of Israel. The Times of Israel reviewed a number of these incidents in depth, and offered the following summary: “Jewish students across the United States report being excluded from campus organizations, targeted on social media and harassed in classes by students and professors alike. Additionally, they’ve seen dormitories and sidewalks vandalized with swastikas, and buildings plastered with flyers that equate Birthright trips to Israel with genocide and call for Zionists to ‘fuck off.’”
Listen to what Jewish students who have experienced antisemitism are saying. Ofek Preis, a senior at SUNY-New Paltz, spoke to the Times of Israel. Preis and a fellow New Paltz student, Cassandra Blotner, were expelled from a sexual assault survivors’ group after posting on social media that Jews are: “an ethnic group who come from Israel. Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from.” On the one hand, one can certainly reject the hypothetical use of this concept to support, for example, Israel expropriating land from its rightful Arab owners, but that’s not what these students did. Nor did their posts express support for violence or the oppression of Palestinians.
Nevertheless, the members of New Paltz Accountability, which Blotner had co-founded, saw the posts, and promptly kicked her and Preis out of the group. The two were never asked whether they wanted a just peace, a compromise that both sides could accept, or whether they supported the rights of Palestinians in any way. The approach taken by the student group was nothing more than to assert you’re either with us or against us. Sounds a lot like George W. Bush to me.
Group members also made public the private messages exchanged with Blotner and Preis over the revocation of their membership. Online hate flowed. Blotner faced threats of being spit on. One poster called her a “dumb bitch.”
The pain caused by these events has not faded. To the Times of Israel, Blotner lamented: “Expressing support for the Jewish homeland is core to my Jewish identity. I shouldn’t have to shed that piece of my Judaism in order to advocate for survivors of sexual assault.” Preis stated: “It’s hard to muster up the energy to just get through my day. As a sexual assault survivor it was already a struggle, but this [antisemitism] added another layer to feeling that our safety and well-being is not protected here.”
Micah Gritz, who attends Tufts University, spoke to the Times of Israel about his experience with antisemitism. He started with the fact that he no longer wears his Jewish star outside of his shirt, a practice he initiated only after he arrived at college. This is far from an ideal solution, even if it does help him avoid at least some of the bile. He described people hurling both traditionally antisemitic lies such as: “You’re Jewish, you must be rich,” or, more in the vein of the incidents described above: “So you kill Palestinian children, right?” Gritz described hearing a political science professor, in class, talk about the so-called Jewish lobby exercising control over the U.S. government. As for how he handled it, Gritz expressed: “Sometimes I’d push back, but you can become exhausted and burnt out fighting for your identity. Sometimes you just need to prioritize your mental health.”
Avi Zatz attended UVM, but left and transferred to the University of Florida, which has the largest population of Jewish students of all public universities in the nation—and which recently had its own very public incident of antisemitism. Talking to Jewish Insider, he spoke about why he transferred: “It would be hard to find a Jewish person at UVM, who is identifiably Jewish, who hasn’t experienced something [of antisemitic nature]. Things like if you run into the wrong person, they’ll call you a baby killer or something for being Jewish, if you’re wearing a Jewish star or something. It’s just like an everyday culture [where] you have to hide that you’re Jewish or hide the extent to which you’re Jewish in order to be a normal successful student.”
Alyza Lewin, president of the Brandeis Center, noted: “people need to realize that antisemitism is incredibly painful for these students. This is not what college is supposed to be.” Furthermore, she explained, “Denying [antisemitism] or downplaying it only compounds the anxiety students are feeling. It makes them think maybe it’s not real, or maybe they should hide who they are, which is not an acceptable reality.”
Let’s be clear. This issue isn’t about free speech for those who wish to advocate for the Palestinian cause and/or criticize the Israeli government—something any college student or any American has an absolute right to do. Although it is a reasonable question to ask why some student groups organized around issues such as sexual assault—or even around reading books—treat Jewish students one way because of Israeli policy, and yet don’t treat, for example, students of Chinese descent in a similar way, given the government of China’s horrific treatment of Uyghurs. Or those of Russian descent for that matter, whose government has not only invaded a neighbor but is massacring its civilians. Those students aren’t required to renounce any country’s right to exist in order to join a book club.
College is a time for people to be educated and encourage dialogue about all kinds of new ideas, to learn from one another about what kinds of ideas or tropes may be problematic because of where they originated or how they’ve been twisted by those spreading hate. That’s not happening if Jewish students are being ostracized or abused for expressing their identity as Jews.
And right now, on American college campuses, large numbers of them are telling us that they don’t feel safe expressing their Jewish identity. Those of us fighting back against antisemitism are not suggesting students or anyone should be free from accountability if they express support for hatred, violence, or oppression.
What we are asking for is for Jews to be free from harassment—online and in the physical world—discrimination and intimidation simply because of their identity. In other words, people just want the ability to be unapologetically Jewish on campus. Is that really so much to ask?
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Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)
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