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Anti-Semitism on Campus: An Introduction & Overview

The university has traditionally served as an enclave for intellectual expression, insulated from the distractions of the world outside. It has also served as a trendsetter for that outside society, a laboratory where social change first begins to ferment and find an outlet. To a large extent, the excitement and passion on American campuses stem from the combination of scholarly debate and student activism in a sheltered environment.

In recent decades, Jews have generally found the American campus to be a positive environment. Gone are the days of quotas limiting the number of Jewish students at our nation's top colleges and universities. It is now common to find flourishing Jewish life on many campuses, anchored by vibrant Hillel programs and increasingly popular Jewish Studies Departments. Jewish faculty have thrived at many of the nation's top institutions, both as teachers and administrators.

Institutionalized discrimination against Jews is a thing of the past. Jewish students and faculty are found in great numbers at elite universities which once resisted their presence. A majority of Ivy League universities and many others now have or have had Jewish presidents. There are few if any positions in American higher education that are not open to Jewish talent. Therefore, it is paradoxical that the American college and university campus recently emerged as one of the major sites for the expression and dissemination of anti-Semitism.

At hundreds of institutions of higher learning, the concepts of academic freedom and student activism (which have been part of the Jewish success story on campus) have been invoked to shield hatred. No longer the ivory towers they were once considered, colleges and universities are proving all too porous to the prejudices emerging in our society. In recent years, campuses have become a new proving ground for the tactics of all manner of extremists, forcing some colleges and universities onto the frontline in the fight against extremism and anti-Semitism.

The Nation of Islam, or far-right extremists denying the existence of the Holocaust, for example, may not have had their geneses at universities, but their speakers and advertisements have found fertile ground there. As students form their sense of self at college and seek a niche in the world, some are especially vulnerable to hatemongers who either stir their developing political passions or couch bigotry in academic terms designed to appeal to their intellectual curiosity. Controversial speech is often welcomed at universities more than in other venues; students see their campuses as havens of free expression, with the right to speak near sacred.

Racists and demagogues have ably exploited schools' commitment to free speech, cloaking their propaganda in the guise of academic freedom. They have two objectives: hooking the country's future leaders on the ideas they preach, and generating mainstream media coverage through the controversy that inevitably erupts over particularly incendiary events.

Among America's students are many who grew up with little or no contact with Jews and who have a limited personal background to fall back upon when professional anti-Semites come to campus. For instance, young adults with little knowledge of the Holocaust might cast an uncritical look at a campus newspaper advertisement or scholarly-looking text claiming to prove that the murder of six million Jews is a historical hoax.

All too eager to prove their commitment to a free exchange of ideas, many students-and sadly, school administrators as well-in their idealism and naivete, fail to distinguish adequately between debate that enriches and elevates the mind and speech that lowers the level of discourse to name-calling and lies. Many tend to treat all opinions and statements of fact as meriting equal consideration. This mind-set is often encouraged by the current academic vogue of deconstruction and post-modernism, which emphasize relativism and the social construction of "truth." The resulting intellectual atmosphere has provided fertile ground for the airing of conspiracy theories, newly invented mythologies and, in some instances, anti-Semitic propositions.

Another factor that has allowed anti-Semitic arguments to proliferate on campuses is the notion that the First Amendment requires their airing. But the Constitution does not oblige universities to host everyone who wants to speak or write there, nor does it require campus newspaper editors to publish every item submitted to them. Campus leaders and journalists have the job of responsibly drawing a line between valid, fact-based opinions and outright bigotry. Moreover, free speech is a two-way street. Students and school administrators have the right and responsibility to condemn and counter hatred. Their failure to do so not only contributes to the spread of hate-filled rhetoric, but causes victimized students to feel defensive, angry and isolated.

Instead of remaining a place where ideas and backgrounds mix harmoniously, or at least contend civilly, many campuses are becoming polarized along ethnic lines and riven by suspicions. The symptoms range from acts of vandalism to hate-filled rallies to ethnic stereotypes that are tolerated in student publications.

While a growing number of university presidents have responded strongly to the importation of bigotry to their campus, many others, regrettably, have not used their platforms to forcefully counter the hatemonger. Some college presidents have issued anemic and generic responses to naked anti-Semitism, using the shield of free expression as an excuse not to condemn extremism at their schools. Responses are often delayed, and then come only as a reaction to pressure from students, alumni, faculty and the surrounding community. Some college heads seem to believe that a response from the president will only fan the flames and keep an unwelcome incident in the public eye.

But just as student groups may exercise their right of free speech by sponsoring a controversial speaker or printing an incendiary opinion, university administrators may exercise their right of free speech by publicly criticizing both the message and the messenger. Criticism is not censorship. The fact that prejudice sometimes comes from a disadvantaged minority group does not give university heads carte blanche to ignore it. Most presidents would presumably want to uphold and elevate the level of debate on their campuses, not protect the racists who would turn the schools into battlefields of name-calling. Leaders must not abdicate their obligation to lead.

Administrators also do a disservice to their students when they hesitate to criticize students spoken or printed words that eschew the standards of accountability and accuracy applied in most American workplaces. Instead of preparing them for the professional world, where one's work is usually subject to scrutiny and corrective review, these school officials allow students to think that their actions will never have consequences or ramifications beyond the walls of academia.

The hesitancy on the part of certain school heads in responding to anti-Semitism only seems that much more glaring when compared to the positive, timely statements made by some of their peers. University presidents who unequivocally and immediately condemn expressions of bigotry on their campuses send a clear message to students about the line that separates academic freedom from racism.

In recent years the most problematic schools have been in the University of California system. To read the full Brandeis University Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies: Anti-Semitism and the College Campus report, released in July 2015, please click here.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a report detailing the state of anti-Semitic sentiment on college campuses during the 2014-2015 academic year, in November 2015. The report noted that the most active group on campuses nationwide and the primary sponsor of anti-Israel activities is the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) are also heavily active on campuses. During 2014 the ADL tracked over 530 anti-Israel events on campuses in the United States, a 30% increase over the previous year. Divestment resolutions were proposed at 19 campuses, representing a 21% increase from the 15 divestment resolutions proposed in 2013. During the fall 2015 academic season, university departments sponsored or co-sponsored at least 15 anti-Israel events. To read the ADL report, titled, “Anti-Israel Activity on Campus, 2014-2015: Trends and Projections,” please click here.

In an online survey conducted by the AMCHA Initiative, Jewish students enrolled the University of California system were questioned about the amount of anti-Semitism they experienced on their respective college campuses. The response was overwhelmingly negative, with 70% reporting that they had experienced anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Semitic graffiti, name-calling, heckling, threats, and physical assaults. Moreover, 60% of respondents said that in their opinion BDS activities promote hostile actions towards Jewish students.

The ADL reported an alarming increase in the presence of white supremacist propaganda and groups on college campuses during the 2017 academic year.  From September 1 to December 31, 2017 (Fall Semester at most schools), there were 147 cases of white supremacist propaganda reported on campuses nationwide including fliers, stickers, banners, and posters.  During Fall Semester of 2016, there were only 41 such incidents reported.  Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL, observed in February 2018 that White supremacists are targeting college campuses like never before.  

Source: Schooled in Hate: Anti-Semitism On Campus, ADL, 1997. Copyright Anti-Defamation League (ADL). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission;
Terry, Erica. “Report shows increase in anti-Israel activity on U.S. college campuses,” ADL (November 18, 2015);
Rossman-Bejnamin, Tammi. “A staggering 70% of Jewish students experienced anti-Semitism at UC,” Times of Israel, (November 17, 2015);
ADL Finds Alarming Increase in White Supremacist Propaganda on College Campuses Across U.S., ADL, (February 1, 2018).