Reports of anti-Semitic acts on American campuses suggest that the nation’s universities and colleges are likely today the chief institutional repository of anti-Semitism in the United States.
As one recent study notes: “A survey of U.S. Jewish college students by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law revealed that 54% of surveyed students reported experiencing or witnessing instances of anti-Semitism on campus during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year. Another survey by Brandeis University in the spring of 2015 found that three-quarters of North American Jewish college student respondents had been exposed to anti-Semitic rhetoric...”
The same study also notes that, in addition to encountering anti-Semitic rhetoric, Jewish students have been the targets of “physical assault, harassment, destruction of property, discrimination and suppression of speech.” The Brandeis University survey found that “one-third of students... reported having been harassed because they were Jewish.”
The study citing these data was conducted by the AMCHA Initiative, and AMCHA Initiative’s own findings appear in the organization’s “Report on Anti-Semitic Activity in 2015 at U.S. Colleges and Universities With the Largest Jewish Undergraduate Populations.” The AMCHA Initiative report looks more particularly at the strong correlation between the presence of anti-Israel groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on campuses, as well as anti-Israel activity such as that of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and campus anti-Semitism.
The correlation is hardly surprising, since much of SJP’s activities on campus - including the agenda of SJP guest speakers at events underwritten by colleges and universities - consists of demonizing Israel, denying Jewish history and Jews’ right to national self-determination, and advocating for anti-Israel entities such as HAMAS, which explicitly calls not only for the annihilation of Israel but for the murder of all Jews. The BDS movement likewise seeks to delegitimize and undermine Israel’s existence and grossly distorts the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and leading BDS supporters have acknowledged that the movement’s ultimate goal is the dissolution of the Jewish state.
Nor is that goal particularly hidden, nor for that matter in need of being hidden, in much of American academia. Indeed, in March, 2012, Harvard University hosted a “One State Conference” at the Kennedy School where speaker after speaker called for dismantling Israel and attacked those promoting its continued existence. According to the Harvard Crimson, the conference was organized by campus groups Justice for Palestine, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the Palestine Caucus, the Arab Caucus, the Progressive Caucus and the Alliance for Justice in the Middle East.
Why are colleges and universities tolerating an epidemic of anti-Semitic acts on their campuses, and the activities of groups that directly or indirectly promote such acts? At a time when there is so much campus sensitivity about so-called micro-aggressions and the need to render campuses safe spaces for those students who feel victimized, when even seemingly innocuous statements or actions by fellow students or faculty members can lead to punitive measures against them should someone respond by feeling aggrieved, why are the macro-aggressions against Jews on campus allowed to continue with little consequence for the perpetrators?
In fact anti-Jewish aggression is more than tolerated. Faculty members commonly use the classroom to join in the demonization of Israel and its supporters, and do so as well in visiting lectures on other campuses and in other venues. Just as the AMCHA Initiative study found a correlation between the level of BDS activity on a campus and the level of campus anti-Semitism, so too did the study find “a strong correlation between the presence and number of faculty who have expressed public support for an academic boycott of Israel and occurrence of overall anti-Semitism, as well as strong associations with each kind of anti-Semitic activity independently.” The BDS movement’s goal - however often disingenuously cloaked in claims of high-minded and benign intent - is Israel’s dissolution. The movement’s delegitimization of Jewish national self-determination and its demonization of those who support Israel is conveyed by its faculty proponents no less than by its student devotees, and so it should again come as no surprise that the former stoke campus hostility towards Jews just as the latter do.
But it is not simply individual faculty members that target Israel. Entire departments, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, do so, both via sponsoring anti-Israel activities on campus and by advocating support of BDS by their national associations.
Nearly a dozen academic associations have endorsed the academic boycotting of Israel. Resolutions to this effect were passed, for example, by the American Studies Association and the National Women’s Studies Association. One major academic group, the American Anthropological Association, will be voting on a boycott resolution this month, and another, the Middle East Studies Association, voted to have its membership consider such a resolution.
The record of Middle East studies departments is particularly noteworthy. Not only do the Hamas rulers of Gaza promote genocidal Jew-hatred but so too does the other Palestinian government, the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, in its mosques, media and schools. In addition, similar genocidal rhetoric is a fixture of media, mosques and schools throughout most of the Arab world and, largely through Arab financing and disseminating, has become a constant theme in the wider Muslim world and within Muslim communities elsewhere. One might think that the phenomenon of contemporary genocidal anti-Semitism in the Arab and broader Muslim world would be deemed worthy of some attention in Middle East studies departments; but one would be wrong. It is the exception among such departments to address the issue and, for example, an undergraduate in most universities which offer Middle East studies degrees can earn such a degree without the matter ever having been addressed in any of his or her classes.
The prevailing attitude in such departments is indicated by the fact that in the December, 2014, annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) - in the wake of the Gaza fighting the previous summer and its unleashing of even greater than usual convulsions of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Arab and broader Muslim world - of the 275 sessions listed in the meeting agenda, none addressed the issue of Jew-hatred.
MESA did offer a "special pre-program session" that indirectly touched on the matter of anti-Semitism in the Middle East. During the Gaza war - a conflict triggered by Hamas’s unleashing rocket bombardments of Israeli villages, towns and cities - one Middle East scholar, Steven Salaita, sent out numerous anti-Israel tweets, including one in which he declared that "Zionists" had "transform[ed] ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable..."
The University of Illinois subsequently withdrew the offer of an academic position to Salaita. In response to criticism of its decision, the university’s chancellor issued a statement which included:
"What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals."
But the prevailing opinion at MESA was different. That "special pre-program session" at MESA’s 2014 meeting was entitled: "The Salaita Case and New Assaults on Academic Freedom."
Too many American colleges and universities have embraced the bias of MESA rather than the principled stand of the University of Illinois’s chancellor. In much of contemporary American academia, as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, everyone is equal but some are more equal than others. Every student is entitled to safe spaces and protection against faculty micro-aggressions, but faculty attacks on Jews and Jewish students, especially attacks on Jews who support the existence and well-being of the Jewish state, are not intolerable acts of aggression but rather protected expressions of academic freedom.
And that academic freedom, when it comes to claims against Israel and its supporters, apparently extends to any defamation, distortion of reality and demonization, however bigoted or absurd.
Vassar, which has earned a reputation in a very crowded field of being among the leading campuses in the promotion of anti-Israel sentiment leavened with anti-Semitic tropes, hosted on February 3 an Israel-bashing lecture by Jasbir Puar, a Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies. According to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece entitled “Majoring in Anti-Semitism at Vassar” (Mark G. Yudof and Ken Walzer, February 17), Puar, who urged that her comments not be recorded, claimed, among other defamations, that Israel “‘mined for organs for scientific research’ from dead Palestinians - updating the medieval blood libel against Jews - and accused Israelis of attempting to give Palestinians the ‘bare minimum for survival’ as part of a medical ‘experiment.’”
Puar’s lecture was reported to have been sponsored by a number of Vassar departments, with American Studies being the lead sponsor, joined by Africana Studies, English, International Studies, Jewish Studies, Political Science, Religion and Women’s Studies.
(That a Jewish Studies department would join in promoting a lecture trafficking in anti-Israel canards and anti-Jewish memes is not particularly shocking. Throughout the history of anti-Semitism, in the context of both the Diaspora and Israel, eruptions of bigoted attacks on elements of the Jewish community - in this case the Jewish state and its supporters - have invariably been accompanied by some groups of Jews seeking to ingratiate themselves with the bigots and distance themselves from those Jews being targeted. In addition, the Jews who do so almost invariably seek to characterize their stance not as an effort to appease the haters but rather as the embrace of some higher moral, ethical calling. This pattern accounts for much of what is seen of Jewish faculty and students joining the BDS crowd, or forming anti-Israel groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace.)
In response to criticism of Puar’s speech from some quarters, a number of academics came to her defense (among them the aforementioned Steven Salaita, championed by the Middle East Studies association) and signed an open letter to Vassar’s president complaining, among other things, about what the signers characterize as - the reader may well have guessed - the “suppression of speech or academic freedom” supposedly reflected in the comments of Puar’s critics.
The Vassar/Puar lecture story is relatively unique for the attention it got - becoming the subject of a Wall Street Journal op-ed - not for its content. In fact, similar lectures and activities defaming Israel and drawing on hoary anti-Jewish tropes are a constant fixture in the landscape of contemporary American academia.
Two weeks after Puar’s lecture, Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist, founder and former director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and a former investigator for the Israeli group B’Tselem, spoke at Vassar. Eid is a vehement critic of BDS. He told a Vassar interviewer, “BDS can do huge damage to the Palestinian economy... I can see nothing good about this movement.” He also argued that most of the fault for the difficulties faced by Palestinians lay with Palestinian leaders. “Right now, I see only corruption upon corruption among our leaders.. They have built not one university, not one clinic.”
It is worth noting that no academic department or recognized student organization would sponsor Eid’s appearance, presumably because he offered something other than the preferred Israel- and Jew-bashing arguments. His talk required direct sponsorship by the college itself.
(Shortly after his appearance at Vassar, Eid was shouted down and had at least one death threat hurled at him when he attempted to present a lecture at the University of Chicago. Freedom of speech is clearly only for the select. Or perhaps those shouting him down and threatening him are to be excused because they perceived themselves as victims of a micro-aggression.)
The targeting of Jews on American campuses, as well as the defaming and targeting of the Jewish state, can be construed as in large part an element of the wider blight in contemporary American academia. Particularly in the social sciences and humanities, the objective of faculties is all too often no longer imparting to students a capacity for critical thinking - for examining competing interpretations of factual data and learning to weigh them with some objectivity - but rather indoctrinating students in “correct” thinking. Just as in contemporary journalism, disinterested, fact-based reporting has been largely replaced by advocacy journalism, so, too, advocacy teaching has come to dominate large swathes of the social sciences and humanities.
Concepts of “fact,” “factual accuracy” and “truth” are themselves denigrated and dismissed, replaced by an alternative reality of “narratives.” (It is only in such an alternative reality that, for example, the primitive falsehoods purveyed by someone like Puar can be regarded as scholarship.) And, in Napoleon Pig fashion, all narratives are equal but some are more equal than others.
It is not simply that fashionable narratives are promoted in the classroom. Students’ grades are often dependent on their satisfactorily imbibing and regurgitating the favored narratives, and those who fail to do so are punished for their recalcitrance. Faculty appointments often also depend on applicants’ fealty to the prevailing fashion. Those faculty - perhaps enjoying some protection by virtue of tenure - who are associated with disapproved narratives, or, heaven forfend, dare to defend such, are often hounded for their beliefs, while others are literally barred from campuses for harboring, and threatening to share, opinions inconsistent with campus groupthink. Sometimes the barring of holders of “incorrect” views is driven by students, but almost invariably it and similar travesties entail the connivance if not instigation of faculty and, in all cases, the acquiescence of administrators.
The concept of “safe space” in colleges and universities is, of course, hypocritical in more than one respect. It is a safety offered only to some. And it is invoked to “protect” students not only from insensitivity and hostility but from exposure to views that challenge their own prejudices, views that do not conform to those prejudices. In both respects it is a tool not of civility but of bias and censorship.
Jews, or at least segments of the Jewish community, will almost always be targeted in such environments.
Jews have by various measures been successful, especially in free societies, to an extent that is disproportionate to their small numbers. So, too, the Jewish state has been a success in myriad respects, a success again disproportionate to its size. Its survival under conditions of ceaseless, murderous hostility from most, often all, of those around it, is itself a notable success, and it has managed to achieve much more than simply survive. When the actual history, the facts, the truth behind what successes Jews and the Jewish state have enjoyed, are learned, that knowledge very often tends to defang any predilection to hostility and rather - as, for example, in the perspectives of many struggling post-colonial states, particularly in Africa but also elsewhere, vis-a-vis Israel - engenders a respect and an interest in learning from the Jewish example.
But when the history, and facts, are censored, or denigrated as a mere narrative, and a narrative not palatable to prevailing tastes, then the censors and denigrators open the way for any Jewish success, not least the success of the Jewish state, to be interpreted as unfair, as intolerably disproportionate, as inexplicable except by the impementing of nefarious means. And the defamers and haters and their fellow travelers - whether driven by a bigotry exclusively targeting Jews or by bigotry imbedded in some wider agenda, like that of currently popular, intolerant, “progressive” far Left ideology or of supremacist Islamist religious ideology - have free rein to proselytize successfully in the marketplace of “narratives” that is contemporary academia.
And the anti-Jewish assault is tolerated by administrators not least because the Jewish victims, unlike those doing the targeting, are not inclined to make death threats against the other side, or seek to disrupt campus life or issue non-negotiable demands or occupy campus buildings.
How then are those appalled by the widespread targeting of Jews and the Jewish state on American campuses to fight back against the assault and bigotry and lies? To be sure, there are on numerous campuses strong, committed, well-informed pro-Israel students who dare to challenge hostile forces both among fellow students and faculty, and their efforts very commonly bear fruit. But the burden of turning back the assault should not and cannot rest solely on them.
1) At some colleges and universities, concerned alumni have begun to cut off support, making clear their reasons for doing so and their insistence that only ending the campus assault, and addressing the sick perversions of “education” that feed it, will lead them to reconsider their stance.
2) Some groups have taken early steps towards compiling a resource for Jewish parents that evaluates American colleges and universities in terms of how hostile their campuses are to Jewish students; a resource that parents can use as they weigh with their children where they would like to spend their college years. Such a resource would, among other positives, further convey to administrators that the indulgence of anti-Jewish forces on campus will not continue to be as cost-free as it has hitherto been.
3) Many colleges and universities are, of course, state-run institutions, and virtually all, including private colleges and universities, are dependent to some degree on state support. Those concerned about campus anti-Semitism have started in recent years to enlist state legislatures to help address the issue. The regents of the University of California, who oversee ten universities in the state, voted in March to condemn anti-Semitism on campus, including “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.” While the latter statement fell short of adoption of the U.S. State Department declaration that categorically defines anti-Zionism, the denial to Jews of the right of national self-determination, as anti-Semitic, the regents’ move was a step forward. It was a step likely taken in large part because both houses of the California state legislature had voted in favor of the regents responding aggressively against anti-Semitism, including anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism, on University of California campuses.
In New York, the state legislature voted to decrease significantly funding to the City University of New York, and members of the legislature linked its doing so to the epidemic of anti-Semitic incidents, some related to Israel, some not, on CUNY campuses. (Complaints to CUNY’s chancellor cited incidents at Brooklyn College, John Jay College, the College of Staten Island, and Hunter College - where Jewish students were reportedly exposed, for example, to shouts of “Jews out of CUNY” and called “racist sons of bitches.”)
4) There have been several recent instances of Jewish faculty suing their institutions for alleged faculty and administrator involvement in supporting, and directly participating in, anti-Semitism on their respective campuses. This is clearly another potential avenue for trying to bring greater public attention to, and address, the cultivating of Jew-hatred across so much of American academia.
5) Parents and students ought to be able to seek redress, including legal redress, when students are the targets of anti-Semitism and administrations are remiss in addressing their victimization and taking punitive measures against the assailants. It is a virtual certainty, supported by myriad examples, that administrators would respond with much more energy and determination were it any other minority group subjected to such assault.
In addition, shoddy products, products that fail to live up to standards claimed by manufacturers or required by law, can, of course, be the target of legal action aimed at the recovery of costs spent on them as well as damages related to negative consequences suffered as a result of their use. The contribution of faculty to the assault on Jews on American campuses entails not simply the support given by some faculty to the exterminationist agenda of SJP and the BDS movement but also involves faulty, tendentious teaching. Teachers are entitled to their opinions - although foisting those opinions on students and grading according to students’ embrace of them is, again, indoctrination, not education - but teachers are not entitled to creating their own facts.
Despite the craze around “narratives,” and the denigrating of references to facts, the latter do exist. Even the social sciences claim to aspire to minimal standards of scholarship. A course that is advertised as offering “the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” or of “the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” and instead presents falsehoods as facts or only presents one perspective on the subject, and that one a perspective least supported by the historical record, is foisting on students a shoddy product. In some colleges and universities, not only individual courses but the curricula of entire departments are shoddy products. Students who have innocently sought an education in such courses or departments, an education that they anticipate will conform to reasonable academic standards, and instead are given a skewed and bigoted substitute, ought to be able to seek damages. Syllabi, recorded lectures, examinations can be compelling evidence of how much their college or university has failed them.
The current low state of American academics, again particularly in much of the social sciences and humanities, and the ethical failings of campus administrators, the conditions that have rendered campuses a safe space for anti-Semitism, have evolved over decades, and the pattern will not be reversed and the rot dissipated in short order. But it is the obligation of parents and others not to be daunted by the challenge but rather to take whatever measures they can to reverse the noxious patterns that have turned so much of academia into an ivory sewer.