Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.
In September, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reached a settlement with New York University for the school’s apparent discrimination against its Jewish students, based on a student’s complaint that “the university discriminated against students of Jewish descent, on the basis of their national origin, by failing to respond appropriately to incidents that created a hostile environment for Jewish students at the university.”
When President Trump signed a 2019 executive order that instructed government agencies to be guided by “the non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism adopted on May 6, 2016, by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA),” it empowered the Education Department to use Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to withhold funding from any schools that allow discrimination on campuses based on “race, color, or national origin.” And Trump’s executive order expanded the language of Title VI so that Jews, recognized as having a distinct national origin or ethnicity, now enjoy protection as a group.
The IHRA definition, which includes “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” is also critical to Title VI enforcement because it includes the notion that denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their historic homeland, Israel—in other words, anti-Zionism—manifests itself as a contemporary form of anti-Semitism. On campuses where anti-Israel activists regularly excoriate the Jewish state, deem it illegal, wish for its destruction, malign its supporters and slander them as Zionists, racists, and perpetrators of an apartheid regime in the name of Zionism, it is obvious that campus anti-Semites have frequently been able to mask their actual anti-Semitism with what they claim is merely “criticism of Israel.” In fact, Adela Cojab Moadeb, the student who filed the NYU complaint, confirmed that “[m]uch of the discrimination we faced, if not all, was propagated by anti-Zionists on campus.”
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a similar Department of Education complaint was just filed on behalf of the school’s Jewish students who have endured “an unrelenting campaign of antisemitic harassment,” a situation caused by the administration’s failure to provide “a discrimination-free academic setting” despite having been put on notice of the “developing hostile environment.”
The complaint, which was drafted with the assistance of the Louis B. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, became necessary after repeated instances of anti-Semitism were pointed out to the university’s feckless administration and no steps were taken to ameliorate the situation. “That failure to act when Jews are harassed because of their Jewish identity or because of their belief in Israel as the Jewish Homeland,” a Brandeis Center statement read, “stands in marked contrast to the vigorous steps that UIUC has taken in the face of discrimination or harassment aimed at other groups.”
Besides their histories of toxic anti-Israel, anti-Semitic behavior on their respective campuses, UIUC and NYU share one other unfortunate reality, namely, the presence of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). And SJP’s existence on these campuses is not merely coincidental to the anti-Semitism created by anti-Israel activism; it is almost single-handedly culpable for creating the egregious hostile climate in which Jewish students and faculty have found themselves.
SJP has a long history since its founding in 1993 of bringing vitriolic anti-Israel speakers to their respective campuses (now numbering over 200 with chapters), and for sponsoring the pernicious annual Israeli Apartheid Weeks, building mock “apartheid walls,” extolling terrorism and the psychopaths who commit it, inviting outrageously biased and Jew-hating guest speakers, disrupting and shutting down pro-Israel events, sending fake eviction notices to Jewish students in their dorms, and jamming resolutions through student government to promote the toxic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign— all these tactics having as their core purpose the demonization of Israel, Zionism, Jewish self-determination, and Jews who support Israel.
And research indicates that the cumulative effect of SJP’s corrosive activism is the primary source of the unacceptable conditions experienced by Jewish students. A 2019 report by The AMCHA Initiative, a campus anti-Semitism watchdog organization, for example, revealed that “BDS’s mandate to boycott or suppress programs, collaborations, events, or expression that promote ‘the normalization of Israel in the global academy,’ as well as the academic BDS-compliant ‘common sense’ mandate to criticize, protest and boycott individuals who are deemed complicit with or supportive of Israel’s alleged crimes, appear to greatly encourage antisemitic behavior.”
An earlier AMCHA report, in fact, had found similar connections between anti-Israel activism and the presence of anti-Semitism on those campuses with SJP chapters. That report concluded, shockingly, that the “presence of one or more anti-Zionist student groups is very strongly correlated with the overall number of antisemitic incidents. 99% of the schools with one or more active anti-Zionist student group had one or more incidents of antisemitic activity, whereas only 16% of schools with no active anti-Zionist student group had incidents of antisemitic activity.” Campuses with SJP or other anti-Zionist student groups, the report found, were “very strongly associated with the occurrence of antisemitic expression. 91% of the schools with one or more active anti-Zionist group showed evidence of antisemitic expression, whereas only 16% of schools with no active anti-Zionist student group showed evidence of antisemitic expression.” And perhaps most concerning, and one of the key motivators for the DOE complaints, is that the presence on campus of SJP “is strongly correlated with the targeting of Jewish students for harm [emphasis added]. 57% of . . . active anti-Zionist student group[s] had one or more incidents that targeted Jewish students for harm, whereas only 8% of schools with no active anti-Zionist student group had incidents that targeted Jewish students.”
Similarly, a 2019 Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP) report, “Antisemitism, Violent Extremism and the Threat to North American Universities: The Contextualization of the National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP),” confirms what observers of radicalism in higher education have documented for years: that while SJP purports to be a group whose mission is to achieve a peaceful and just resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by supporting Palestinian self-determination, in fact, as the report put it, SJP “leaders and official university chapters espouse blatant forms of antisemitism on social media and use the national conferences as a platform to propagate their discriminatory ideas” and “SJP is steeped in an ideology that has roots in racist and antisemitic extremism.”
Unfortunately, as the NYU and UIUC cases demonstrate quite clearly, SJP has been unimpeded in spreading its calumnies against Israel, fending off any criticism of their invective as attacks on their rights of free expression and academic freedom. The problem for SJP, unfortunately, is that while they are perfectly content to propel a mendacious campaign of anti-Israel libels, and base their analysis of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on falsehoods, distortions, and a false reading of history and fact, so certain are they of their moral authority that they will never countenance any views – even facts as opposed to opinions – which contradict their hateful political agenda. SJP uses the victim mantle to shield its actions from self-examination, feeling that, as representatives of the dispossessed and perennially-oppressed Palestinians, they can adopt any tactic to campaign for social justice against Israel, Zionism, occupation, and alleged Israeli apartheid.
Moreover, so sure are they of their moral uprightness in denouncing the Jewish state’s brutal occupation, racism, and essential illegality, these activists will not even deign to collaborate, negotiate, or even tolerate the views of those pro-Israel groups and individuals they have decided are essentially unworthy of having their options heard.
A leaked memorandum from the Binghamton University SJP chapter, for example, revealed that members would never be required to even engage in dialogue with pro-Israel groups on their campus, they would be prohibited from “engaging in any form of official collaboration, cooperation, or event co-sponsorship with [pro-Israel] student organizations and groups,” and members “shall in no manner engage in any form of official collaboration with any student group which actively opposes the cause of Palestinian liberation nor with groups which have aided and abetted Zionist student organizations,” meaning, of course, that the so-called intellectual debate that universities purport to promote in exactly this type of discussion will never take place when SJP is involved. The exclusion of pro-Israel expression is actually central to SJP’s ongoing effort to prevent the “normalization” of Zionism on campus; in other words, making Jews who support Jewish self-determination feel morally defective, racist, and completely unwelcomed on campus.
Normally, that type of behavior violates the concepts of academic freedom and academic free speech that academics hold dear—rights that campus radicals prefer to exploit themselves while denying the same freedoms to others and deeming speech with which they disagree “hate speech.” Spirited debate between people with opposing views, of course, is acceptable and desirable; shutting down or preventing the speech of one side of the argument, and not permitting those views to be aired in the marketplace of ideas, is not.
And because they cannot win an honest, open ideological debate about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict because they deal solely in untruths, false history, and misrepresentations (Israeli apartheid, as the central example), SJP has characteristically tried to insure that no pro-Israel voices are heard, either by disrupting or shutting down pro-Israel events and speakers or urging administrators to disinvite speakers they deem to be Islamophobic, too pro-Israel, or critical of their own tactics and activism. Accomplishing that, the Binghamton memo continues, should include “Political theater to protest the event, engaging in non-violent disruption of the event, or any other tactic deemed appropriate by the attending members not including violence.”
SJP has also reacted in feigned horror when pro-Israel groups used some of the same tactics that SJP has made their modus operandi. At the University of Chicago, for example, SJP distributed posters across campus as part of the 2017 “International Day of Action on University Campuses for Palestine,” the stated purpose being “to commemorate the lives of these latest victims of Israeli state violence,” including, they mistakenly stated, a 13 year-old boy. They were, in other words, paying homage to the murderous young psychopathic Arab men and women who had spent weeks stabbing, shooting, stoning, and ramming cars into Jewish civilians for the purpose of murdering them. In SJP’s morally defective view, though, the murders should be honored, not the innocent victims of the terroristic carnage.
In response, an unidentified group plastered posters of their own around the Chicago campus, these with the phrase “Stabbing Jews for Peace” under the three letters above, SJP, a clear reference to Students for Justice in Palestine. The SJP members were shocked, shocked, that anyone with a moral compass at all would be offended by their offensive poster, writing that “Shockingly, some members of the University community have taken offense at our simple efforts to acknowledge the humanity of those Israel has summarily executed.”
And morally blind as they are, they did not understand why some members of the U Chicago community might wonder why only dead Arabs were being counted and honored by SJP, and none of their eight Jewish victims murdered over the past weeks.
A university should, and must, have the right and responsibility to its academic community to decide which student groups have a legitimate and valid mission and which are animated by extremist ideology and penchant for spreading bigotry, ethnic hatred, and misreading of history and facts—exactly what SJP has been guilty of wherever chapters have been established. That NYU and UIUC or any other university has allowed SJP to find a bulwark on their own campuses speaks to the moral vacuity of many administrators, as well as their fear of offending what they perceive to be a campus victim group. So while they would not hesitate for a moment to condemn and purge their campus of a group whose sole mission was to attack and dehumanize any other ethnic group, when Israel and Jews are the target, sadly there has been an absence of clear conscience, justice, and equity.