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Toward a Sober Assessment of Campus Antisemitism

November 29nd, 2023

Dear Reader,

Since October 7th, social media has been rife with stories of alleged antisemitism on American college campuses. These accounts have quickly been funneled into the mainstream media narrative that Jewish students are not safe on campus. Amid the maelstrom of fear, which is fueling widespread encroachment on civil liberties, it has become nearly impossible to assess the actual threat to Jewish students.

In a new op-ed, the introduction of which we are including below, antisemitism researcher Ben Lorber draws on his experience as the national campus organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace to argue that the only way to understand the current situation on college campuses is to calmly examine the specifics of each incident. Lorber models this level-headed approach as he carefully analyzes many of the recent high-profile incidents, taking seriously the reality of “clear-cut cases of antisemitism” while also distinguishing “between criticism of Israel and antisemitism, disagreement and bigotry, discomfort and danger.” Only by resisting the reckless conflations of the dominant narrative, he argues, can we protect civil liberties—and truly address the safety of all students.

Nathan Goldman
Managing Editor

Toward a Sober Assessment of Campus Antisemitism
In a moment when many American Jews are afraid—and their fear is being used to erode civil liberties—we must examine the incidents coming across our screens with calm.
Ben Lorber

A post on an anonymous message board calls to “eliminate jewish living from cornell campus” [sic]. A viral video shows protesters outside the Cooper Union library, pressing Palestine solidarity signs against a transparent glass wall while students wearing kippot study on the other side. The president of Harvard denounces the “hurtful” climate for Jewish students produced in part by chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” In recent weeks, as Israel’s horrific assault on Gaza has unfolded at a dizzying pace—killing at least 15,000 Palestinians in seven weeks—controversies concerning alleged antisemitic incidents on American college campuses have circulated faster than anyone can process them, stoking an overwhelming sense of fear.

It’s fair for American Jews to be concerned for our safety, with reports of vandalism, harassment, death threats, and physical attacks making headlines across the US. The global picture is even more alarming, as we have seen attacks on synagogue buildings in Berlin and Tunisia; a Jewish woman stabbed in Paris, a swastika painted on her door; an angry mob in Dagestan storming the airport with signs saying, “We are against Jewish refugees”; and many other heinous incidents. This wartime spike in antisemitic acts is not without precedent: Studies show that Israeli military offensives tend to correlate with upticks in antisemitism in the diaspora, perhaps because antisemitic attitudes and actors are emboldened when the State of Israel commits great violence in the name of world Jewry. But as experts seek clarity about the scale of the rise in antisemitic activity, political leaders and Israel-advocacy organizations are funneling this communal anxiety into a national moral panic. The campus has become a primary site of this dangerous and counterproductive panic—not only as a long-standing target for the right’s culture war, but also as a vehicle for the generational anxieties of the American Jewish establishment. The end result is immense repression of speech, with crackdowns primarily targeting Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim student activists, as well as other students of color. “There is an exponential increase in the need for legal support,” Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Legal, told The Intercept last month, citing the “McCarthyist-style purge” sweeping universities, as well as industries like media and tech.

Though the intensity of the fear and the repression it’s feeding are new, these dynamics are familiar. From 2015 to 2018—before I became a senior researcher at the progressive think tank Political Research Associates, where I focus on white nationalism and antisemitism—I worked as the national campus organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an American Jewish group that organizes for Palestinian rights. In that role, I supported student Palestine solidarity activists in countering the groundless and damaging charge that their legitimate political actions, like asking their student government to divest from Boeing’s war planes or building a mock Israeli apartheid wall on the quad to educate their peers, were creating what Israel-advocacy organizations misleadingly call a “hostile and unsafe” environment for Jewish students. As I worked with students and administrators at schools across the country—helping them to parse vital distinctions between criticism of Israel and antisemitism, disagreement and bigotry, discomfort and danger—I came to appreciate the necessity of considering each campus conflict in all its particularity. Some incidents were simple, others complex. But in each case, I found that the way to understand the situation was to carefully examine it, rather than rush to judge it. In a moment when many American Jews are feeling afraid, in a media environment that is stoking that fear with headlines that conflate many different kinds of events, it is more important than ever to proceed with level-headed calm. To undertake this sorting and disaggregation of a vertiginous pile of anecdotes will help us not only to more accurately assess the threat to Jews on campuses, but also to guard against Jewish fear being used to erode civil liberties.