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
November 28, 2023

A confrontation between pro-Palestine protesters and a pro-Israel counter-protester at the University of Washington in Seattle.

SIPA USA/Alamy

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.

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.

Unfortunately, there have been clear-cut cases of antisemitism. Some require virtually no scrutiny to understand as such: A Cornell junior’s forum posts threatening to kill Jews and attack a kosher dining hall are self-evidently bigoted. (He does not seem to have been a Palestine solidarity activist.) Other times, speech or actions presented as criticisms of Israel rely on antisemitic ideas. For example, last month a non-faculty instructor at Stanford reportedly asked Jewish students to sit in a corner apart from their peers in an ill-conceived attempt to demonstrate the principle of separation undergirding Israeli apartheid. In so doing, he singled out Jewish students for their perceived connection to Israel; this blunt conflation of the State of Israel and Jews as a people, often propagated by the state itself and many of its defenders, is antisemitic. Later in October, a non-student speaker at a McGill University protest claimed that “Zionism actually is the monetization of everything, even your thoughts. Whoever has the most money makes the rules.” Drawing on enduring tropes associating Jews with omnipotent financial power, they were careening from political condemnation into unmoored conspiracism.

Yet much of what pundits and politicians are calling antisemitism is simply anti-Zionist campus activism, often misread through the lens of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian bigotry. For instance, the common protest chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” has been misrepresented by administrators at Harvard, Emory, and other universities as antisemitic or intrinsically harmful to Jews. While some may hear this slogan as a call for the ethnic cleansing of Israeli Jews, Palestinian Americans like Yousef Munayyer and Rep. Rashida Tlaib have explained that the slogan represents a call for Palestinian unity and liberation, against the attempted geographic and political fragmentation imposed by Israel; many protesters likewise intend it as a demand for equality. Meanwhile, heated political altercations between Zionists and anti-Zionists have been irresponsibly recast as pogroms-in-the-making. When Tulane Students for Palestine organized a rally outside campus on October 26th, they were confronted by a counter-protest across the street. The groups exchanged taunts and before long, clashes erupted after one demonstrator, who was not a student, attempted to burn an Israeli flag; at least three students suffered minor injuries, while two protesters, neither of whom were students, were arrested. Media coverage—as well as Rep. Ritchie Torrespresented the entire protest as a gathering of antisemitic outside agitators, descending on campus to target Tulane’s sizable Jewish population, and suggested that the flag burning was an antisemitic act. But according to Tulane Students for Palestine, the rally “featured Muslim and Arab students sharing their experiences of discrimination and harm on campus,” as well as “Jewish students sharing how they had been ostracized by speaking on how [anti-]Zionism is not antisemitism.” And while many may take offense at the burning of the Israeli flag, the act is a constitutionally protected form of political speech that communicates outrage against the Israeli state, rather than an inherent expression of hostility toward Jews. As a former campus organizer, I see the clash reflecting not the prevalence of anti-Jewish animus, but the dire need for de-escalation to prevent hyper-charged political disputes from turning violent.

In other cases, the imputation of violence has been entirely fabricated. On the very same day as the Tulane protest, videos circulated on social media showing Jewish students at Cooper Union in New York City inside the lobby of the school’s library, their pro-Palestine peers chanting slogans and banging on doors outside. Commenters claimed that the students were “barricaded” inside, huddling for protection from an antisemitic mob. Speaking at a rally the following day, a local attorney portrayed the incident as “part of the systemic problem of Jew hatred that we’ve seen in New York City and across the US.” But as later reporting made clear, the Jewish students in the library were not being held there, and were not under threat. Earlier that day, both groups of students had held dueling, peaceful protests across from one another outside the building. The Palestine solidarity protesters first entered the building to demonstrate at the president’s office upstairs; on their way out, they lingered outside the library. Staff closed the doors as they drew near. The students likely interpreted this as administrative repression, and they responded by prolonging their protest outside the library doors. While Jewish students inside the library may have been shaken by the unexpected encounter, they also affirmed they were in no danger, reportedly telling staff “we feel safe, we’re good” when offered taxi rides home after the incident. By the time these details emerged, a much darker story had already taken hold in national media, bolstering a narrative of ubiquitous anti-Jewish bigotry.

In this moment, there is also a third category to consider: speech that I and many other Jews and leftists find offensive and concerning, but which is not, in and of itself, antisemitic. Most notably, in the days following October 7th, some student and faculty voices uncritically championed Hamas’s attack as an act of resistance, while overlooking, minimizing, or excusing the brutal murder and kidnapping of hundreds of Israeli civilians. For example, a national Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) toolkit referred to the events of October 7th as a “historic win” and a “justified” set of actions in which “our people are actualizing revolution”; some SJP chapters put paragliders on rally fliers, used by Hamas militants who massacred civilians at a music festival near the Gaza border; and a student leader at NYU said that “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life,” entirely eliding Hamas’s agency in the attacks. These and other statements and gestures signal at least a tolerance for terrible violence against Israeli civilians, and it’s reasonable for them to upset or even scare Jews, who may hear them as a reflection of violent hostility toward Jewish life. But while I find them reductive, callous, and counterproductive, to understand them as inherently antisemitic is to obscure, rather than clarify, the political dynamics at play. They should be understood as expressions of a particularly strident kind of decolonial politics, born of rage at decades of Israel’s entrenched oppression of Palestinians, which has so far proven stubbornly unresponsive to nonviolent resistance or moral appeals to equality. Student activists may devalue the lives of Jewish Israelis because they homogenize them into a uniform category of oppressors, or believe that the violent resistance of the oppressed is necessarily justified and liberatory, no matter the specific target or context. But this regrettable orientation is not inherently directed at Israelis as Jews; rather, it is directed at them as the privileged and dominant group in an apartheid system.

In this moment, there is also a third category to consider: speech that I and many other Jews and leftists find offensive and concerning, but which is not, in and of itself, antisemitic.

While some may find these kinds of statements greatly disturbing, they represent constitutionally protected political speech and pose no direct threat to Jewish student safety. But this has not stopped university leaders and elected officials, with the full-throated support of Israel-advocacy organizations, from mobilizing administrative and state power to stifle pro-Palestine speech and organizing writ large in ways that hit Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students the hardest. SJP chapters have been banned or suspended at George Washington University, Brandeis, and Columbia (which also banned its JVP chapter), while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has ordered state universities to “deactivate” their SJP chapters grounded in the baseless claim that the student groups are providing “material support” to “terrorist” groups. Despite legal pushback on these actions from civil liberties groups, the Anti-Defamation League has leveled this same charge, and has called on the IRS and FBI to investigate groups like SJP. Lawmakers and Israel-advocacy groups are calling to cut federal funding to universities that do not sufficiently crack down on activism, and pushing for federal probes of SJP and other Palestine solidarity groups. Last month, the White House announced an initiative to combat what it called an “extremely disturbing pattern” of “grotesque sentiments and actions” targeting Jews on campus, mobilizing the Departments of Education, Justice, and Homeland Security—each of which has a history of Islamophobia and repression against justice movements. On the heels of targeted advocacy by pro-Israel legal pressure groups like the Brandeis Center, the Department of Education has opened investigations into Cooper Union, Columbia, and other universities. And according to a Ynet report, Israel’s Foreign and Diaspora Affairs ministries have launched a task force to combat antisemitism on US campuses, with the stated goals of exacting “personal, economic and employment repercussions” on activists, pressuring university administrators, and pursuing legal action against groups like SJP in consult with the Department of Justice.

This repression is part and parcel of a precipitous nationwide rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry since October 7th. On Sunday, three Palestinian college students, wearing keffiyehs and speaking Arabic, were shot and wounded by a white assailant as they walked to a family dinner during a visit in Burlington, Vermont. At Stanford, an Arab American Muslim student was injured by a hit-and-run driver who yelled “fuck you and your people,” and whom the victim recognized from an earlier pro-Israel counter-protest on campus. Doxxing trucks, displaying the names and faces of predominantly Black and Arab student activists, have circled the campuses of Harvard and Columbia, and even parked outside students’ homes, leaving targets terrified for their safety. Black and brown Muslim students have been spat on, had their hijabs torn off, and been labeled terrorists, while activists in predominantly Arab and Muslim student groups have received death threats. Numerous GOP leaders have called for campus activists on student visas to be deported. These attacks and threats contribute to a broad chilling effect aimed at dampening the largest anti-war protests in decades. Meanwhile, the relatively scant attention paid to them by university administrators and the general public, compared to the intensive focus on Jewish safety, exacerbates divisions between Jewish students and other marginalized groups.

This heinous wave of bigotry and repression does nothing to actually address the concerns of Jews on college campuses, which are themselves more varied and nuanced than the contemporary conversation allows for.

This heinous wave of bigotry and repression does nothing to actually address the concerns of Jews on college campuses, which are themselves more varied and nuanced than the contemporary conversation allows for. While a new, widely covered survey from Hillel International reports that 54% of Jewish students are feeling “scared” as a result of events in Israel/Palestine, and 51% feel “less safe on campus” since October 7th, in the same survey only 20% described their campus climate as “unsafe” for them, while 33% described it as “normal,” 53% described it as “tense,” and 45% described it as “uncomfortable.” (Notably, Hillel did not publicize those findings.) And recent polling from the Jewish Electorate Institute revealed that 37% of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 35 believe that “antisemitism on campuses” is a “very serious problem,” compared to nearly 80% of those in older age categories.

Taken together, these responses suggest that Jews who are currently or recently on campus feel, on the whole, less concerned for their safety than those simply consuming media narratives on the subject. That aligns with my own experiences as a campus organizer: I spoke to countless Jewish students across the political spectrum who insisted that even if Palestine solidarity organizing sometimes made them or their peers uncomfortable or outraged, it did not impede their safety or ability to thrive as Jews on campus. The more time I spent on campuses, the more I realized that the narrative of Jewish unsafety was largely foisted upon students from the outside—a conclusion supported by numerous studies, commissioned by Brandeis and Stanford academics. This narrative of a single, monolithic Jewish campus experience is also consistently belied by the many Jewish students organizing for Palestinian rights, including new groups like Jews for Ceasefire Now at Brown and Jews for Ceasefire at MIT. Jewish faculty, too, have pushed back against the dominant story. “Despite some undeniably ugly attention-grabbing incidents,” wrote professors Shachar Pinsker and Arie M. Dubnov on Sunday, “we must warn against a twisted image of the campus environment. Some banal truths need to be told: most of the students and colleagues, most of the time, are open-minded, curious, sensitive, and empathic to others’ suffering and pain. Reasoned debate is still alive and kicking.”

An imprecise conception of the threats we face will not help us meaningfully fight rising antisemitism—on campuses or anywhere else. Fueling the moral panic only provides openings for the rollback of speech protections and entrenchment of divisions that could take a generation to recover and repair. In the face of an avalanche of politicized outrage by Israel-advocacy organizations, media outlets, and political leaders, our steadiness and careful discernment can be a potent form of resistance.

Thanks to Emma Saltzberg, Benjamin Balthaser, Jacob Labendz, Jeremy Siegman, and Steven Gardiner for their support.

Ben Lorber works as senior research analyst at the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, researching antisemitism and white nationalism. He is the co-author of Safety through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism, forthcoming from Melville House.

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