Jewish students say their voices are shut out of academia

As campus anti-Semitism morphs, bullied Jewish students counter-organize

A 42% drop in classic acts of bigotry at universities in 2018 is offset by a 70% rise in anti-Israel related harassment; a flurry of recent events highlight insidiousness of issue

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Marchers against Israel walk from the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, July 26, 2006.  (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Illustrative: Marchers against Israel walk from the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, July 26, 2006. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The Graduate Student Union at University of Toronto wants Jewish students to know it’s sorry. On November 18 it was reported that the union — which in 2012 voted to support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) — said it wouldn’t make kosher food available on campus because such food is “pro-Israel.”

The Toronto graduate student union has since issued an apology, which the campus Hillel said fell short of addressing anti-Semitism. However, the incident was only one of several anti-Semitic events to occur on university campuses in recent weeks.

The Department of Education announced November 19 that it would investigate alleged anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents at Duke University that occurred earlier this year. One event, Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities, was sponsored by the Duke-UNC Middle East Consortium, and according to news reports was replete with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic references.

On November 14, pro-Israel activist Hen Mazzig gave a presentation at Vassar College in New York on indigenous Jews of the Middle East for the group Vassar Organizing Israel Conversations Effectively (VOICE). Outside the auditorium nearly 30 students with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chanted, “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free.” They chanted so loudly Mazzig had to stop speaking until they left.

Although their protest didn’t end Mazzig’s talk, this kind of rhetoric can sometimes have a chilling effect on Jewish student life.

“The result is Jewish students shying away from Jewish life on campus, or feeling afraid of showing they’re Jewish. Jewish students are also afraid of joining clubs on campus because they worry about being singled out,” said David Goldenberg, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Midwest office.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, cofounder of AMCHA Initiative. (Courtesy)

These incidents also serve to illustrate the varied types of anti-Semitism Jewish students are experiencing on campuses in the United States and elsewhere, said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, AMCHA Initiative’s cofounder and director.

According to a September 2019 report by AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan group investigating and combating anti-Semitism on college campuses, acts of classic anti-Semitic harassment of Jewish students decreased 42 percent, while incidents of Israel-related anti-Semitic harassment increased 70% on campuses in 2018.

“Everyone recognizes a swastika painted as bad and will stand up against it. What they’re not recognizing is speech about Israel and Zionism that targets Jewish students. That kind of speech is linked very closely with acts of aggression, and that’s what’s concerning to us,” Rossman-Benjamin said.

The bungled case of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The student government at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which is 10 percent Jewish, made headlines on October 23 when it passed a resolution redefining anti-Semitism. The resolution, which distinguishes the hatred of Jews from anti-Zionism, was drafted without any input from Jewish students — save for the far-left, anti-settlement Jewish Voice for Peace, according to several UIUC students.

There is mainstream acceptance among governments and organizations worldwide of the working definition for anti-Semitism put forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which does say that anti-Zionism can be a form of anti-Semitism.

Illustrative: a Holocaust denier holds a sign on the campus quad of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, September 10, 2019. (Courtesy AMCHA)

At University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the call for a new definition of anti-Semitism followed the discovery of a swastika painted on the school’s foreign languages department building, as well as criticism of Chancellor Robert Jones, who labeled an SJP presentation on the Israel-Palestine conflict as “anti-Semitic” in a campus-wide email. Jones was not alone in his criticism: The Illini Public Affairs Committee (IllinPAC), which works to support US-Israel relations at the University, called the presentation “a narrative of demonization of Israel and its citizens and Jewish students.”

In defense of the separation of anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism, one of the resolution’s sponsors, Bugra Sahin, said that “criticism of a state is not anti its people, or religion, or ethnicity,” according to the News-Gazette.

However, the paucity of Jewish voices in the resolution, which also criticizes Jones and passed in a 29-4 vote, has Jewish student leaders fuming.

“With the resolution, it felt like when a roomful of men decides what is right for women. On campus you have a bunch of non-Jewish people identifying and saying what is anti-Semitic,” Lauren Nesher, president of the pro-Israel club IllinPAC, told The Times of Israel via phone.

At the October 23 resolution vote, Nesher spoke on behalf of the university’s Jewish community and organized a mass walkout.

“We do not negotiate our safety, we do not negotiate our fear, we do not negotiate our homeland, we do not negotiate anti-Semitism,” Nesher said. Then she led a walkout of 400 Jewish students and allies amid jeers of “Free Palestine” and through a sea of posters such as “Free Palestine/Fuck Zionists.”

Students for Justice in Palestine hold an ’emergency teach-in’ at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, after the school chancellor condemned an anti-Semitic presentation that included anti-Zionist material. (Courtesy AMCHA)

The campus chapter of SJP supported the UIUC anti-Semitism resolution, but said it wasn’t involved in its drafting.

“SJP only got involved when we heard of the strong Zionist resistance to the bill. Jewish students were consulted and support the current resolution, however they asked to remain anonymous, as they feared backlash from their communities if they vocalized their support,” SJP-UIUC wrote The Times of Israel in a Facebook message.

That doesn’t square with what other students claim, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Ian Katsnelson, a sophomore and the only Jewish senator to sit on UIUC’s 52-member senate, said none of the bill’s sponsors asked for his input.

Ian Katznelson, right, Lauren Nesher at a Jewish Federations of North America conference event in which they spoke about their experiences on campus at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. (Courtesy)

Jack Langen, student body vice president of Illinois student government, also said there was a lack of Jewish voices in drafting the resolution.

“I spoke to several Jewish students, as well as leaders at Hillel and Chabad, and came to the conclusion that this community had not been justly consulted on the contents of the resolution, even as it directly pertained to what the Jewish community faces on campus,” Langen said.

Prior to the vote, Langen, who is non-Jewish, spoke out in support of Jewish students out of an obligation to ensure all students at UIUC feel equally represented and safe. Boos drowned out his remarks.

What happens when your prof claims Zionism is racism?

The incidents at these schools typify the new kinds of anti-Semitism Jewish students face on campuses across the country, said Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.

“Although right-wing outfits like the American identity movement have put more energy into college campuses in recent years, there is a huge difference between flyers, sometimes hung up by non-students, and lectures, events, and statements emanating from ‘progressive’ faculty and students, that, if they rarely veer into the use of explicitly anti-Semitic images and propaganda, proceed from the anti-Semitic premise that Zionism, along among national movements, is racism,” Marks said.

Illustrative: Students and supporters march across campus during a protest in support of Palestine after a Northeastern University student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, was ‘temporarily suspended for multiple violations of university policy over an extended period of time,’ according to a university statement in Boston, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Rhetoric demonizing and delegitimizing Israel increased 32% nationwide, with expression accusing Israel or Zionism of “white supremacy” more than doubling, according to AMCHA. Additionally, expression promoting or condoning terrorism against Israel increased 67%.

Illustrative: A pro-Palestinian supporter is directed back across the street by a university police officer after being told to leave where a pro-Israel gathering was being held on Rutgers University’s New Brunswick, New Jersey campus, Friday, October 10, 2003. (AP Photo/Daniel Hulshizer)

In May 2018 at SUNY Stony Brook, SJP issued a statement saying that “in response to the… community pledge to accept and respect the identity of students, we ask the university: if there were Nazis, white nationalists, and KKK members on campus, would their identity have to be accepted and respected? Absolutely not. Then why would we respect the views of Zionists?”

In a spring 2018 opinion piece in the student newspaper at the University of Virginia, a student argued that the Jewish Leadership Council should not be permitted full membership in the Minority Rights Coalition unless “they denounce their ties to Zionist [student] groups.”

Additionally, AMCHA reported an increase in the number of faculty who target Jewish students. In the past year there were several documented reports of faculty refusing to write letters of recommendation for students wishing to study abroad in Israel, as well as faculty pushing to shutter study abroad programs in Israel.

Sometimes these expressions can be even more overt, as was the case at San Francisco State University. There, the director of an academic program posted a message on her program’s Facebook page that said welcoming Zionists to campus is “a declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, [and] Palestinians.” Soon after, numerous flyers and graffiti messages showed up across campus saying, “Zionists Not Welcome.”

Ursinus College’s Marks said responding to this kind of rhetoric presents a bit of a puzzle, since most forms of anti-Semitism are also constitutionally protected speech. He therefore urges Jewish students to counter organize, saying that they should push for robust conversation and debate, not only about BDS, but all matters of Jewish social and political interest.

Coming together and counter-organizing is exactly what the Jewish students at UIUC did. And although some are feeling a backlash, there has been a silver lining, Katsnelson said.

“The end result is our Jewish community feels significantly stronger,” Katsnelson said.

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