'When smaller voices aren't heard, we need to pay attention'

Yearlong program helps US colleges find and fix overlooked campus antisemitism

Hillel’s Campus Climate Initiative assesses Jewish life at participating schools; whether kosher food is available, Jewish holidays accommodated, and if bigotry is tolerated

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative photo of antisemitic graffiti on a building near the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, 2016. (Courtesy: Michaela Brown)
Illustrative photo of antisemitic graffiti on a building near the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, 2016. (Courtesy: Michaela Brown)

NEW YORK — On Rosh Hashanah of this year, a student at the University of Utah reported receiving an antisemitic text message. It came from an unknown phone number, the recipient wasn’t Jewish, and an investigation later showed it to be an isolated event. Nonetheless, university officials were alarmed.

“This incident is among many being experienced by Jewish community members in higher education around the country as incidents of antisemitism are on the rise,” said a statement put out by the university.

And so while only 200 of the university’s 24,634 students are Jewish, the administration decided to take action, said Brian Jay Nicholls, special assistant to the chief safety officer at the University of Utah. Earlier this year it became one of 27 campuses participating in Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative (CCI), a year-long program designed to assess the campus climate for Jewish students across the United States.

Nicholls looks forward to using the CCI’s assessment survey to help the university better serve its Jewish students, whether it’s making sure kosher food is readily available or that exams aren’t scheduled on Jewish holidays — and, of course, fighting antisemitism.

“Just because the Jewish community is so small and underrepresented, doesn’t mean we don’t need to hear what it’s like to be Jewish on campus. On the contrary, typically when smaller voices aren’t heard as much, we need to make sure we pay more attention,” Nicholls said.

While the University of Utah incident wasn’t the most striking case of antisemitism to hit American campuses at the start of the fall semester, it nevertheless represents how widespread the issue has become. Indeed, one-third of Jewish college students experienced antisemitic hate in the last academic year, according to a new survey released by Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Brian Nichols, special assistant to the chief safety officer at the University of Utah. (Courtesy University of Utah)

Additionally, most students who experienced antisemitic activity on campus didn’t report it, suggesting the true number is likely even higher, the survey said.

“This survey makes clear that antisemitism and hate are of growing concern for Jewish college students and merit the serious attention of university leaders across the country,” said Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel. “These findings underscore the importance of our work at Hillel engaging with university administrators to address the campus climate for Jewish students and ensure that all students can live and study in a safe and welcoming environment.”

As a result, Hillel and the ADL organized a multi-pronged approach to combat persistent campus antisemitism. Although there have been past efforts by Jewish groups to address antisemitism on campus, many of those efforts were aimed at individual institutions rather than higher learning as a whole. Moreover, Hillel and the ADL see this effort as different from past efforts in that it invites universities to participate in the process by offering courses and training on antisemitism, or through participating in the Hillel-led CCI.

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

Aside from the CCI, Hillel and the ADL are also developing short courses and training sessions for students, faculty, staff and administration that not only address the history of antisemitism but also how it manifests on campus today.

In addition, together with the Secure Community Network — the official safety and security organization of North America’s Jewish community — Hillel and the ADL launched ReportCampusHate.org, a centralized database on which students can anonymously report antisemitic incidents.

The best way to change the culture is through education, said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, adding that the partnership with Hillel is critical since Hillel has a presence on 500 campuses across the United States.

Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International. (Courtesy Hillel International)

In spite of Hillel’s presence, universities have been somewhat slow to sign on. The CCI was launched in February of this year, but disruptions to college life due to the coronavirus pandemic meant that the project only began to truly gather steam at the start of this fall semester, Lehman said. Many schools are still dealing with the impact of COVID-19, he said, from transitioning back to in-person learning to dealing with decreased enrollments. Lehman expects more campuses to join as the program continues and universities have a chance to see how it works.

The steady rise in antisemitic incidents on college campuses in recent years factored into the decision to launch these initiatives, but the issue gained urgency when it became clear that the number of incidents didn’t taper off as campuses shut down to stem the spread of COVID-19.

According to the survey, Jewish students want their fellow students and campus faculty, staff, and officials to understand antisemitism, but unfortunately, many universities fail to provide this education.

“The culture on campuses that increasingly excludes students because they are Zionists, or makes them renounce their Zionism, is deeply dangerous and entirely counter to the open dialogue that universities are supposed to promote. However, incessant complaints don’t work, constructive solutions do,” Greenblatt said.

Moreover, several students noted on the Hillel-ADL survey that Jews and Judaism are not featured in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) curricula that students, faculty and staff are frequently required to take at universities.

“You can shoot a cannonball through most DEI training and not hit one module on antisemitism,” said Mark Rotenberg, Hillel’s vice president of university initiatives and legal affairs. “The battle against antisemitism can’t just be seen as a Jewish student issue, it’s a university issue.”

Illustrative: The alma mater statute on the Columbia University campus. (Wikimedia Commons via JTA)

‘Exclusion is cooked into the ideology’

Some students and recent graduates say they are skeptical about working with campus DEI offices.

“I personally believe antisemitism is a problem because of campus DEI [offices], which uses language and rhetoric that inflames antisemitism and overwhelmingly excludes Jews. It’s cooked into the ideology,” said Blake Flayton, senior executive of the nonprofit New Zionist Congress, which works to promote Zionist education and empowerment.

“The question ADL and Hillel should be asking themselves is why were Jews excluded in the first place? It’s not an accident that Jews are not included in the conversation. DEI offices, generally speaking, look at Jewish people, many of whom have white skin, and see privilege. They don’t hear us and they devalue our truths,” said Flayton, who is also a recent graduate of George Washington University.

That’s why Flayton said he favors the University of Connecticut’s approach. Next semester UConn will offer a new one-credit, asynchronous, seven-hour elective course whose flexible scheduling and lighter workload than a regular three- or four-hour course make it easy for students to take on.

“It’s not going to be the antisemitism course — we don’t want antisemites to be the ones framing who Jews are. Rather, the course will talk about Jews, the diversity of Jews and representation of Jews,” said Avinoam J. Patt, director of UConn’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life.

The course will be available to all 18,847 undergraduates, of whom 11 percent, or 2,000, are Jewish. The decision to launch the course comes after a spate of incidents over the last academic year, including the spray-painting of a giant swastika on the campus’s chemistry building.

Illustrative: Anti-Semitic flyers found on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe in November 2019. (Video Screenshot)

No school is immune

In September of this year, mezuzahs — small boxes containing biblical verses which many Jews affix to their doorposts — were stolen off dormitory doors at Tufts University. Last spring a swastika was affixed to a student’s door. The Tufts University police department investigated both incidents but wasn’t able to identify the responsible parties.

The incidents prompted Tufts to realize the uptick in antisemitism had reached the campus, where nearly 20%, or 1,000, of its 6,114 undergraduates are Jewish.

“Unfortunately, there has been a disturbing rise in antisemitism nationally and on college campuses around the country, and Tufts is not immune to this trend,” said Patrick Collins, head of public relations at Tufts University.

And so the administration and the board of trustees convened an ad hoc committee on antisemitism to better understand how the rise in anti-Jewish sentiment in higher education is specifically manifesting itself at Tufts. At the same time, Tufts Hillel told the administration about the CCI.

“The logical next step was to participate,” Collins said.

Anti-Israel materials distributed at Students for Justice in Palestine’s national conference, held at Tufts University in October 2014. (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

Even before universities introduce courses, they need to adopt and include the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism into their discrimination and harassment policies, said Kenneth L. Marcus, former US Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, and founder and chair of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

“The goal is to change the culture on college campuses, and that requires a significant cultural change,” Marcus said. “Once there is definition in place there will be a basis from which they can engage in education and training.”

“The situation is of course different across campuses, but all too often antisemitic incidents are not treated as seriously as other bias incidents and Jewish students are seen as merely white privileged people who need to own their privilege,” he said.

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