It’s hard to remember a time when antisemitism on college campuses was not a problem.
This week, I had an opportunity to discuss a different approach to understanding and addressing campus antisemitism with Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a co-founder of AMCHA, whose report “Zionists Off Our Campus! Campus Antisemitism in 2017” came out this month. AMCHA is a group dedicated solely to investigating, documenting, educating about, and combating antisemitism on college campuses.
The campus antisemitism we see today, Rossman-Benjamin points out, has its roots in the Durban Conference in South Africa in 2001. The Durban Declaration did more than claim that Israel was a racist state and provide the basis for the BDS movement – it also provided the impetus for the attacks on Jewish students on college campuses, which have spread and become more virulent. These attacks are not happening in a vacuum.
The ADL has also come out with a report, Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents: Year in Review 2017, which examines not just campus antisemitism, but also threats against K-12 schools, attacks on Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats.
Not All Antisemitism On Campus Is The Same
But a key difference between the 2 reports is the distinction the AMCHA report makes between 2 different kinds of campus harassment faced by Jewish students.
First of all, counting incidences of antisemitism on campus is not enough. A small swastika drawn in a bathroom stall creates a different emotional impact on a student than the same swastika when it is etched into that same Jewish student’s dorm room door. The former is an expression of an offensive opinion, while the latter implies a desire to harass and intimidate.
The harassment of Jewish students goes beyond swastikas. Another example given in the report is:
At University of Houston, protesters disrupted a student group’s event with chants of “Zionists off our campus…Zionists off our Campus…Free, Free, Free Palestine,” and one protester additionally shouted, “F*** Zionists, F*** all you Zionists!” The protesters continued their demonstration outside the event hall, loudly chanting, “Whose campus? Our campus!…Racists off our campus, Zionists off our campus, Islamophobes off our campus! Fists up, fight back!”
This is a different kind of harassment, directed at Jewish students not as Jews but rather as representatives and supporters of Israel.
Such attacks tend to be carried out with the intent to suppress pro-Israel expression or to ostracize and exclude pro-Israel individuals from campus life. These kinds of incidents included:
shutting down, disrupting, defacing or other attempts to interfere with Israel-related events, displays, trips, or announcements on the one hand, and the targeting of individual students and student groups for vilification or attempts to exclude them from participating in campus activities, to boycott interaction with them, or even to expel them from campus altogether on the other.
According to Rossman-Benjamin, it is important to be able to distinguish the intentionality behind the attacks. Antisemitic attacks were not necessarily directed at a particular Jewish student on campus, but anti-Zionist incidents were virtually all directed particularly at Jewish students. It was those anti-Zionist attacks that were more likely to affect the campus climate.
While there were more antisemitic incidents (205) than Israel-related ones (71), far more of the Israel-related incidents (67 / 94% vs 48 / 23%) showed an intent to harm Jewish students and contributed more towards creating a hostile environment.
The Israel-related attacks were also more likely to be carried out by more than one person, and those people were more likely to be affiliated with a particular group or organization.
Israel-Related Attacks on Campus Are Bad — And Getting Worse
While the report has a breakdown of both antisemitic and Israel-related harassment, let’s focus on the report’s findings related to the latter.
31 of Israel-related incidents (44%) were intended to impede or silence pro-Israel expression. For example:
o At Columbia University, an event featuring Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon was disrupted seven times by student protesters, who loudly chanted anti-Israel slogans, including support for BDS, and blocked the entrance to the auditorium, physically preventing people from entering and intimidating those who were able to enter.
o At the University of Maryland, Students for Justice in Palestine, the Muslim Political Alliance and other student organizations carried out a boycott protest of the Jewish Student Union-sponsored event “IsraelFest,” at which they asked people “to turn away from the festival [IsraelFest] and not participate in any of the festivities.”
o At the University of Texas Austin, Jewish students attempting to table to raise funds for an Israeli non-profit called “Save a Child’s Heart” were impeded when two other student groups moved their tables to flank them, began yelling, chanting and waving a flag over the Jewish students’ heads, and drowned out their calls for donations. When the Jewish students relocated to another part of the campus square, the disruptors followed them and continued to impede their efforts for two days.
54 of Israel-related incidents (76%) personally targeted pro-Israel individuals or groups for ostracizing and/or exclusion. For example:
o At Pomona College, an SJP member posted a photo on Snapchat and Twitter of the Claremont Progressive Jewish Alliance student president with the caption ‘Her name is Kate ______ and she is a proud racist.’ The post was favorited and retweeted by SJP members.
o At St. Olaf College, Oles for Justice in Palestine created a petition asking the College to remove an alumnus from the Advisory Board of the Institute for Freedom and Community at St. Olaf College, claiming, “Arne Christenson is a key member of the Apartheid lobby and an outspoken Christian Zionist. He ought to have no position at any institute for “freedom” or “community” and certainly no position at St. Olaf.”
o At Tufts University, a widely shared student activist-created handbook entitled “Tufts University Disorientation Guide” described Hillel as “an organization that supports a white supremacist state” that “exploit[s] black voices for their own pro-Israel agenda.” The handbook was posted by students on two official Class Facebook pages.
These incidents of ostracizing and excluding pro-Israel Jews have been successful and have been on the rise over the past few years in comparison to merely suppressing speech.
Furthermore, the ostracizing/exclusion is becoming more flagrant:
o At New York University, 53 student groups pledged to boycott NYU’s pro-Israel clubs and refuse to co-sponsor events with them. The president of SJP at NYU was quoted in the student newspaper as saying, “Our point is to make being Zionists uncomfortable on the NYU campus.”
o The Black Student Union and various other student organizations at California Polytechnic Institute San Luis Obispo issued a list of demands that included “an increase in ASI funding of ALL cultural clubs, with the exception of organizations that are aligned with Zionist ideology.”
o The Director of a program at San Francisco State University posted to her program’s Facebook page a message stating that welcoming Zionists to campus is “a declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, [and] Palestinians.” Soon after her message was posted, numerous flyers and graffiti messages showed up all over campus stating, “Zionists Not Welcome.”
When I spoke with Ms. Rossman-Benjamin, she pointed out that the AMCHA findings, by distinguishing between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, reveal a dual attitude on the part of the university campuses.
Furthermore, the University administrators did not feel compelled to act to protect Jewish students from Israel-related attacks, because they saw those incidents as political free speech and not as harassment.
Contrast that with the Supreme Court ruling that even though something as inciteful as cross burning can be considered free speech, nevertheless, when there is clear evidence of an intent to threaten or intimidate an individual or group it is not protected by the First Amendment (Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003). Also, the US Department of Education says that a “hostile environment” is created when harassment is sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a school’s educational program.
Dealing With Anti-Zionism on Campus: A Paradigm Shift
In their report, the ADL’s recommendations put the emphasis on taking legal action in order to protect Jews in general and on the education of university staff in particular to address the problem. Public officials would be expected to speak out against such incidents.
AMCHA’s approach is different, and Rossman-Benjamin describes the approach as a paradigm shift.
True, one could try to get universities to recognize anti-Zionism harassment as a form of religious or ethnic discrimination. As it is, there are legislative efforts to get the federal government, especially the Department of Education, to see it that way, and make such harassment illegal under federal anti-discrimination law.
She suggests a different approach:
Instead of trying to get the anti-Zionism behavior recognized as discrimination, let’s get the anti-Zionism behavior recognized as a behavior which takes away an individual’s freedom of expression and freedom to fully participate in campus life.
The effort to get anti-Zionism recognized on campus as an example of antisemitism or a form of discrimination against Jews would take a lot of work and would not necessarily successful. It will take a lot of effort to get anti-Zionism recognized as a special form of discrimination, and going the legal route is time-consuming and not a simple task.
The main concern must be the welfare and safety of Jewish students on college campuses.
If you have to argue that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism before you can get protection from what is legitimately hurting Jewish students, you are wasting time when you could be just going to the fact that Jew students are getting hurt — and that is unacceptable, period.
So instead of going to the legislature, AMCHA advocates for going directly to the university itself, and in its report offers these suggestions:
o Issue a public statement assuring all students that they will be equally protected from intolerant behavior that violates their freedom of expression or their right to full participation in campus life;
o Amend university policies to include the prohibition of peer-on-peer harassment that suppresses any student’s freedom of speech, association or assembly, or unduly interferes with any student’s access to educational opportunities or benefits;
o Institute procedures for enforcing the amended policies equitably, without regard to the motivation of the perpetrator or the identity of the victim;
o Develop educational programs to teach about the importance of freedom of expression to university life and to encourage the expression of a wide range of views in a productive and respectful manner. [emphasis added]
In this way, we avoid the quagmire of having to define what qualifies as antisemitism and what is political free speech – by not getting into the quagmire to begin with. As a result, we do not have to tangle with groups like Jewish Voice for Peace who claim to know what qualifies as antisemitism when it comes to Israel.
However, that means that everyone gets to express themselves, and that is going to require a certain amount of tolerance. But keep in mind, it is not as if this allows a group like JVP to say what they want, when they want and where they want. Let’s
How Do We Get The Universities To Take These Proposals Seriously?
If need be, pressure can be applied to the universities to put these policies into place.
o Students need to call for it
o Outside groups need to call for it
o Communities need to call for it – and not just Jewish communities either.
Legislative muscle helps, but the first step is to get the universities to say this is important and pledge they are going to do something about it. If they will not put in place policies that guarantee equal rights to free speech, only then bring legislative muscle to bear.
Getting those policies in place would be a huge step forward.
We have lots of ideas, but we need more resources to be even more effective. Please donate today to help get the message out and to help defend Israel.