Confronting antisemitism in the US begins by addressing hate on campus

Where within American society does one find an academic case for antisemitism—a grand theory that justifies a thousand daily instances in everyday life? On college and university campuses.

An anti-Israel "apartheid wall" on display at Columbia University during "Israeli Apartheid Week" in 2017. Source: Facebook.
An anti-Israel "apartheid wall" on display at Columbia University during "Israeli Apartheid Week" in 2017. Source: Facebook.
Jacob Olidort
Jacob Olidort and Jonathan Pidluzny

Antisemitism is the world’s oldest and most pernicious prejudice. Thankfully, antisemitism is once again receiving the attention it deserves. After two years of inaction—during which record numbers of antisemitic attacks have been documented in New York and other major cities—the White House has finally convened a roundtable on the subject and lawmakers are pushing for a strategy to address the subject.

It is wishful thinking to imagine that antisemitism will be completely eradicated any time soon. It has existed for millennia, and it is unlikely that a government-led task force will suddenly change public attitudes. Indeed, American music is saturated with antisemitic rhetoric. As the Algemeiner has carefully documented, antisemitic tropes can be found in the lyrics of pop sensations from Michael Jackson to Jay-Z. Music is an important barometer in any culture—a glimpse into what is collectively celebrated or valued—and an especially profound influence on the mores and attitudes of young people. Or consider institutional accommodation for the same harmful stereotypes including at the highest levels of government. At the U.S. State Department, for example, veteran diplomats have noted a record of suspecting Jewish employees of dual loyalty to Israel.

And yet there is another reality: Never, outside the establishment of the modern State of Israel, since their exile from Israel in the year 70, have Jews found a more hospitable home than they have in the United States of America. This remains true today, though rising numbers of recorded antisemitic incidents, including violent attacks, are rightly raising alarms. To continue that legacy, one all Americans should be proud of, will take serious introspection and more than glitzy roundtable discussions.

Where in American society should we look to solve a problem tied to an existential ideological threat Jews have faced for their entire existence as a people? Why do our musicians perpetuate the lazy stereotypes that makes life difficult and unwelcoming to Jews without a second thought? To answer the question, it is necessary to ask where antisemitism’s proponents feel free to articulate an intellectual defense of the hatred they advocate. In other words, where within American society does one find an academic case for antisemitism—a grand theory that justifies a thousand daily instances in everyday life?

The answer, of course, is the American university—which is probably, today, one of the main hubs of antisemitic thought and activity. According to a recent StopAntisemitism survey of students at 25 U.S. campuses, 55% said they have personally been a victim of antisemitism on campus and only 28% answered that their school takes antisemitism and their safety seriously. The problem is particularly acute on elite campuses in the Northeast and California, where several schools StopAntisemitism assessed received failing grades for inappropriately responding to, and working to prevent, antisemitism on their campuses. How is this possible at a time when universities are building sprawling diversity, equity, and inclusion apparatuses? As the StopAntisemitism report observes, many universities do not include Jewish students (or faculty) in their DEI definition or initiatives.

What does campus antisemitism look like today? The City University of New York is currently subject to a U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (1964) for failing to address a series of antisemitic incidents dating back almost a decade, including swastikas carved into classroom doors and repeated acts of vandalism targeting Jewish professors. At the University of California Berkeley School of Law, Students for Justice in Palestine, along with several other campus groups, formalized organizational bylaws prohibiting invitations to guest speakers who support Zionism. Claiming an interest in “protecting the safety and welfare of Palestinian students,” the effort really entrenches a policy of viewpoint discrimination against targeting Jewish lecturers (as well as non-Jews who defend certain Israeli policies). New York University recently entered into a settlement with OCR requiring it to update its nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policy and do more to stop the harassment of Jewish students following complaints that the university had done little in response to physical violence and a death threat directed toward Jewish students.

And then there is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, effectively headquartered on American university campuses. Its dominant purpose is to mobilize public and financial pressure to damage Israeli organizations and institutions and even to ostracize Israelis and those who support a sovereign Israel. In that respect, America’s elite schools are competing with the United Nations as to which entity more vociferously declaims Israel as the font of the world’s problems. The Anti-Defamation League has argued that “many of the founding goals of the BDS movement… if implemented, would result in the eradication of the world’s only Jewish state.” It is virtually impossible to imagine such arguments being made about any other people, that they have no right to self-determination in a sovereign nation state. Grand antisemitic theories have real consequences in that they fuel coarser forms of Jew hatred by providing a purported justification for the anti-Jewish animus. As AMCHA researchers have established, the presence of faculty who express anti-Zionist views “is associated with a significant increase in… incidents that target Jewish students for harm, including assault, harassment, destruction of property and suppression of speech.”

While criticism of Israeli policy is rightly protected by the First Amendment, university leaders too often hide behind it to justifying ignoring discriminatory, harassing, and violent behavior that creates a hostile environment for Jewish students (and faculty). This not only deprives Jewish students of educational opportunities but also normalizes the idea that it is somehow permissible to treat America’s Jewish minority in ways that would be intolerable if the target were any other identity group—on and off campus. Students who learn from their Middle East studies professor that Israel is an international pariah state are primed by their campus experience to sing along to antisemitic lyrics on the radio—or even support the artists—without a critical thought.

The problem of antisemitism in music is, in short, not a new problem nor is it a uniquely American one. One need only look at the ongoing struggle of the Israeli philharmonic over the playing of Richard Wagner’s music to see how other nations struggle with this problem.

But patting oneself on the back by simply reciting talking points or convening roundtables falls far short of what is necessary to address the problem. As we detail in a new America First Policy Institute report, proven strategies exist at the state and national level to ensure existing civil rights protections are being extended to Jewish students on American campuses. States and state institutions can adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance “working definition” of antisemitism and convene commissions to study the problem in education, making specific reform recommendations to leaders in the K-12 and public postsecondary systems. At the national level, Congress should exercise oversight to ensure OCR investigation into alleged national original harassment remains a priority. We must also ensure that federal funding is not being used to support programs that villainize Israel under pretense of advancing U.S. national security interests.

The norms and attitudes students learn on campus propagate through society with them when they graduate. That is why standing against antisemitism comprehensively begins with a focused effort to address institutional accommodation of antisemitism by America’s universities.

Jacob Olidort, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for American Security and Director of the Center’s Middle East Peace Project at the America First Policy Institute.

Jonathan Pidluzny, Ph.D. is Director of the Higher Education Reform Initiative at the America First Policy Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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