(January 19, 2021 / JNS) Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the fallout from the 2020 election, anti-Semitism continued to morph and grow during 2020.
While the school year for many students consisted of online or hybrid learning, anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist attacks on Jewish and pro-Israel students increased precisely because of more Internet usage, albeit in new forms.
The switch to remote learning brought new challenges for individuals, social groups and organizations of all kinds as instances of “Zoombombing” emerged. At the same time, universities saw a continued uptick in faculty engaging in anti-Zionist activity, attempts to link Zionism to racism and uncoupled Zionism from Judaism on campus.
To learn more about the challenges from the past year and look ahead to 2021, JNS spoke with Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and director of the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit organization that investigates, documents and combats anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Looking back on 2020 and all the challenges it brought with COVID-19, what are some of the major issues regarding anti-Semitism that you saw emerge?
A: We witnessed three main concerning trends in 2020.
The first is faculty abuse, specifically, anti-Zionist faculty misusing their university positions and funding to promote anti-Semitic propaganda and advance anti-Zionist political agendas. Faculty are flagrantly promoting BDS in their classrooms as well as on university social-media sites and using university funding to host departmental events with anti-Zionist, BDS-promoting speakers.
The second trend is an increase in the reliance of anti-Zionist student groups, particularly Students for Justice in Palestine, on the concept of “intersectionality,” where the grievances of one group are opportunistically linked to the grievances of other groups. In a year of extraordinary social upheaval around issues of race and policing, anti-Zionist groups have forged alliances with other minority groups on campus to make sure that their anti-Israel propaganda is promoted as part of more high-profile anti-racism campaigns.
And the third trend involves attempts to uncouple Zionism from Judaism. It’s common for the perpetrators of anti-Semitism on campus to attempt to separate Zionism from Judaism, so they can claim they are not anti-Semitic, just anti-Zionist. And since the Trump administration signed the Executive Order regarding anti-Semitism, we are seeing more and more of this in the form of activity intending to undermine and discredit the global acceptance of anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism. Expression challenging the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition’s identification of anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism—the definition relied on in the Executive Order—increased by 300 percent in 2019, and that trend continued in 2020.
Q: Naturally, the pandemic also greatly impacted college campuses, sending many students into remote learning and reducing in-person events. Given this, how would you assess the situation on campus for Jewish and pro-Israel students?
A: There’s both good and bad news here. The good news is that we saw a substantial decrease in anti-Semitic incidents this past year. And this is due to two reasons. The first is that with students remote and off-campus, the physical harassment and the intensity of coordinated harassment of Jewish students by other students was cut back considerably.
However, the bad news is that given the pandemonium around the pandemic, university administrators’ attention was also elsewhere, which afforded motivated anti-Zionist student groups and faculty the opportunity to run amok. For example, San Francisco State University Professor Rabab Abdulhadi inappropriately inserted herself and her hateful anti-Zionist incitement into a student government debate on a BDS resolution. Professor Abdulhadi’s involvement, as well as activists from outside SFSU, who were able to “helicopter” in via Zoom to shout “Death to Israel” and “Long Live the Intifada,” caused student representatives to feel so intimidated that they decided to vote by secret ballot. This was not an isolated occurrence.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that you have seen emerge on campus for students, especially as a result of the pandemic?
A: I would say that cyberbullying has been the biggest challenge for Jewish and pro-Israel students, many of whom were, and continue to be, on virtual rather than physical campuses since the start of the pandemic.
If all that students have are interactions with their peers and professors on videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, or via social media, emails, etc., then all of “campus life” is effectively reduced to written and verbal expression. So when students experience online anti-Semitic harassment or cyberbullying—in a Zoom classroom, student or faculty speaker event or student government meeting, in a social-media post or an op-ed in the online student newspaper—if it’s not properly addressed by school administrators, that harassment has the potential to drastically curtail a student’s ability or desire to fully participate in campus life.
And while school administrators have in general responded promptly and vigorously to instances of online classical anti-Semitic harassment, such as high-profile cases of neo-Nazi “Zoombombing” of online events at a few universities early in the pandemic, when the online harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students is Israel-related, administrators are much less likely to respond promptly and vigorously, or at all.
Q: What campus trends do you see continuing into 2021 and beyond, even when campuses return to normal?
A: I believe the trends we saw in 2020—faculty abuse, the exploitation of “intersectionality” to push anti-Zionist activism and attempts to uncouple Zionism from Judaism—will all continue this year.
Q: One issue that has emerged from California is the ethnic-studies curriculum, which has been accused of anti-Semitism. Could you provide an update on where this stands and what the broader implications are?
A: The third draft curriculum is now being reviewed by the State Board of Education and is likely to be approved, with few changes, in March.
On the surface, the second and third revised drafts seem much improved over the rejected first draft: the overtly anti-Zionist material has been removed, some of the more highly politicized language has been deleted or watered down, and material on Jewish Americans and anti-Semitism has been added. However, what has not changed is the curricular framework of the drafts, which remains firmly rooted in the principles of Critical Ethnic Studies, with its division of society into oppressed and oppressor based on race and class, its commitment to challenging “forms of power and oppression” as defined by neo-Marxist ideologies, and its encouragement of “transformative resistance.” In addition, and most profoundly concerning for the Jewish community, is that while both revised versions include lessons on Jewish Americans, the portrayal of Jews, filtered through the lens of Critical Ethnic Studies, is as “white” and “privileged” – clearly on the oppressor side of the race-class divide. At a time when anti-Jewish sentiment, hostility and violence has reached truly alarming levels, indoctrinating students to view Jews as “white” and “racially privileged” is tantamount to putting an even larger target on the back of every Jewish student.
But there’s another twist in the ethnic-studies curriculum story that’s important to be aware of. While the state educational offices have been busy revising the rejected first version of the curriculum, the original authors of that draft have been on a crusade to promote their highly politicized curriculum, including the anti-Zionist and BDS-promoting lessons, throughout the state. Immediately after their draft was rejected, they started an organization called Save CA Ethnic Studies and launched a petition demanding that the State Board of Education adopt their draft. After that they lobbied individual school districts throughout the state to vote on a resolution in support of their curriculum, and to date, at least 20 districts have adopted it. More recently, members of the original drafters established the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum coalition to further promote the rejected first draft as well as to offer school districts their educational expertise in implementing the curriculum in their schools.
Meanwhile, the recent revival of a state bill making a course in ethnic studies a graduation requirement in every California public and charter high school raises the stakes of the curriculum debate enormously. That bill, AB 101, recommends that school districts use the state’s model curriculum as the basis for the required courses, though it allows school districts to use any curriculum their board approves, even the original rejected draft being vigorously promoted by activists throughout the state.
Last year, realizing that coercing all high school students to take a highly politicized, divisive course in Critical Ethnic Studies would be a disaster for California students, especially Jewish students, AMCHA led a successful coalition effort urging the governor to veto AB 331, the precursor of the recently introduced AB 101. In light of the near certainty that the state’s model curriculum will be rooted in Critical Ethnic Studies, as well as the aggressive and successful campaign by a group of educator-activists to promote the adoption and implementation of an even more radical curriculum in hundreds of school districts statewide, we will be opposing AB 101 as well.
Q: Trump’s executive order on anti-Semitism was seen as a watershed moment in efforts to combat anti-Semitism on campus. What do you hope to see from the incoming Biden administration in this area?
A: Although Jewish students have been considered a protected minority under Title VI for several years, their complaints of Israel-related harassment have regularly been dismissed by the Department of Education and ignored by university administrators. It was therefore hoped that the use of the IHRA definition would allow government officials and university administrators to recognize and adequately address Israel-related harassment as antisemitism.
Unfortunately what we’ve documented over the past year is a dramatic and alarming uptick in challenges to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. This is a deliberate campaign on the part of anti-Zionist groups to decouple Zionism from Judaism. And it is likely a response to recent federal, state and student efforts, as well as the Trump administration’s Executive Order, to get government agencies and universities to use the IHRA definition to ensure that Jewish students are adequately protected from antisemitic harassment under anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and university harassment policies based on them. And this is highly concerning to us.
We believe a more long-term approach that involves ensuring all students are afforded equal protection and equal redress from behaviors that deny their right to self-expression, regardless of the motivation of the perpetrator or the identity of the victim, can provide Jewish students with permanent protection from anti-Semitic behavior that has previously been denied to them.
And since this is accomplished on the university level, it is not dependent on who holds elected office at any moment in time.
Q: Moving forward, what should people be paying attention to when it comes to anti-Semitism?
A: Although the alarming increase in classical anti-Semitic expression, including acts of lethal violence from neo-Nazis and white supremacists, constitutes a clear and present danger not only to Jews but to civil society as a whole, on U.S. campuses we have not seen a comparable rise in such classical anti-Semitic expression. I don’t expect that we will, given the political leanings of the majority of students and faculty on campuses where most Jewish students find themselves.
Rather, the growing ideological attack on Israel and Zionism, along with the perception of Jews as being racially privileged and part of the “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist system”—an idea that comes out of neo-Marxist academic theories popular at many colleges and universities—will both be prominent sources of campus anti-Semitism that the Jewish community should be paying attention to.
But no less important than these sources of anti-Semitism are university administrators’ responses to them. I would urge college and university stakeholders, including parents or grandparents, alums, donors or taxpayers, to pay special attention to the way in which schools handle the harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students, and whether it’s consistent with how they treat all other students on campus. Every time stakeholders communicate with schools regarding the harassment of Jewish or pro-Israel students, they need to state this message—equal protection for all students—loudly and clearly.
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