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Should Jewish students be afraid on campus?

Only when campus authorities treat Jew-hatred with the same aggressiveness as other forms of bigotry will we see improvement.

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.
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

I was a big fan of the TV show “M*A*S*H.” One of the series’ most iconic scenes occurred in the first season, when Hawkeye operates on a wounded friend and can’t save him. His commanding officer Col. Blake sees him crying and tries to console him by saying: “There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is: ‘Young men die.’ Rule number two is: ‘Doctors can’t change rule number one.’”

It made me think of a corollary.

There are certain rules about being a Jew. Rule number one is: Anti-Semitism never dies. Rule number two is: The Jews can’t change rule number one.

Depressing, I know. Still, as I’ve often argued, we should not lose our heads over every report on how much anti-Semitism is in our midst. This is particularly true of college campuses, where extraordinary numbers of students tell pollsters they have experienced anti-Semitism in some way, and many are frightened.

Some schools are worse than others, but the idea that college is unsafe for Jews is pure poppycock. Unfortunately, however, this idea has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jewish students and parents are constantly told campus is unsafe and this, of course, frightens them. As a result, rather than learn to be proud and stand up for themselves, too many students learn helplessness and to hide their identities.

The Anti-Defamation League always makes news when it releases statistics, so it was no surprise that this headline got plenty of attention: “ADL Finds 350+ Anti-Israel Incidents on U.S. Campuses, Many Adversely Impacting Jewish Students.”

It seems like most Jews reading about campus anti-Semitism see any number of incidents, think it is huge and assume it must reflect the terrifying state of Jewish life on campus. How many people think about the data more carefully?

The figure in the report was for the 2021-22 academic year, but if we look at the data by calendar year, last year’s 155 campus incidents were 20% less than the all-time peak of 204 in 2017. The figure had declined for three straight years before a 17% uptick last year. Moreover, the ADL and other organizations treat all anti-Semitic incidents the same, though they are often of varying severity.

Do you want to know how dangerous it is for campus Jewish students? The ADL reported a total of one physical assault. Yes, one is too many, but would you consider your neighborhood dangerous if one assault was committed in a year?

According to the ADL, the other anti-Israel incidents are “11 instances of vandalism, 19 instances of targeted verbal and/or written harassment, 143 anti-Israel events, 165 protests and actions and 20 BDS resolutions and referenda.”

Most of these incidents are not directed at individual Jews at all. Of the 350 cases, almost 90% were anti-Israel events and protests. Sure, they’re unpleasant, but these activities have been going on for decades.

What is new is that most students don’t know how to react and are easily cowed. It’s always been the case that few students are well-informed enough to challenge the campus detractors, and fewer still want to engage in verbal combat. In the past, however, students weren’t afraid and didn’t need “safe spaces.”

Think again about the context of the data. There are an estimated 290,000 Jewish college students. One was assaulted and 19 were harassed. How does this data comport with surveys suggesting that as many as seven out of 10 students have experienced anti-Semitism?

The ADL says there were 20 BDS resolutions but doesn’t list them. I know of only seven, three of which were defeated. If ADL is correct, this still affected only 20 schools. According to my data, only 74 schools—less than 2% of the total—have had a BDS vote since 2005. Over 60% of these resolutions were defeated, and the universities implemented none.

Consider also that the ADL’s 350 examples were spread over a school year of roughly 34 months. Is a little over 10 per month a lot or a little? The report does not explain its methodology in detail, so among other things, we don’t know how many schools the data covers. The United States has more than 4,000 four-year institutions, meaning fewer than 10% had anti-Israel incidents. The number is probably much smaller since anti-Israel activities tend to be concentrated on a relative handful of schools—roughly 50-60.

Some argue that these are often the most elite schools, and that is true, but even if the cases were restricted to the top 60 schools, that would still be an average of fewer than six incidents per school over the entire school year.

Most of us want to believe that more educated people are less likely to turn to the dark side, which is why much of our work is devoted to education. This makes it even more disturbing that some of this year’s anti-Semitic manifestations occurred at Berkeley and Harvard.

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. The campuses may not be on fire, but that does not mean they should be left to smolder. Remember the rules. Given rule number two, perhaps we need to focus less on the students and faculty who are the problem and more on how others on campus react to their activities. Jewish organizations are outsiders. We need insiders to make it unacceptable to engage in anti-Semitic activity. The burden should not be on Jewish students.

In the larger society, anti-Semitism is considered unacceptable, as we’ve seen from the reaction to Kanye West’s rants—though increasing numbers of politicians are chipping away at that norm. The same is not true on campus. Only when we compel campus authorities to treat Jew-hatred with the same aggressiveness they apply to other forms of bigotry will we see an improvement in the campus climate.

Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby,” “Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”

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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