At a recent Jewish charity function hosted at the Harvard Club of New York, an imposing portrait of a mustached man hung in a gilded frame along the mahogany wall by the sushi station, looking down on the mingling crowd.
That man was Abbott Lawrence Lowell. As Harvard’s president in the early 20th century, Lowell implemented a restrictive Jewish admissions quota in order to preserve the university’s Brahmin, predominantly Protestant character.
Such deep-seated antisemitism in U.S. academia, albeit nonviolent, was thought to have been an unpleasant thing of the past. Today, academic institutions across the nation pride themselves on being bastions of intellectual freedom, diversity and student safety.
Unless you’re Jewish. Some of these beacons of enlightenment have now become safe spaces for antisemitism.
When I was at Columbia’s Journalism School in 2018, the office of a professor specializing in Holocaust studies was vandalized with a swastika. Back then, we told ourselves that this horrific act of hatred was an isolated incident perpetrated by marginal offenders. The same went for the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh the same year and the deadly shooting at a Chabad synagogue in San Diego in 2019.
But antisemitic incidents on American campuses today are certainly not isolated.
Humanity’s oldest hatred has seen a terrifying resurgence worldwide since the savage Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and it is infecting our country’s youngest minds. Indeed, what shocked American Jews most was not just the barbaric slaughter. Hamas’s genocidal intentions were well known and clearly expressed in its founding charter. What American Jews did not anticipate was what the world’s immediate reaction to the massacre would be, especially on college campuses, where an eruption of racism and hatred lionized Hamas monsters as “freedom fighters” engaged in “justified resistance” to Zionist “oppressors.”
Peaceful protests serve an important function in a thriving democratic society. But there is a massive difference between peaceful protests advocating peaceful goals and the sinister neo-antisemitism expressed by mobs of Hamas supporters across the country, camouflaged as social justice activism. There is nothing peaceful about protesting alongside demonstrators openly chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”—a blatant euphemism for the annihilation of the State of Israel and its people.
On Dec. 5, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT testified before Congress about the antisemitism metastasizing on their campuses. There’s a good reason for this: The 400% surge in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. since Oct. 7 includes harrowing real-life incidents in which Jewish students and teachers feared for their lives as they were threatened with violence and even murder at the hands of those they once considered allies. The human toll of this had to be acknowledged.
At Cornell University, for example, Jewish students were warned to stay away from the school’s kosher dining hall after a 21-year-old junior threatened to “shoot up” the building and rape Jewish students. At Cooper Union in New York, Jewish students barricaded themselves in a library to escape antisemitic demonstrators who were banging on the glass walls of the building.
These acts of violence are not confined to higher education. One of the most terrifying incidents occurred two weeks ago at Hillcrest High School in New York, where throngs of TikTok-imbibing students hounded a Jewish schoolteacher for attending a pro-Israel rally, forcing her to lock herself in a classroom.
The response to this pandemic of antisemitism in our country’s educational institutions should be as swift and thorough as the US government’s effort to eradicate COVID-19. The only difference between the two pandemics is that the virus of antisemitism is visible. It does not even bother to hide in plain sight and Jewish people are now quarantined from the racists who wish to harm them.
To eliminate this plague, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans certain forms of antisemitic and related forms of discrimination, must be enforced to the fullest extent of the law. When schools fall short, they should be held accountable. We saw an example of such enforcement last week when the U.S. Department of Education initiated civil rights investigations of various academic institutions that have become hotbeds of antisemitism, including Cornell, Columbia and Penn, as well as the Maize Unified School District. Moreover, student safety from antisemitism should be a deciding factor in which schools receive federal funding and in national and state college rankings.
Jewish families are already wondering whether they should send their children to many of these top schools. Influential donors have started severing ties to schools that refuse to combat antisemitism on their campuses. It appears that if our most august academic institutions continue to let down their Jewish students, the antisemites won’t need to institute another Lowell-esque Jewish quota. The Jews won’t apply, and Lowell will have won.