OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Universities must be forced to address antisemitism

Campuses run by arrogant, apathetic administrators will not change unless those administrators' jobs and schools' survival is threatened.

Anti-Israeli protesters chant outside the City College Of New York (CUNY) in New York City on May 1, 2024. Credit: Alex Kent/Getty Images.
Anti-Israeli protesters chant outside the City College Of New York (CUNY) in New York City on May 1, 2024. Credit: Alex Kent/Getty Images.
Jason Shvili
Jason Shvili
Jason Shvili is a contributing editor at Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.

“Never would I have imagined that I’d need to fight for my right to exist on campus,” laments Shabbos Kestenbaum, a student at Harvard University who is suing the school because “antisemitism is out of control.”

Jewish students have suffered an unrelenting explosion of hate on American higher education campuses—so far with little relief. They have endured antisemitic rhetoric, intimidation, cancellation and violence. But those charged with keeping campuses safe—whether administrators who govern student and faculty behavior or federal agencies responsible for ensuring that schools adhere to civil rights protections—are failing in their jobs.

Many Jewish students have complained to their colleges’ administrators about the injustices. But instead of responding with measures to ensure Jewish students’ safety—like stopping pro-Hamas protestors from hijacking campuses or expelling militants who incite Jew-hatred— administrators have largely shown indifference. In some cases, college authorities have made things worse for Jewish students by appeasing the riotous, pro-Hamas mobs who have been primary perpetrators of Jew-hatred on campus.

Snubbed by college administrators, Jewish students and their supporters have appealed for federal protection, filing Title VI complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the body tasked with enforcing protections under the Civil Rights Act. Unfortunately, the OCR, which has the power to levy severe financial punishments against colleges that neglect students’ Title VI rights, has so far rewarded negligent universities with little more than slaps on the wrist.

Until college and university boards of trustees begin hiring administrators committed to Jewish students’ safety—and until the OCR begins seriously punishing antisemitic perpetrators—we can expect no respite. Safe to say, colleges and universities run by arrogant, apathetic administrators will not change until their jobs and schools’ survival are threatened. 

College/university administrators don’t take antisemitism seriously. Their reactions to Jewish students raising concerns about Jew-hatred range from indifference to outright hostility. For example, when Mohammed Al-Kurd, who the Anti-Defamation League says has a record of “unvarnished, vicious antisemitism,” came to speak at Harvard, Shabbos Kestenbaum and other Jewish students complained to administrators.

Rather than cancel Al-Kurd’s appearance, which would have been the appropriate action, the administrators ignored the students’ complaints. “Harvard’s silence was deafening,” Kestenbaum wrote in Newsweek. Kestenbaum said he “repeatedly” expressed concerns to administrators about the antisemitism he experienced, but as his lawsuit alleges, “evidence of uncontrolled discrimination and harassment fell on deaf ears.”

Administrators at Columbia University reacted to Jewish students’ complaints about antisemitism even more cynically. In fact, during an alumni event, several administrators exchanged text messages mocking Jewish students, calling them “privileged” and “difficult to listen to.”

When Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asked the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania if calling for genocide against Jews violated their schools’ codes of conduct, none could say “yes.” The presidents of Harvard and UPenn have since resigned. Good riddance.

Some college/university administrators have outrageously granted concessions to pro-Hamas students. For instance, Northwestern University agreed to contact potential employers of students who caused campus disruptions to insist they be hired, create a segregated dormitory hall exclusively for Middle Eastern, North African and Muslim students, and form a new investment committee in which anti-Zionists could wield undue influence. Brown University agreed to hold a referendum on divestment from Israel in October.

Similar appeasements were announced at other colleges and universities, including Rutgers, Johns Hopkins, the University of Minnesota and the University of California Riverside.

So far, OCR has failed to take concrete action against antisemitism on campus. This is evident in recent decisions involving the City University of New York (CUNY) and the University of Michigan. CUNY was ordered to conduct more investigations into Title VI complaints and report further developments to Washington, provide more employee and campus security officer training, and issue “climate surveys” to students.

The University of Michigan also committed to a “climate survey,” as well as to reviewing its case files for each report of discrimination covered by Title VI during the 2023-2024 school year and reporting to the OCR on its responses to reports of discrimination for the next two school years.

Neither institution was penalized financially, even though the Department of Education has the power to withhold federal funds, which most colleges and universities depend on. There are now 149 pending investigations into campus antisemitism at OCR. If these investigations yield toothless results similar to those of CUNY and Michigan, it is highly unlikely that colleges and universities will improve how they deal with antisemitism.

Putting an end to skyrocketing antisemitism on campus involves three things.

First, donors and governments at every level should withhold funds from colleges that fail to hire administrators who will take antisemitism as seriously as they take pronoun offenses or racism directed at people of color.

Second, the OCR must mete out serious consequences to Title VI violators in the form of funding cuts. This may require legislation that specifically mandates withdrawing funding from offending parties. A bill recently introduced by Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.)—the University Accountability Act—may be ideal, as it is designed to financially penalize institutions that don’t crack down on antisemitism.

Third, if OCR won’t act, Jewish students and their supporters should turn to the courts. Lori Lowenthal Marcus, the legal director of the Deborah Project, a public-interest Jewish law firm, argues that the CUNY settlement demonstrates the futility of going to OCR and that going to court is more likely to produce “a clearly delineated and productive result,” such as punitive and compensatory fines. As of late May, at least 14 colleges and universities are facing lawsuits over their handling of antisemitism on campus since Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre.

As long as college administrators are allowed to ignore antisemitism on campus and as long as OCR and other government institutions fall short in punishing Jew-hatred, antisemitism will continue to plague Jewish students.

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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