Hostility against Jewish students ramps up on campuses

The past academic year was marred by many attacks against students for simply being Jews and Zionists.

Antisemitic fliers found on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in January 2023.
Antisemitic fliers found on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in January 2023.

Graduation is traditionally a time of celebration and fulfillment—an opportunity for graduates to reflect on academic accomplishments and embark on the next chapter of their lives. An inspirational commencement speaker emphasizes and lauds these accomplishments through an impactful personal story conveying gratitude and giving thanks.

Enter the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law. The public university system has educated millions of students across its 25 campuses and counts 13 Nobel Prize winners among its alumni. For the second year in a row, CUNY’s law students selected their classmate, a known anti-Zionist activist whose incitement and actions cross the line into overt anti-Jewish hatred, to deliver the commencement speech.

In her ludicrous speech, Fatima Mohammed falsely accused the Jewish state of white supremacy, colonialism and violence. She also repeatedly referenced “investors” and “Zionists,” which are codewords for Jews. CUNY’s Law School suppressed the video from social-media feeds for weeks after being criticized for the commencement.

The past academic year was marred by many attacks against students for simply being Jews and Zionists. The U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights entered into a “historic and precedent-setting” agreement with the University of Vermont regarding the intimidation, harassment and discrimination faced by Jewish and Zionist students. The department’s investigation followed a complaint filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law claiming that the university violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin.

Allegations in the complaint included blocking Zionist students from a support group for survivors of sexual assault and vandalism of the campus Hillel Center. Another incident involved a teaching assistant’s post on social media: “is it unethical for me, a TA, to not give zionists credit for participation??? i feel like its good and funny, – 5 points for going on birthright in 2018, -10 for posting a pic with a tank in the Golan heights, -2 points just cuz i hate ur vibe in general.”

Brandeis Center president Alyza Lewin stated that the university resolution agreement demonstrates how “Jews are protected by law from discrimination that targets them on the basis of their Jewish peoplehood and the Jews’ shared ancestral ethnic heritage, which is inextricably linked to the land of Israel.”

Reports of attacks against Jewish students at K-12 schools also are becoming increasingly common. Numerous students harassed a young Jew at an Arizona school, calling her a “dirty,” “stinky” and “filthy Jew.” One abhorrent joke made by a student towards her, asked: “How do you get a Jewish girl’s number? By lifting her sleeve,” in reference to the location of the arm tattoos that the Nazis painfully forced on Jews bearing their prisoner identification number. Others made jokes about the Holocaust and made Nazi salutes towards the Jewish student.

The Office for Civil Rights concluded that by not seriously investigating the offenses, the Phoenix area school district violated the Jewish student’s civil rights under Title VI, on discrimination based on national origin. The decision requires the school district to take actions intended to prevent bigoted discrimination from happening again.

There have been countless other examples of discrimination against Jews at all educational levels—from elementary school to graduate colleges, public and private schools—including vandalism of Chanukah menorahs, ripping down mezuzot from the dorm room entrances of Jewish students, anti-Jewish flyers distributed on campuses, anti-Israel sidewalk graffiti, speakers defaming the Jewish state, expelling students from university clubs, threats to reduce student grades and more.

Students, alumni and campus leaders are fighting back against campus anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Students and staff filed discrimination lawsuits, alumni are threatening to withhold philanthropic contributions and university presidents are committed to fighting hatred targeting Jews. In many cases, university leaders are speaking out in support of Israel and against harassment of Jewish students; meanwhile, their students and staff are enthusiastically targeting Jews and vociferously backing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against the Jewish state.

Points to consider:

  1. Jewish students must feel safe within their schools like anyone else.

Ensuring that Jewish students are protected not only upholds the principles of equality and non-discrimination but also fosters an inclusive learning environment where all students can thrive. Equality shouldn’t require the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, but this is increasingly the case for Jews. It is the responsibility of university administrators, principals, teachers and students to address all forms of anti-Jewish discrimination, promote tolerance and cultivate an atmosphere that respects the rights and dignity of all students, including Jews.

  1. CUNY Law School proves that Jewish voices are often disregarded.

The American Jewish community made its position clear a year ago when it condemned the comments made by the CUNY Law School’s commencement speaker that crossed into anti-Jewish hate speech; yet, it happened again this year. The law school’s students and faculty applauded the invective delivered by their chosen speaker. The school knew there was an issue with the speech because it hid the video from the public for weeks. Universities are responsible for the environment, culture and narrative their students create. Rather than fostering inclusion, many American universities are hotbeds of anti-Israel activities and encourage future leaders to oppose the Jewish state. Too many times, Jewish voices are excluded and silenced.

  1. Inclusion and Accessibility programs must include Jews and Zionists.

“We call on employers, including states, cities, K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, private companies, and non-profits, to review their own programs to ensure full inclusion of antisemitism awareness and […] to share information with employees about American Jewish heritage, culture, and history.”

— The U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism

A study of more than 700 administrators at 65 universities found they tend to have a disproportionate—and overwhelmingly negative—fixation on Israel. Shunning Jews who refuse to reject their ancestral connection to Israel is discrimination. School districts and universities adopting new admissions and governance standards must apply the White House’s call to include Jewish and Zionist representation.

  1. Zionism is an integral part of Jewish identity for most American Jews, not a political stance.

More than 80% of American Jews say Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them. Passover and Yom Kippur both conclude with the phrase: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Shunning Jews who refuse to reject their Jewish connection to their ancestral homeland, Israel, is antisemitic for many reasons: It seeks to withhold protections freely given to other U.S. minorities; it denies only the Jewish people their right to self-determination; and it discriminates against Jews based on their shared ancestry and ethnicity. Discriminating against Jews for expressing the Zionist component of their Jewish identity is a form of national and ethnic origin discrimination.

  1. Anti-Zionism = Antisemitism.

“When Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism. And that is unacceptable.”

— The U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism was adopted by more than 40 countries, high-profile universities and institutions, and is used by all U.S. executive departments and agencies that enforce Title VI civil-rights protections. The definition explains what constitutes antisemitism and why. It includes examples of delegitimization, demonization and double standards against Israel that move into antisemitism and makes clear that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” It is common for opponents of Zionism to say that they are merely criticizing Israeli policies when they are actually opposed to the existence of Israel in any form.

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