Antisemitism Thrives in Academia

by Alex Katz on January 18, 2011

Anti-Semitism has become a fixture of today’s college campuses—and not just because of Westboro Baptist Church’s national tour.

In late 2010, bricks were thrown through the window of the Chabad House at Indiana University, and a menorah at the University of Florida was uprooted and vandalized. These events appear to be part of a larger trend: The Anti-Defamation League has received reports of at least 260 anti-Semitic incidents on campuses over the past three years.

Stanford University has had its own incidents. In late 2009, a sukkah – a temporary hut constructed in celebration of the festival of Sukkot – in front of the Hillel building was vandalized with graffiti. Administrators and investigators were never able to ascertain whether the act was simply a random act of vandalism or a purposeful act of hate. Similar incidents have occurred regionally, on campuses such as San Jose State.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland, the Stanford Hillel rabbi, said that whatever the motivation, the event was still damaging.

“Whether or not it’s ever determined, at some level, it doesn’t matter because of [Jews’] history as tiny persecuted people over a long history,” Copeland said.

That long history continues – and particularly in the Golden State. Kenneth Marcus, former staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said that the resurgence in anti-Semitic activity had occurred “more in California than in any other state.”

Marcus attributed the increase to a number of factors, including the state’s left-leaning tendencies, larger Arab and Muslim population and campuses more tolerant of extremist ideologies.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, lecturer in Hebrew at UC Santa Cruz, pointed to political tendencies of university faculty members.

“It’s anti-Zionist faculty who use their position as faculty members to promote a political agenda,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “I think that what happens in the classroom influences what happens in the campus square and gives it legitimacy.”

Rossman-Benjamin believes this variety of factors, at times, forms a “perfect storm” that produces an outpouring of anti-Semitism.

One example of this occurred at UC-Irvine in the early 2000s, where Jewish property was defaced with swastikas and Jewish students were physically assaulted.

Susan Tuchman, legal director of the Zionist Organization of America, described how at UC-Irvine “students reported that they’ve been afraid to wear a kippah or Star of David” and how many “students and faculty feared for their physical safety on the campus.”

While Irvine experienced traditional forms of anti-Semitism, experts note the recent rise in campus anti-Semitism has been characterized by a new form of anti-Semitic rhetoric, which blurs the line between anti-Israel political expression and outright anti-Semitism. Kenneth Marcus noted that this type of rhetoric has become increasingly common in the past decade.

“Discourse regarding Israel is used as a cloak for animus toward the Jewish people,” he said. “This has had a significant increase since the start of the Second Intifada a decade ago and the failure of the Oslo Process.”

When asked how to differentiate between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment, Marcus pointed to Israeli author Natan Sharansky’s “3-D Test,” which lays out three forms of rhetoric that are, in his mind, anti-Semitic – namely, demonization, double standards, and delegitimization.

Marcus said that much of the rhetoric surrounding Israel on college campuses today often fails the “3-D Test.” He pointed to the divestment movement (BDS) as one example of the use of double standards.

“[It would] otherwise be inexplicable why they’re focused on Israel, not China, Saudi Arabi, the Sudan, or any of other countless examples,” he said.

University and National Responses

University response to anti-Semitic rhetoric varies—and some argue the response at some schools lacks proper aggression.

At UC-Irvine, the Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism concluded that the university administration did not act strongly enough in condemning instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Furthermore, the report criticized prominent national organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel, for failing to hold the “University and its leadership accountable for its failure to support an environment conducive to all students.”

According to Susan Tuchman, such failings are not limited to the Irvine campus.

”You often see college administrators either remain silent in response to anti-Semitism,” Tuchmann said. “Many administrators say that we know that this speech is hateful, hurtful, and offensive, but there’s free speech and therefore we can’t intervene.”

Tuchman described how when her organization, ZOA, filed a civil rights complaint in the case of UC Irvine, the response was unexpected.

“I thought other organizations would publically support what we did. And that was not the response that we got,” she said.

Rossman-Benjamin said national groups like Hillel often have conflicts of interest, which can cause inaction.

“On the one hand, they want to keep the students safe,” she said. “But on the other hand, they want to give two images: one that they’ve got everything under control and two that their university is a really wonderful place with a thriving Jewish life because of Hillel.”

However, Rossman-Benjamin argued that the role of national organizations is advocacy.

“Ultimately, the only people can really take care of this problem is the administration,” she said. “Hillel can bring pressure.”

Effects on the Farm

According to Stanford University administrators and religious leaders, national problems with anti-Semitism are not present at Stanford.

“(I have been) impressed by how thoughtful our student responses have been at Stanford, compared to many other institutions,” said Reverend Scott McLennan, dean for religious life at Stanford.

Rabbi Copeland gave significant credit to both the University administration and various national organizations.

“Our administration has been incredibly supportive,” she said. “They want to keep thinking about how to combat these types of incidents. They’ve really been advocates for the Jewish community.”

Sally Dickson, vice provost for student affairs, said Stanford has experienced anti-Semitism to a lesser degree than other Californian schools.  She attended a meeting to discuss anti-Semitism on campuses across the state, called by the California governor’s office.

“Clearly from what I learned from that meeting, many campuses have experienced an even larger degree than we have in the blurring of the Israeli/Palestinian issue,” Dickson said.

But some say Stanford’s not quite free from anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Copeland said anti-Israel rhetoric at Stanford has often failed the 3-D Test. She described instances of all three Ds in campus discussion, pointing specifically to the campus’s divestment campaign.

“The double standard we see clearly in what happens on campus,” she said. “[There are] activists who are not paying attention to what’s going on elsewhere in the world and highlight Israel outside and above any other country.”

Rabbi Copeland believes such rhetoric prevents productive discussion.

“There’s a need for critique and honest dialogue,” she said, “but we get so stuck in these places that we can’t get to place of good dialogue.”

Rossman-Benjamin said Stanford’s faculty may not be free from bias, either. She attended a lecture given by Stanford Professor Joel Beinin, which she described as “very vitriolic and quite anti-Israel.” In her mind, the talk “did cross that line.”

Benjamin said the use of such rhetoric in the classroom was her real concern.

“If [professors] keep it outside of the classroom, it’s not my issue,” she said. “What really is wrong and corrupts the notion of a university is when that gets brought into the university.”

To advance dialogue in and outside of the classroom, Rabbi Copeland encouraged a greater understanding of the state of Israel.

“I don’t think Israel is all understood in how it connects to Judaism — it’s part of our liturgy, our lore, our history, our identity,” she said. “It’s so integrally tied up that, yes, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment do have a connection.”

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