In Combatting Anti-Semitism On Campus, Let’s Learn More From Jewish Students’ Experiences

In Combatting Anti-Semitism On Campus, Let’s Learn More From Jewish Students’ Experiences

Reports about Sheldon Adelson’s Campus Maccabees initiative suggest new efforts will emerge to fight Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on campus. This year, in addition to divestment resolutions, we witnessed incidents at UCLA and Stanford and growing evidence that Jewish students experience anti-Semitism on campus.

Those responsible for nurturing vibrant Jewish life on campus must assess the challenges of campus anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, both to combat the efforts of those who seek to delegitimize Israel as well as to protect Jewish students, whether or not they are actively involved in Jewish life. National trends identify the challenges and assist in mobilizing resources to meet those challenges. However, effective interventions must address campus-specific realities and needs. While anti-divestment activists rightfully pursue their advocacy initiatives, efforts to address anti-Semitism on campus must begin with its primary victims: Jewish students.

Roughly 11 million undergraduates attend 2,700 four-year colleges/universities in North America. Hillel International is involved in 550 North American colleges; it estimates that 400,000 Jewish students attend 275 of these universities. Seventy-five percent of Jewish undergraduates are concentrated in 100 universities where there are 1,000 or more Jewish students. The scope of this challenge: Jewish students are concentrated on 10 percent, and mostly on 4 percent, of North American universities.

In addition to divestment, broader concerns about anti-Semitism on campus are warranted. In March 2014, Trinity College researchers invited about 10,000 Jewish students to complete an on-line questionnaire. Their February, 2015, Anti-Semitism Report contained a startling finding: 54 percent of the 1,157 respondents indicated they had “…witnessed or personally been subjected to anti-Semitism” in one or more contexts since the beginning of the academic year in September, 2013. Forty-seven percent of the anti-Semitic experiences were from interactions with individual students, 16 percent were in clubs/societies, 9 percent in classes, 6 percent in the student union, 5 percent with university administrations, and 16 percent were in other contexts.

Of all students surveyed, 29 percent reported anti-Semitism in exchanges with individual students. As the report notes, this is consistent with findings from the 2013 Pew Survey of American Jews which reported that 22 percent of Jews, ages 18-29, relate having been called offensive names in the past year, compared to 16 percent of Jews 30-49 years old, and about 5 percent of Jews over 50. The prevalence of anti-Semitism in interpersonal exchanges reflects its persistence independently of Israel and anti-Zionist efforts, as one Trinity survey respondent observed, “Tolerance and acceptance are still an issue when we live in a Christianity-based society.”

The ADL’s 2014 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents reported 47 campus incidents in 2014, a 27 percent increase from 37 incidents in 2013. This parallels a rise in incidents nationwide from 751 in 2013 to 912 in 2014; in both years, campus incidents represented about 5 percent of all reported incidents. The number of anti-Semitic incidents on campus has varied greatly; the ADL reported 61 incidents in 2012 and 22 incidents in 2011. A March 25, 2015 ADL letter to The Forward noted: “Anti-Semitic incidents reported to us in 2014 came from just 1 percent of colleges.”

Anti-Semitism on campus is not new and today’s divestment advocates were engaged in anti-Israel campaigns long before using divestment to focus (and essentially demand) attention. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the principal group promoting campus divestment efforts against Israel, has more than 115 campus groups on U.S. campuses today, according to a recent ADL Report. The report notes, “SJP has become increasingly unified in recent years and its chapters have begun to collaborate more closely…”

According to the AMCHA Initiative, 22 campuses and two multi-campus student associations had divestment resolutions brought either before student governments and/or to a student vote in 2014-2015. Ten resolutions passed, one of which was overturned then passed again, and a second failed to pass a campus-wide student vote. Resolutions at 12 other campuses and in one multi-campus student association failed. Divestment resolutions were considered on 17 campuses during 2013-2014; nine resolutions passed, four of which were rescinded or vetoed, and 11 resolutions were defeated. Despite these efforts, to date no university has acted to divest in response to passed resolutions.

Divestment efforts are ongoing processes over months and years, with proponents using multiple opportunities to excoriate Israel in public forums. Divestment opponents have discovered that winning resolution battles can be ephemeral, as divestment advocates succeed principally by posing resolutions that demand attention and require debate. If resolutions fail, new or reformulated resolutions may be presented. Resolutions may be aimed at different constituencies and, at times, are brought before the student body for a vote. Efforts and processes from one year may be revisited the next year: divestment advocates on seven campuses brought resolutions from 2013-2014 back for reconsideration in 2014-2015.

While countering divestment efforts is a critical task, an emphasis on Jewish students and their needs views divestment as one challenge among others on campus, rather than considering the campus as one venue or flashpoint in the fight against divestment. Jewish students on campus face multiple challenges.  First, Jewish students report feeling harassed and sometimes subjected to intimidation by those who promote divestment. Second, anti-Israel actions independent of divestment efforts, including staging die-ins to disrupt Hillel events, protesting Birthright Israel in settings where recruiters are tabling, and distributing mock eviction notices – room-by-room — in university dormitories, reflect a desire among some anti-Israel advocates to express their outrage toward Israel in ways that deliberately interfere with Jewish student activities and may violate university rules. Third, whether or not Jewish students feel directly threatened, their feelings about being Jewish – which may or may not include Israel as a central component – may be negatively impacted. 

While the Trinity report findings are intriguing, they are based on one question in a survey (The National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students) that by the researchers’ own acknowledgement “covered a wide variety of topics and was not aimed at an in-depth investigation of anti-Semitic incidents.”  Consequently, we need a better understanding of how Jewish students are encountering and experiencing anti-Semitism on campus. Intentional, structured conversations with Jewish students ought to be taking place on all campuses, but especially on campuses where there are reports of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities. The conversations will help: assess the depth and range of their experiences; identify activities to empower students to react to anti-Semitic remarks; provide an outlet and an ongoing reference point for dealing with these issues as they progress through their college years; and, when needed, create strategies for addressing their needs through efforts with campus administrators.

Most universities have guidelines or Student Codes of Conduct to protect all students from discrimination, harassment, and intimidation, and many have regulations for student group operations. If such guidelines do not provide a safe environment for students, students and others (Hillel staff, members of Hillel Boards, or university alumni) must work with university administrators to guarantee enforcement of existing guidelines or change guidelines to hold the university accountable to ensure a safe and secure campus environment for all students.

In addition, many universities require student participation in diversity activities that foster a climate of understanding and inclusivity in the campus community. Such experiences create connections among students from different backgrounds by identifying, discussing, and valuing their differences. With the increase of international students on U.S. campuses, these experiences have at times included religious and cultural identities alongside race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. . In this context, Jewish students, often regarded as part of the white majority in America, may experience the loss of their identity as a religious and ethnic minority. Promoting a greater nuance to understanding the Jewish experience would be more authentic to the lived experiences of Jewish students, while helping others understand how it is possible for many American Jews to be both part of a white majority while remaining a self-identified minority.

Local assessments must also address key elements in the campus political climate, including the role of student government leadership, as well as popular political issues on campus (for example, the word divestment most often references efforts at universities to divest from companies involved in fossil fuels). With respect to Israel, specifically: Are there active groups on campus whose agendas include anti-Israel activities? How effective are they? Are there professors, graduate students, or staff whose rhetoric, whether inside or outside the classroom, espouses anti-Israel sentiment? How influential are they?

New efforts to combat BDS will likely seek to increase knowledge about Israel, among Jews and others, on campus. Knowledge and depth understanding of Israel and its history are worthy objectives. However, relying only on increasing knowledge in order to formulate arguments risks ignoring a core value that all students bring to campus, a value political leaders know well – it’s relationships that matter.  Jewish students need not be experts on Israel to work with campus administrators to use campus rules against intimidation; and, if Jewish students wish to respond to anti-Semitic comments (whether or not the comment is also anti-Israel) they don't need to know the history of Jewish persecution to find a way to stand up for themselves.

The primary focus of the Jewish community’s efforts on campus must begin with the welfare of Jewish students and our relationships with them. In moving forward to address their needs we must cultivate and nurture relationships with campus leadership, both students and administration.

Larry Sternberg, Visiting Scholar in the Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership at Brandeis University, is the former Executive Director of Brandeis Hillel and served as the Director of Brandeis’ Nathan Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy.


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