By Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor
College used to be a place for academic inquiry, social and physical exploration, recreation and maturation, and sometimes political activism. If you were Jewish, you could find yourself in a community chock full of Jews (Brandeis, Columbia, NYU, etc) or you might be one of very few Jews (Bowdoin, Texas A&M, University of Iowa, etc), or you could be the token Jew. If the community was full of Jews, you would soon discover a plethora of modes of Jewish expression. If you were one of a few Jews, you found yourself to be the official spokesperson for the world-wide Jewish community. Regardless of where you ended up, your Jewish identity would truly be formed now that you were cut loose from parental and familial influence.
Instead, today, on many college campuses, regardless of the Jewish identity one had when they arrived on campus, antisemitism and anti-Zionism permeate the college environment. The least self-identified Jewish student is as likely to feel under attack as the most openly proud Jewish student.
At UC Berkeley’s law school, a campaign has been launched by a group calling themselves Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP) to pressure all other student organizations on campus to adopt a bylaw supporting BDS (boycott, divest from and sanction Israel). Additionally, they “will not invite speakers [who] have expressed and continue to hold view or host/sponsor/promote events in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.” Further the bylaw stated that student groups must proclaim that they are “publicly stipulating the organization’s position of anti-racism and anti-settler colonialism to speakers, ensuring that proposals for speakers emphasize the organization’s desire for equality and inclusion.” All of this is for the supposed purpose of creating “a safe and inclusive space for Palestinian students and students that are in support of the liberation of Palestine.” (as reported in Mosaic in an article by Richard Cravatts)
The law school’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, mildly criticized the bylaw in an open letter. The group responded via a post on Instagram that free speech should only be enjoyed by the oppressed and “marginalized” like themselves. Anyone supporting the racist, apartheid regime of Israel should not have access to the same expression, they claimed. It is perfectly reasonable, they asserted, for pro-Israel dialogue to be suppressed.
Last semester one major university’s student government voted to fund a speech by Mohammed El-Kurd, who says that Israel and Jewish settlers have “an unquenchable thirst for Palestinian blood . . .”. This is an allusion to the ancient “Blood Libel” that Jews use Christian children’s blood to bake Matzah’s. El-Kurd also describes Zionists (those supporting the existence of the State of Israel) as “Fascists. Terrorists. Colonizers.” On top of that, he describes Zionism as a “death cult”, “murderous”, “genocidal” and “sadistic”. When asked what would happen to Israelis if Palestinians took all the land “from the river to the sea” Mohammed El-Kurd replied “I don’t care. I truly, sincerely, don’t give a f…” The audience roared its approval. In demonizing Zionists, El-Kurd takes pains to compare them to Nazis. For example, he calls Zionist settlers “sadistic barbaric neo-nazi pigs”. He has also written that they have “completely internalized the ways of the nazis”.
Evan Gertsman, a professor, writes: There is, of course, one way to defend El-Kurd’s speeches on university campuses: freedom of speech. One can argue that students benefit from hearing even hateful and false statements because it provokes dialogue, draws attention to important issues, and creates a forum for counter-speech. There is a lot to be said for such a vigorous defense of free speech…. Free speech is only valuable when the same rules apply to everybody. But if hate speech against the world’s only Jewish Nation is defended on freedom of speech grounds, but that tolerance otherwise disappears, that’s anti-Semitism, not freedom of speech.
It is not just students who are under attack, but faculty as well. Recently six professors at the City University of New York filed suit against the faculty union. Since 2015 there have been over 150 documented antisemitic incidents at CUNY – an institution which in the past fostered the academic careers of some of the finest Jewish intellectuals and leaders in the 20th Century. Professor Jeffrey Lax stated: “As an observant Jew and chair of the Business Department at Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College, I’ve personally experienced this wave of anti-Semitism and am beyond disappointed in the university’s tepid response. I’m also represented by a union whose ostensible role is to stand up for marginalized public employees like me. And recently, union delegates—who are charged with representing all CUNY faculty, including Zionists—backed [the faculty union’s president] James Davis by creating a group called “Not in Our Name.” In a public letter, they declared Israel to be a “settler colonial state” that commits “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” and “funds Nazi militia groups.” The delegates further pledged to “create networks and programs within the CUNY Jewish population to . . . unlearn Zionism.” Unfortunately, these betrayals came as no surprise. I witnessed this spirit of viciousness up close in April of 2019 when five professors surrounded me in the faculty dining room and began screaming at me. Twice I tried to leave, but they physically stopped me. One professor put his hand above my head and said, “We’re not done. We’re just starting.” I didn’t even know these professors, but they knew I was Jewish, observant, and Zionist, and that was enough.”
Last year the ADL and Hillel released the results of a survey — one in three college students personally experienced antisemitic hate directed at them. Yet, most did not report it. So the problem may well be greater than university officials know – even with the already damning statistics. 32 percent of Jewish students experienced antisemitism directed at them and 79 percent of those students reported that it happened more than once. The most common incidents ranged from offensive comments made in person or on-line, to defacement of property. The students said that the antisemitism came from the political left, right, and center. Fifteen percent said that they felt the need to hide their Jewish identity and twelve percent said that they were personally blamed for the actions of the Israeli government. A majority of Jewish students said that they felt safe on campus and that their campus was welcoming to Jewish students. But among those students who experienced antisemitism, only half felt safe and that their campus was welcoming. Those students that participated in campus activities for Jewish students felt safer than those that did not regularly participate in Jewish activities.
A leader of a metropolitan Jewish community council said, “Our students want to be part of finding solutions for climate change, want to be part of the College Democrats or the LGBTQ organizations. But very often are being told that they need to check their Zionism, their support for Israel, at the door, before they’re being allowed a seat at the table. And that’s just, that’s wrong.”
One might hope that these problems are isolated to college campuses only, but these problems are increasingly manifest in high schools and middle schools around the country. The incidents of antisemitic bullying continue to rise and are seen in younger and younger grades. Add to that prejudicial bullying against black and brown students, students from ethnic communities, and children who do not conform to previously accepted norms. And we have a crisis. And our idyllic island is not immune. Even here, on Nantucket, there have been incidents of antisemitic bullying, as well as bullying other minorities. The concern has been expressed to a number of the island’s clergy and the Nantucket Interfaith Council is currently engaging with Nantucket Public Schools’ leadership to create programs that address these issues systematically.
But whether in middle and upper schools or the university campus, the issue of antisemitism continues to grow. And the only way to combat it is to engage our Jewish students in ways that support their identity and give them the tools to respond in appropriate and constructive ways. Our schools should be centers of inquiry – learning and questioning, and the permission to speak freely. But hate speech should never be acceptable in academia and faculty and administrations must be on the vanguard of giving hate no forum. They must teach that freedom of speech demands responsibility. Behavior that harms another individual or group should never be tolerated.