In a comprehensive 2021 survey conducted for Hillel International and the Anti-Defamation League, one-third of Jewish American college students reported that they had personally experienced antisemitic incidents on campus; 79% of those students reported having experienced it more than once. Another 31% witnessed antisemitic incidents on campus directed at others. Most students who experienced antisemitism never reported it.
Another 2021 survey, conducted by the Cohen Research Group for Brandeis University, found that 65% of Jewish students reported feeling unsafe on campus. 70% had either personally experienced or witnessed an antisemitic incident in the past 120 days. And half of Jewish college students reported feeling the need to hide their Jewish identity.
These statistics are frightening and damning. And while a lot of Jews have been sounding the alarm on interpersonal, student-to-student antisemitism on campus, I believe there’s something larger and much more sinister at play. It’s not just that universities are slow to respond to antisemitism, if at all. Rather, this points to an institutional problem. Institutional antisemitism in higher education goes back centuries, but it’s hardly a thing of the past. Today, foreign governments, organizations, and others with questionable affiliations are among the largest donors to Middle East studies departments in both North American and European universities, resulting in biased curriculums pertaining both to modern-day Mideast geopolitics and fraudulent accounts of Mideast history in regard to Israel, the Jews, Islamism, Zionism, Arab imperialism, and more. “Student-run” groups, particularly Students for Justice in Palestine, which has significant financial links to internationally-designated terrorist groups, have created a hostile environment for Jewish students both inside and outside the classroom. Antisemitic organizations working under the pretense of “antizionism” often target and groom young, ignorant Jewish students.
Professors that stray from the agenda-driven Mideast education curriculums are frequently ostracized. A 2021 survey conducted by academics from the University of Arkansas found that those with higher education are much likelier to hold Jews to double standards. Antisemitism has long been intellectualized, both in the United States and abroad.
Just a few days ago, Stanford University apologized to the Jewish community for suppressing Jewish student admissions in the 1950s. They are not alone. Up until the 1970s, Ivy League schools also maintained Jewish quotas. So did Canada up until the 1960s, czarist Russia, the Nazis, Hungary in the interwar period, Romania, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and likely many more. This, of course, points to a problem much deeper than interpersonal, student-to-student or even professor-to-student antisemitism. It was — and continues to be — an institutional, systemic issue.
The pattern of scapegoating Jewish university students for perceived or real social and/or geopolitical ills is nothing new, either. No example rings truer than that of the 1968 Polish Political Crisis: in 1968, Polish university students, Jews and non-Jews alike, protested against the communist regime. In retaliation, the Polish government enacted a massive “anti-Zionist” campaign, targeting Jewish students and professors (whether they identified as Zionist or not), firing Jews and people of Jewish ancestry from official government and university positions, and more. Unsurprisingly, the so-called anti-Zionist purge made a show of “condemning” antisemitism, with the regime proudly projecting signs that declared: “Antisemitism – No! Anti-Zionism – Yes!” And yet, Jews were harassed, abused, and eventually stripped of their Polish citizenship, prompting 20,000 (out of a total of 25,000-30,000) Jews to flee, only a little over two decades after 90 percent of Poland’s Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. Even so, the majority did not flee to Israel, contradicting those accusations of Zionism.
In the 1960s, in response to the Arab-Israeli Conflict and the refusenik issue, the Soviet Union drastically tightened antisemitic university quotas, with the number of Jewish admissions sharply plummeting.
Scholars, academics, and governments have long stripped Jews from our own narrative of our history and identity. As the situation for Iraqi Jews deteriorated drastically in the 1940s, Iraq removed all Jewish Hebrew school teachers, replacing them with Arab teachers instead. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union enacted a campaign to “de-Hebraize” Jewish education, going so far as to implement the Cyrillic alphabet for Yiddish (which traditionally uses the Hebrew alphabet) and changing Yiddish words derived from Hebrew (for context, Yiddish is about 20 percent Hebrew).
Given that antisemitism (or, in the past 100 or so years, anti-Zionism) has long been intellectualized, it turns out that conventional higher education is not an indicator of lower antisemitism. As mentioned prior, a study conducted by the University of Arkansas found that folks with a higher level of education were more likely to hold Jews to double standards. While people with lower levels of education were likelier to believe blatantly antisemitic tropes (e.g. “Jews have too much power in international financial markets” or “Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind”), highly educated folks were likelier to subscribe to more insidious antisemitism, the antisemitism of double standards and euphemisms.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. As Ruth Wisse noted, antisemitism is not necessarily about ignorance, but rather, it serves a political purpose and motive. The scientific racism of Nazi Germany, for example — which was a core part of the curriculum in schools and universities — aimed to prove that Jews were responsible for society’s ills because we were, “scientifically,” the inferior race. In the Soviet Union, antisemitism was intellectualized as “anti-Zionism,” “anti-Americanism,” and “anti-imperialism.”
This intellectualization of antisemitism has existed for centuries, if not millennia. In 1843, for instance, German historian and theologian Bruno Bauer published “The Jewish Question,” arguing that Jews could only achieve political emancipation if they abandoned Judaism. In Karl Marx’s critique of Bauer’s work, he took it a step further, ascribing antisemitic stereotypes — particularly regarding money and wealth — to the Jewish People.
Earlier, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon argued a similar point to Bauer: Jews would be worthy of emancipation so long as we reduced our Jewish identity to a religious identity, rather than a cultural, national, and/or ethnic identity. In 1806, he wrote: “[It is necessary to] reduce, if not destroy, the tendency of Jewish people to practice a very great number of activities that are harmful to civilization and to public order in society in all the countries of the world. It is necessary to stop the harm by preventing it; to prevent it, it is necessary to change the Jews…Once part of their youth will take its place in our armies, they will cease to have Jewish interests and sentiments; their interests and sentiments will be French.”
In other words: for Jews to be worthy of political emancipation and the intellectualism required of various facets of society, such as higher education, we had to abandon core parts of ourselves which were seen as defective or harmful to society as a whole. Two centuries later, not much has changed.
There are numerous factors at play regarding the intellectualization of antisemitism in college campuses today, particularly the antisemitism of the “anti-Zionist” variety. This only works if students are only exposed to a very narrow understanding of Jewish history, Jewish identity, Middle East history, and Middle East geopolitics. To start with, many universities completely divorce “Jewish studies” departments from “Mideast studies” departments. This is, of course, problematic on a plethora of levels, given both the ethnogenesis of the Jewish People and the majority of Jewish history took place in the Middle East. By contrast, “Arabic studies” always fall, without fail, within the Mideast department.
Another problem: foreign donations. Countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have donated billions to American universities — specifically, to Middle East studies departments — in the past few decades. Even donors from within the “State of Palestine” have donated over seven million, which should be awfully controversial given the fact that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in the Gaza Strip depend largely on humanitarian aid. Universities largely dependent on these sort of donations are going to be inclined to hire professors that promote a certain kind of narrative.
In a 2020 Department of Education investigation, the DoE found that numerous American universities lacked transparency regarding large sum donations from numerous Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The report stated: “There is very real reason for concern that foreign money buys influence or control over teaching and research.”
The investigation, of course, was not without its criticism. Most “anti-Zionist” professors have no ties whatsoever to any foreign donors, but there is still the question regarding the lack of transparency and its effect on the structure of these institutions as a whole. According to foreign policy analyst Mitchell Bard, “The bottom line is that there is virtually no transparency for the public to know the sources or purposes of foreign funding for colleges and universities making it difficult to assess the impact on campus culture…”
Palestinian author Edward Said’s 1978 book, “Orientalism,” which argues that Western scholarship about the Eastern world is a form of imperialism itself, is one of the most influential texts of all time, largely birthing the fields of literary theory, cultural criticism, modern Mideast studies, and post-colonialism. In fact, “Orientalism” is considered the foundational text of post-colonial studies.
The problem, in my view, and in the view of a plethora of other critics, is that the premise is inherently flawed. After all, it was Arab imperialism (i.e. Eastern imperialism) that directly shaped later Spanish imperialism (i.e. Western imperialism), following the Reconquista. As an example, it was the Arab slave trade that established the routes and structure for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In other words, it was the imperialism and colonialism of the East that influenced the imperialism and colonialism of the West. They do not exist independent of each other, and imperialism and colonialism are still imperialism and colonialism whether the perpetrators are white or European or not. Scholars from across the world have made the same points as myself, arguing that Said’s claims are rife with historic revisionism, hypocrisy (given his upper class, British education, among other things), and double standards.
“Orientalism” is also not without its antisemitism. For example, Said argues that the term “antisemitism” should apply to all “Semites.” “Antisemitism” was a word coined specifically to describe Jew-hatred, and “Semites” is a pseudoscientific, now obsolete racial term.
In charging Westerners studying the Middle East with “orientalism,” students are left with no recourse but to ignore the devastating impact of Arab colonialism in the region of Israel-Palestine, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, thus gaining an incomplete and biased perspective on the geopolitical issues of today.
Following Said’s death, a Lebanese newspaper affirmed the book’s influence: “US Middle Eastern Studies were taken over by Edward Said's postcolonial studies paradigm.” Said’s influence has largely limited Western Mideast departments to the perspective of the dominant group: the Arabs. In other words, even in the West, the history of the Middle East is being taught through the lens of the colonizer.
According to a 2021 Brandeis University study on antisemitism at universities, one of the highest predictors of antisemitic hostility toward Jewish students was a strong presence of Students for Justice in Palestine on campus.
A 2016 AMCHA report, which was later corroborated by another Brandeis University report, found that “[antisemitism is] eight times more likely to occur on campuses with at least one active anti-Zionist student group such as SJP.”
Students for Justice in Palestine was founded in 1993 at the University of California Berkeley. In 2011, they stated their purpose as the following: “Students for Justice in Palestine is a student organization that works in solidarity with the Palestinian people and supports their right to self-determination. It is committed to ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Separation Wall. It recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality. It calls for respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.”
Regardless of historic revisionism and cherry-picking in that statement, SJP’s main method of “activism” has been through protests, which have frequently devolved into the harassment, intimidation, and bullying of Jewish students, Jewish events on campus, and Jewish communal organizations.
Students for Justice in Palestine and other groups like it have created an atmosphere of intimidation for Jewish students on campus. In addition to a long list of antisemitic incidents — for instance, in 2019, SJP placed “eviction notices” on the dorm doors of Jewish students at Emory University; a similar incident happened at NYU in 2014 — Jewish students nationwide report feeling intimidated by such groups, afraid to voice their opinions on Israel-Palestine in class for fear of saying the wrong thing. Jewish students also report feeling silenced often.
SJP is also hardly a grassroots organization. Instead, SJP has financial ties to groups such as American Muslims for Palestine and the US Palestinian Community Network, both of which have been implicated by the federal government for their financial ties to internationally-designated terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which in turn receive heavy funding from the Iranian regime.
First, I want to reiterate the following: there is absolutely nothing wrong with student groups at universities advocating for the advancement of Palestinian rights and the Palestinian right to self-determination. There is, however, something very wrong with groups using the Palestinian cause as a front to harass, intimidate, abuse, and silence Jewish students.
With that being said, Jewish sources have long been sounding the alarm on the issue of antisemitism on college campuses. In my opinion, however, most of the noise has been in regard to an interpersonal, student-to-student issue. We talk about specific incidents, but very little is said about the institutional problems that are allowing this antisemitism to fester. Universities are — and have long been — complicit in creating and permitting this environment of hostility toward Jewish students and even professors.
We really need to have more discourse on the intellectualization of antisemitism. As studies and history show, antisemitism is hardly a disease of the ignorant masses. Antisemitism serves a political purpose for those in power (that purpose generally being scapegoating of some sort to keep the people distracted from actually holding those at fault accountable). We’ve seen this over and over again in the past, and we’re seeing this play out very clearly today (e.g. think Iran recently scapegoating “Zionists” for the ongoing revolution).
What are these schools teaching? And why? By whom? For what purpose? How are students being (either purposefully or not on purpose) mobilized against their Jewish classmates? These are all questions we shouldn’t only ask ourselves, but we should also demand answers from these institutions, many of which have long histories of systemic antisemitism to begin with. Only by confronting the crux of the issue can we take the proper steps to ensure that Jewish students are able to thrive safely on campus and inside the classroom.
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