Anti-Semitism on Campus
Hostility to Jewish students is on the rise.
“Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”
When Rachel Beyda, a sophomore at UCLA ran for the student Judicial Board, she faced some questions she didn’t expect. Rather than being grilled about her talents and abilities, Beyda’s affiliation with Hillel and her membership in a Jewish sorority became the focus of her interview.
“What I’m seeing right now is someone being denied a position because they’re Jewish.”
Minutes from the Board’s meeting show that after Beyda was asked to step out of the room, members debated whether her strong Jewish identity somehow made her “biased” and thus unable to serve, with at least one student urging the board to turn down her application because of her Jewish interests. Some students brought up age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes that Jews don’t relate to others fairly or have split loyalties. “What I’m seeing right now is someone being denied a position because they’re Jewish,” one frustrated member eventually complained.
Beyda was eventually confirmed – after a faculty advisor pointed out that membership in Jewish clubs wouldn’t prevent Beyda from doing her job on the Board. The Judicial Board eventually apologized to UCLA’s Jewish community for its line of questioning, and the university’s Chancellor Gene Block issued a statement of disapproval; he later called the incident a “teachable moment”.
Yet Jews at UCLA – and at other universities – report that the atmosphere at many universities is becoming toxic, with Israel and Jewish students increasingly singled out for hostile treatment.
Beyda’s experience came several weeks after UCLA’s Undergraduate Student Council voted to join the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against Israel, singling out the Jewish state for special opprobrium. After voting to divest from companies doing business in Israel, “The overall culture of targeting Israel led to targeting Jewish students,” explains Natalie Charney, the student president of UCLA’s Hillel. “The problem is the anti-Israel culture in which we are singling out only the Jewish state creates an environment where it’s okay to single out Jewish students.”
In recent weeks, that’s been the experience of students at London’s prestigious School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) as well. After an aggressive anti-Israel campaign was launched on campus in January 2015, Jewish students at SOAS started being harassed and vilified. On March 4, 2015, some Jewish students met with the school’s director to air their concerns. Facing anti-Semitic comments and attitudes, some Jewish students are afraid to enter the cafeteria or common rooms or even go to lectures at the school, and have been avoiding campus. (It’s not only Jewish students who are afraid; one Muslim undergraduate told Britain’s Jewish Chronicle that he was afraid to vote against boycotting Israel because he worried staff members would find out and lower his grades in retaliation.) The director has so far refused to take any action, leaving SOAS’s Jewish students to face an increasingly hostile atmosphere on their own.
At South Africa’s Durban University of Technology, anti-Israel sentiment led to the Student Representative Council to demand on March 3, 2015 that “Jewish students, especially those who do not support the Palestinian struggle, should deregister” and leave the university. The call came during “Apartheid Week” in South Africa, when anti-Israel activists increase their activities, and call for the boycott and targeting of the Jewish state. Although global press reports noted that the Council apologized after extensive criticism, the actual wording of their apology remains troubling. While noting they shouldn’t have singled out Jews, they clarified that “we demand that ANY student Jewish, Muslim, Christian or even Atheist or any other that is funded by the Apartheid State of Israel…must not be students in DUT, and if there are there, they must be immediately de-registered”.
A report released in February 2015 by Brandeis University and Trinity College in Connecticut found that in 2014, a majority of American college students – 54% - “reported having been subject to or witnessing anti-Semitism on their campus”. Much of the anti-Semitism described in the report correlates closely with anti-Israel activity, and is rising. Using the experiences of British Jewish students as an example, the report notes that Jewish students in the Unites States can expect more hostility “as anti-Semitism coalesces with anti-Zionism and becomes more globalized”.
A student at Depaul University in Chicago summed up the feeling many Jewish students increasingly have, telling an interviewer “I do kind of feel like I’m being targeted as a Jewish student on campus… I feel that I’m constantly on the defensive on campus. I feel that I have to defend myself, my Judaism, my pride in Israel every day and it’s getting a little bit exhausting. I’d like to live and go to a university where everyone can have their own opinions… and feel safe” before noting that she personally did not feel physically safe on campus any more.
In June 2014, a Temple University professor was criticized by Jewish students after he made jokes about the Holocaust and even questioned whether the Holocaust took place at all during a debate about boycotting Israel. The university’s initial reaction was weak, saying only that “the exercise of academic freedom necessarily results in a vigorous exchange of ideas”. Two months later, on August 20, 2014, a pro-Israel student was allegedly punched in the face and called “a baby-killer, racist, Zionist pig” by a fellow Temple University student. While the two events were not linked, some Jewish students are beginning to feel that tolerating intense anti-Israel statements and sentiment on campus might make it easier for anti-Jewish feelings to spread.
As Apartheid Week 2015 spreads around the world this Spring, students are bracing for another round of assaults on the Jewish state – and expecting, in some cases, that these attacks will spill over into wider anti-Israel sentiment as well.
On March 9, 2015, several hundred people – including rabbis, lawmakers, and representatives from the NAACP – gathered on the steps of California’s State Capital in Sacramento to condemn anti-Semitism. The following day, UCLA’s Undergraduate Students Association unanimously passed a resolution against anti-Semitism, sending a crucial message that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated. Their words form a powerful call to action for all of us.