Jewish Students Need Confidence to Feel Safe

The latest mantra on college campuses is that students need to feel safe, not so much from physical threats, but from anything that makes them uncomfortable. Faculty are being pressured to avoid “microaggressions,” which are usually unintentional remarks that offend students because of their sensitivity – or hypersensitivity -- to anything that they consider demeaning, insulting or somehow offensive. As a number of commentators have written, this trend has reached the extreme where many students do not believe they should have to hear controversial ideas or endure discussions on topics with which they disagree or make them feel discomfort. This is nothing more than the latest manifestation of political correctness running amuck on campuses.

Unfortunately, some Jewish students and their enablers from well-meaning Jewish organizations are falling into this anti-intellectual quicksand and being pulled down to the level of minorities intolerant of any challenges to their limited worldview.

I feel like saying to some of these students, “Toughen up!” Your grandparents lived through the Holocaust and your peers are facing death fighting terrorists in Israel. You can’t take some criticism of Israel, or having someone in your face hyperventilating over Israeli policies? You’re scared by a swastika or an eviction notice? Sure it’s annoying, and you shouldn’t have to put up with such nonsense, but the Nazis are not coming for you.

That said, just as there is a line between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, there has to be a boundary for “difficult ideas.” Suggesting, for example, that women or African-Americans are inferior to white males would not be regarded as a legitimate topic in a classroom nor should suggestions that the Jews are not a people or that Israel has no right to exist. Faculty are entitled to opinions, but what they present in class should be backed by scholarly research, and much of what passes for scholarship with regard to Israel is twaddle.

Unlike other minorities, Jewish students tend to be talkers rather than protesters, so they still have not convinced universities to police academic malpractice and adopt a zero tolerance policy toward anti-Semitism. The University of California, ground zero for most of the problems Jews face, is contemplating adopting the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism to guide their responses to complaints by Jewish students. The proposal has run into a buzz saw of opposition from BDS advocates and other anti-Semites who continue to pretend that their denial of Israel’s right to exist is a form of legitimate criticism. It is not, and the UC Regents should stop dallying and adopt the standard so it can be applied this semester when the most egregious attacks on Jews and Israel proliferate.

The BDS campaigns pick up in the spring when the annual Israel hate festivals are held around the country. The fall, however, was relatively quiet. Part of the reason may be that it was hard to focus attention on Israel while the presidential campaign heats up, racial tensions boil over, ISIS terrorizes Europe, Palestinians are being slaughtered by their fellow Arabs, and the Middle East outside of Israel is in turmoil. Not surprisingly, students showed little concern for Palestinians outside of Israel so instead they tried to tie the Palestinian cause to completely unrelated American issues, notably the one aimed at holding police accountable for their actions.

The anti-Semitic BDS activists had pyrrhic victories at San Jose State, UC Santa Cruz and South Florida (a first for each campus), which adopted toothless divestment resolutions. Vassar had a vote to boycott Israeli hummus, but that was defeated.

Now let me say a word about anti-Semitism on campus. Paradoxically, there are people who for fundraising purposes, fear, or misunderstanding want to prove that anti-Semitism is rampant on college campuses. They are backed by surveys in which more than half of Jewish students say they have witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism, but there seems to be a conflation of anti-Semitic incidents with the atmosphere on campus and physical threats to Jews.

Concerned parents should be informed that Jewish students are not being attacked on campus. According to the ADL, not a single physical attack was reported in the fall (the AMCHA Initiative reported two) and only four in 2011-2014. When most students talk about being “attacked,” they are referring to feeling uncomfortable because Israel is being criticized and they are intimidated by the ferocity of the detractors.

Last April, the Forward reported that the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campuses in three of the previous four years was “the lowest it’s been since the ADL started keeping track in 1999.” More recently, the AMCHA Initiative hyped its database claiming that it counted 302 anti-Semitic incidents at 109 schools in 28 states. We should not allow colleges to tolerate anti-Semitism, but we also need to keep the problem in perspective. There are between 2,000 and 4,000 colleges, which means there were no incidents reported on roughly 95 percent of all campuses.

The second important point to make about these and similar statistics is that they exaggerate the impact of many of the incidents. Most cases involve defacement of property with swastikas or slurs. Of the 23 examples AMCHA highlighted in its report, for example, 11 involved anti-Semitic graffiti. Those examples were taken from 38 schools, 26 of which reported graffiti. This is disturbing and unacceptable, but should students feel endangered? One student reported to AMCHA, “The doodling of a swastika on a wall is not simply a minute act, it is an attack on my very right to live as a Jew.”

No, it’s not. It’s graffiti written by a cowardly anti-Semite that shouldn’t threaten that student in the least. The student should be angry, but the campus is not Nazi Germany where swastikas were everywhere and jack-booted thugs beat Jews in the streets.

Anti-Semitic BDS campaigns and Israel hate weeks are problematic, and can poison the campus environment, but these events usually are limited in time and scope and do not effect the majority of students on campus. The same is true of speakers who make an appearance for a couple of hours, typically preach their venom to those who agree with them, and then fade away leaving behind a bad aftertaste but no lasting impact on the campus culture.

The statistics on anti-Semitism also do not account for the far more prevalent pro-Israel activity that takes place on many campuses. For example, I don’t worry about incidents at a school like Tufts, which has perhaps the country’s best Hillel director, and very strong Jewish student leadership. The incident counters who generate headlines don’t talk about the number of positive programs put on by the pro-Israel organizations that vastly outnumber the two or three anti-Israel groups responsible for most of the problems on campus.

You’ll feel much better about the campus situation if you take incident counts with a grain of salt and spend your time reading the activity reports of the alphabet soup of organizations – AICE, ACFI, ADL, AIPAC, CUFI, ICC, the David Project, Hillel, JNF, Hasbarah Fellows, SPME, StandwithUs, ZOA -- working with students to enhance their Jewish identity, strengthen their commitment to Israel and train them to handle the Israel deniers inside and outside the classroom.

For decades, the pro-Israel community has understood a proxy war is being fought on campus. We are better organized, funded, and trained than ever before. Our foes, however, are determined, and now ensconced in academic departments where they are abusing their power to advance anti-Israel political agendas and causing far more damage than student groups. The anti-Semitic BDS campaigns have been failures because of our efforts, but there is no rest for the campus Zionist who, on too many campuses, will continue to face the unrelenting efforts of the Israel deniers.