Harvard home to greatest 'threat to Jewish identity' - study

The AMCHA Initiative stressed that threats to Jewish identity constitute "a degree of harassment...unparalleled on college campuses."

Graduating students hold up a sign reading "Justice for Palestine" during Harvard University's 371st Commencement Exercises in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, May 26, 2022 (photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
Graduating students hold up a sign reading "Justice for Palestine" during Harvard University's 371st Commencement Exercises in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, May 26, 2022
(photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)

Harvard University leads American campuses in antisemitism targeting Jews who express support for Zionism and the State of Israel, with such attacks threatening Jewish students' identity and making many students feel uncomfortable expressing their Jewish identity, according to a new study by the AMCHA Initiative published last month.

The AMCHA Initiative divides threats to Jewish identity into three categories: redefinition, denigration and suppression.

Redefinition includes expressions dissociating Zionism from Judaism or progressive values or denying anti-Zionism is antisemitism. Denigration includes expressions using classic antisemitic tropes to vilify Jewish or Zionist identity. Suppression includes calls to rid campuses of Zionists or Zionism, boycotts or cancellations of Israel-related events or programs, bullying or intimidation of Jewish students or discouraging Jewish students from engaging in Birthright or other Jewish identity trips.

In total 254 incidents involving threats to Jewish identity were reported on college campuses in the 2021-2022 academic year.

Such threats to Jewish identity were seen on nearly 60% of the 109 campuses popular with Jewish students, with campuses reporting 10 or more of such incidents in the 2021-2022 academic year including Harvard (25), University of Chicago (13), Tufts University (12), Rutgers University (10) and University of California Los Angeles (10).

MEMBERS of Jewish Voice for Peace demonstrate in New York in 2015. (Courtesy) (credit: Courtesy)MEMBERS of Jewish Voice for Peace demonstrate in New York in 2015. (Courtesy) (credit: Courtesy)

Threats to Jewish identity increased after 2021 Gaza conflict

Incidents targeting Jewish identity also rose drastically after Operation Guardian of the Walls, with the overall number of threats to Jewish identity doubling in the first ten months of the 2021-2022 academic year, compared to the ten months prior to the conflict. The number of schools affected by such incidents also rose by 41%.

Faculty contribute significantly to attacks on Jewish identity

The AMCHA Initiative noted that faculty contributed "significantly" to attacks on Jewish identity during the 2021-2022 academic year, with schools with five or more faculty members who supported an academic boycott of Israel being nearly four times more likely to have an assault on Jewish identity.

In terms of specifically incidents of redefinition, the impact of faculty boycotters was even considerably higher than the impact of anti-Zionist student groups, making such incidents 6.5 times more likely to occur.

"Considering that a significant portion of the incidents involving redefinition, and to a lesser extent denigration, took place at events or as part of activities sponsored by academic departments, it’s clear that faculty play a critical role in the assault on Jewish identity," noted the study. "In particular, when faculty and academic departments assert as fact propositions that are germane to Jewish identity—for example, that Zionism is not an authentic part of Judaism; that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism; or that Zionists misuse religion to justify Israel’s crimes—they provide those propositions with academic legitimacy and the power to justify and incite behavior that targets Jewish and pro-Israel students for harm. "

Jewish anti-Zionists play large role in threats to Jewish identity

Jewish anti-Zionist individuals and organizations also played a significant role in such attacks on Jewish identity, with the presence of a Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapter or another similar group on campus doubling the likelihood of such incidents at a school.

"Not surprisingly, anti-Zionist student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), whose members are very often implicated in the perpetration of verbal and physical acts that target Jewish students for harm, were the largest overall contributor to behavior that threatened Jewish identity, as well as the only reliable contributor to incidents of suppression, which involve active efforts to silence Zionist expression on campus," wrote the AMCHA Initiative.

"Our finding that JVP or similar groups only exist on campuses where one or more anti-Zionist groups already have a presence, and that schools with both Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Zionist groups are significantly more likely to have threats to Jewish identity than schools with only an SJP or similar group, suggests that JVP serves as a kind of force multiplier, amplifying the impact of groups like SJP. We speculate that Jewish anti-Zionists accomplish this by using their Jewishness to legitimize the redefinition of Jewish identity and the denigration of Zionist Jews, which in turn not only justifies the suppression perpetrated by groups like SJP, but also facilitates the deflection of any charges of antisemitism that might result from such behavior."

Jewish students suffer 'unparalleled degree of harassment and identity suppression'

The AMCHA Initiative stressed that threats to Jewish identity impact Jewish students in multiple ways, with the assaults constituting "a degree of harassment and identity suppression unparalleled on college campuses today."

"No other student identity group has been subjected to anywhere near the kinds of sustained, coordinated attacks on their identity and attempts to expunge it from campus—attacks carried out and condoned by large numbers of students, student organizations, faculty, academic departments, and outside national and international groups—as have Jewish students who feel a connection to the Jewish state."

"No other student identity group has been subjected to anywhere near the kinds of sustained, coordinated attacks on their identity and attempts to expunge it from campus—attacks carried out and condoned by large numbers of students, student organizations, faculty, academic departments, and outside national and international groups—as have Jewish students who feel a connection to the Jewish state."

The attacks on Jewish students who openly express support for Israel also impact Jewish students who arrive on campus with little or no Jewish background or feelings about Israel. "When such minimally or non-identified Jewish students witness the relentless assault on Zionism, Zionists and the campus organizations that support them, including Hillel, Chabad, and pro-Israel student groups, they are far less likely to take advantage of opportunities to explore their Jewish identity than they might otherwise have been."

The assaults also draw on classic antisemitic tropes, such as conspiracy theories about Jewish malevolence and undue privilege, power and control, making it extremely difficult for students to draw attention to the harm they're experiencing. The threats to their identity are more likely to evoke sympathy for the perpetrators than the victims. Attempts to point out the harassment are also often denounced as attempts to "weaponize" charges of antisemitism to silence pro-Palestinian activists.

Administrators also often do not recognize harassment motivated by antipathy towards Israel and its supporters as an attack on Jewish ethnicity or religion, making them less willing to extend harassment policy protection to Jewish students in these cases.

The AMCHA Initiative called on administrators to ensure that Jewish students are afforded equal and adequate protection from harassing behavior conducted as part of assaults on Jewish identity, even when such acts are motivated by anti-Zionism. The organization noted that the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism may help to ensure Jewish students are protected from these assaults.

The organization additionally recommended that schools adopt a "behavior-based approach" in which all students have a right to be equally protected from behavior that threatens their safety, impedes their self-expression or otherwise denies them the ability to fully participate in campus life.

Harvard University has not responded to the AMCHA Initiative's report as of Tuesday, with JNS and the Algemeiner noting that Harvard Public Affairs & Communications and President Lawrence Bacow did not respond to requests for comment.