How anti-Israel faculty are radicalizing US campuses - opinion

Higher education institutions should not be tolerating offensive and demoralizing anti-Zionist speech and harassment that make Jewish and Zionist students feel unsafe and unwelcome.

 Rabbi Evan Goodman and students Tyler Barth, Romi Benasuly, and Lian Benasuly, look at a pre-pandemic social calendar at Santa Barbara Hillel near the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus in Isla Vista (photo credit: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON)
Rabbi Evan Goodman and students Tyler Barth, Romi Benasuly, and Lian Benasuly, look at a pre-pandemic social calendar at Santa Barbara Hillel near the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus in Isla Vista

As parents send their kids off to college this month, it’s worth remembering what campus life used to be like for Jews: admission quotas, professors who routinely failed Jewish students – and typically got away with it for years, and faculty who didn’t stand a chance of ever rising to a university leadership position. Fortunately, those days are gone. Most of America’s 4,000+ campuses are not awash in antisemitism. 

Still, on many campuses—especially those on the east and west coasts of the country, in the Chicago hub, and at those where most Jewish kids matriculate, there’s a growing pernicious reality: Jewish students are being shunned and vilified on account of their Zionist identities, beliefs, and attachments to Israel. On far too many campuses, students are reporting that they’re hiding the Zionist components of their Jewish identities in order to fit in – and just to get by.

In 2018, more than 50 student groups joined NYU’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter to marginalize Jewish students. Going well beyond a familiar call to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel (BDS), they vowed to boycott every pro-Israel Jewish student club, refusing to sponsor any events with them – even on topics totally unrelated to Israel. 

Now such moves are a dime a dozen. 

A few months ago, on another New York campus, several Jewish students were kicked out of a support group for rape survivors because they shared a post that defended Jewish historical ties to Israel. And this week, the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) opened an investigation into allegations that the University of Vermont has neglected to adequately address antisemitism. Among the instances flagged in the OCR complaint: a student book club that required every member to pledge “no to Zionism.”

These incidents involve ugly peer-on-peer intimidation and ostracism. But campus antisemitism isn’t just a function of students misbehaving. There’s also a significant faculty dimension to the problem. 

Students come and go, while faculty are permanent stakeholders and often set the campus tone. Many do model civil debate for their students and champion viewpoint diversity. But when it comes to anti-Israel scholar-activists, these professional responsibilities often fall by the wayside.   

Take San Francisco State University’s Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi. 

As the Director of SFSU’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies (AMED), she has repeatedly engaged in hate speech directed toward Jewish students, making them feel disrespected on their own campus. In 2018, she outrageously declared that “welcoming Zionists to campus” is akin to a “declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians.” In May 2019, while guest lecturing at UCLA, she denigrated “those who support Israel” as “white supremacists.” That same year she posted a large banner on AMED’s official Facebook page that equated Zionism with racism. 

Last week, in unauthorized events, Abdulhadi listed her university’s insignia on publicity materials and as a stage backdrop for a two-day conference in Beirut which featured panels of speakers linked to terrorism: Salah Salah, a founding member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); Palestinian-Lebanese guerilla fighters Kifah Afifi and Anwar Yassine; and Sami Al-Arian, a former Florida professor who pled guilty back in 2006 to providing support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The notorious PFLP airplane hijacker Leila Khaled was also listed on the program but reportedly was a no-show, although she may have been Zoomed in.   

Abdulhadi is in a league of her own. 

Even most virulently anti-Israel faculty aren’t winding up as defendants in lawsuits filed by Jewish students and don’t have a soft spot for the affiliates of US designated terror organizations. As part of her “Teaching Palestine 2022” delegation to Lebanon this week, Abdulhadi was seen sitting in the front row at an event alongside the head of the PFLP in Lebanon and a Hezbollah member in charge of the group’s “Palestine portfolio.”  

Now she reportedly may face disciplinary action for the unauthorized use of the SF State name in conjunction with her Beirut conference. 

But for every rogue professor like her, there are hundreds more who teach skewed and one-sided courses about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shortchanging their students from getting a robust education. Every semester academic departments sponsor events and guest lectures that demonize Israel. Pro-BDS faculty have refused to write letters of reference for their students who want to apply to study in Israel. On some campuses, they’ve spearheaded academic boycott campaigns—calling for satellite campuses in Israel to be closed and study abroad programs shuttered, working to deprive their own students of the valuable educational experience that most certainly comes from studying in Israel’s top-ranked universities. 

In spring 2021, as Hamas lobbed thousands of missiles at civilians—Jewish, Muslim, and others—scores of these faculty saw fit to sign petitions condemning Israel. Most didn’t even mention Hamas. Then, hundreds of academic departments across the US—primarily in Gender and Ethnic Studies—issued inflammatory statements that basically baked anti-Zionism and BDS into their pedagogical missions. 

Freedom of thought and expression are essential to institutions of higher education. Students and professors have the right to speak on a range of perspectives and lived experiences. But administrators shouldn’t be tolerating offensive and demoralizing anti-Zionist speech or harassing and exclusionary actions that make Jewish and Zionist students feel unsafe and unwelcome. University leaders need to forcefully condemn antisemitism and make it clear that civil, respectful discourse is the hallmark of educated people and of a community of learners. 

Sometimes it’s the faculty who will need the reminder. 

Miriam F. Elman is the Executive Director of the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), a DC-based nonprofit educating and empowering faculty and staff on university and college campuses across the US

This op-ed is published in partnership with a coalition of organizations that fight antisemitism across the world. Read the previous article by Adam Milstein.