No more hiding campus antisemitism

The net effect was a presentation that romanticized and normalized the murder of Jews and promoted terrorism as reasonable political speech.

Representatives of Reservists on Duty protesting outside the SJP conference, University of Minnesota, November 2019 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Representatives of Reservists on Duty protesting outside the SJP conference, University of Minnesota, November 2019
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Recent events at the flagship campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) exemplify the accelerating spread and normalization of collegiate antisemitism. Campuses incubate a terrifying confluence of factors – the polarizing divisions in American society, the weaponization of intersectionality, and the aggressive radicalism of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and their allies – thus creating a perfect storm for Jew hatred.
The most recent firestorm erupted when an SJP leader, hired by the university as a Multicultural Advocate (MA) to “promote the advancement of multiculturalism and social justice within the residence halls,” gave a presentation at a mandatory Resident Advisor meeting. The outrageous presentation included a celebration of martyrdom through terrorism against Jews, and the assertion that all pro-Israel students are pro-terror.
The net effect was a presentation that romanticized and normalized the murder of Jews and promoted terrorism as reasonable political speech. The presentation’s celebration of terrorism via “martyrdom” directly cites a speech by Dr. Ali Shariati – the thought leader behind the bloody Islamic Iranian revolution. Shariati’s chilling, all-too-clear closing line was: “Martyrdom is an invitation to all ages and generations that if you cannot kill, die.”
Amidst hundreds of troubling SJP episodes nationwide over the past decade, university administrators made a simple calculation that the backlash from marginalized students to imposing consequences on SJP was a price too steep to pay, so Jewish students would “just have to deal” with such abuse.
The Illinois MA presentation was so egregious, however, that UIUC Chancellor Robert Jones issued a mass communication to the campus community condemning the session as antisemitism. Jones deserves our praise and support. Distorting the chancellor’s message as a threat to their unfettered freedom of expression, SJP responded by issuing a list of demands, including calling for the chancellor’s resignation and threatening serious campus disruptions.
University campuses have always been home to radical thought and activities. SJP is among the most aggressive of the radical players. They have framed the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as White Jews oppressing People of Color (the Arab Palestinians), leavened with conspiracy theories that Jews, via Israel, are driving police brutality against peoples of color in the US. Jews are presented as the universal oppressor. Such was the hatred offered up at an official UIUC sanctioned, mandatory Resident Advisor training.
Race is not the leading factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The conflict is grounded in religion and competing historical narratives and counterclaims. Furthermore, 12-15% of the American Jewish community identify as People of Color, while more than 50% of Israelis are of Middle Eastern – not European – heritage, thus more closely resembling their Arab neighbors than the lily-white (distorted) image of Jews driven by groups like SJP.
ON OCTOBER 23, UIUC’s student senate voted overwhelmingly to pass a resolution, authored by SJP, (mis)defining antisemitism. The authors declared that anti-Zionism (the opposition to the Jewish right of self-determination) cannot be antisemitic. In a stunning display of arrogance and disrespect, the resolution was deliberately written without any mainstream Jewish input – be it Hillel, Chabad, predominantly Jewish fraternities and sororities, other large Jewish student groups or student-related organizations, or Jewish Studies professors. It is unthinkable that a historically marginalized people – be they Jews, people of color or members of the LGBTQIA community – should have no input into naming their oppression.
The resolution was fast-tracked through the Student Senate during the Jewish holidays of Sukkot and Simhat Torah, claiming to define hatred against the Jews while simultaneously engaging in antisemitism. The passage of this resolution by the student government demonstrates and advances the normalization and encouragement of antisemitism against Jewish students. Their tactic is to shield themselves from accusations of antisemitism while giving themselves free reign to harass and demean Jewish students.
Whereas previous BDS resolutions claimed to protest Israel, not Jews, that cover was entirely dropped during the student senate debate. No longer did students project their criticisms towards Israel as a proxy. Supporters of the bill gave impassioned speeches decrying the Jewish Community and condemning Jewish opposition to the bill. Jews were compared to Nazis and called white supremacist. Jews were shouted down and harassed. Allies were booed and shamed for speaking in support of their Jewish peers. UIUC student Lauren Nesher spoke for the campus’ Jewish community when she said: “We do not negotiate antisemitism, we do not negotiate our safety, we do not negotiate our fear, we do not negotiate our homeland – and again, we do not negotiate antisemitism.”
This climate is not limited to UIUC. The recent events serve as a test case for universities nationwide. How will they respond? Universities must stand up to antisemitism in all its forms – just as they do, appropriately, to other bigotries. The more antisemitism is rationalized and minimized – and the more its very meaning is distorted by those who indulge in it – the bolder the antisemites will grow, and the more dangerous the Jewish future looms.
John Lowenstein is the vice president of student affairs and student engagement at the Jewish United Fund of Chicago.