Terra Incognita: Isolate anti-Semitism on campus, don’t exaggerate it

The trend in many Jewish- and Israel-centered media outlets is to discuss a “rising trend of anti-Semitism on campus.”

Protesters demonstrate against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during his meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protesters demonstrate against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during his meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"We do experience a lot of anti-Semitism in a lot of different ways,” says a student in the video “Jewish Voices on Campus,” posted on Youtube by Aaron Goldenberg. His is one of many testimonies of Jewish students speaking out about intimidation they feel on campus.
Some tell tales of people stomping on Israeli flags. A student at one university says he is afraid to walk by himself on campus sometimes. Orthodox students are reported to remove their kippot. A student says he is confronted by “hate rhetoric” of pro-Palestine groups who shout “free, free Palestine.” A student from the University of Oregon recalls that in July 2014 someone painted swastikas on fraternity mailboxes.
The trend in many Jewish- and Israel-centered media outlets is to discuss a “rising trend of anti-Semitism on campus” and the phenomenon of Jewish students feeling threatened and intimidated. An online survey by Professor Barry Kosmin and Associate Professor Ariela Kaysar and released by Trinity College’s Louis D. Brandeis Center found that 54 percent of students said they had experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on campus in the past year. The students volunteered for the survey and “anti-Semitism” was self-defined by those answering the survey.
The website Jpupdates.com, which covers Jewish political news, reported on February 25 about a survey conducted by well known pollster Frank Luntz. According to the report his survey of 800 students at 60 of America’s best universities found that “40% believe that anti-Semitism is a problem on campus. 30% believe campuses are hostile to Israel. 25% believe the student body is pro-Palestinian.”
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A video posted by Step Up for Israel called “Crossing the Line 2: The New Face of Anti-Semitism on Campus” claims that “pro-Israel students who want to stand up against BDS feel that their voices are not heard.” The video highlights an Ohio University event where the student senate president poured a bucket of fake blood onto her head to protest Israel in a video.
The Ohio incident is a microcosm of the debate on how anti-Israel behavior constitutes a threat to Jewish students.
Becky Sebo told Haaretz, “Jewish students in particular are feeling very singled out by the video. Many Jewish students are feeling concerned about their safety and how other students will respond to these accusations against Israel.” Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, director of Hillel, claimed the video “makes Jewish parents want to bring their kids back home to the safety of the Jewish suburbs.”
THE STORY we are being told is that supposedly rising levels of anti-Israel activity on campus are making Jewish students “feel unsafe.” Almost every week there are stories in newspapers about anti-Semitic incidents. On February 27 swastikas were discovered in a dorm at George Washington University where there are 3,000 Jewish students.
On February 26 Chabad Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein told a radio show on Voice of Israel hosted by Gil Hoffman that “Jews are starting to feel uncomfortable” after Northwestern University students passed a boycott motion against some companies in Israel.
The radio program’s title is emblematic of the exaggeration inherent in these reports: “Has Northwestern University become unsafe for Jews?” Of course the answer is no. Why would a boycott motion against a few companies doing business in Israel passed by a student council make an entire university “unsafe”? How is a Jewish student more unsafe the day after such a motion is passed? There are around 200,000 Jewish students studying on campuses in America. According to a list by Jewish Studies at San Diego State University, many schools have huge Jewish student populations. NYU has 6,000 Jewish undergraduates, constituting 28% of the student body. Harvard is estimated to be 25% Jewish. The University of Maryland has 5,000 Jewish students and is 23% Jewish.
Let’s step back. Consider the case of the University of Cincinnati student who claimed that he was threatened by anti-Semitism because he heard about a sign saying “with Jews you lose” by someone “running for office.”
That person was Robert Ransdell, who was running for US Senate in Kentucky. His sign was anti-Semitic, but it affects Jews living in Kentucky who aren’t in university just as much as it supposedly affects students at the University of Cincinnati. Why would students feel especially threatened? The fact is that when you set out to make a documentary about anti-Semitism on campus, you will find the students who want to talk about anti-Semitism. You will find highlights of the worst incidents. America tends to encourage and reward groups that highlight being victims, and in such a culture you will find people who want to discuss being victims. But just because people answer “yes” on a survey doesn’t mean that an objective study of anti-Semitism would show that it has increased.
Consider the 200,000 Jewish students, the campuses that have a vibrant and massive amount of Jewish life. Are these students really threatened? The reality is that Jews are safer on US college campuses than anywhere else in the world.
The decision by many groups to turn almost every act of aggressive pro-Palestinian activism into a form of “new anti-Semitism” has encouraged Jews to feel that every time they see a pro-Palestinian rally, hear a professor talk about Israeli “apartheid” or hear of a BDS motion, they are witnessing anti-Semitism. But the reality is that those same students, if they moved to Israel, would find many professors who call Israel an apartheid state and even some who support boycotts. So are Israeli students also running in fear from anti-Semitism? Shulamit Aloni, the former education minister of Israel, Israel Prize winner and longtime Knesset member, claimed Israel is an apartheid state. According to the view that critics of Israel are stoking anti-Semitism, Aloni would have been considered a threat to Jewish students on campus.
Many of the radical pro-Palestinian voices on US campuses are themselves Jewish. In the wake of the Gaza war last year Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS, claimed to expect more than a dozen campus chapters to open. That’s not necessarily anti-Semitism, but could be pro-Israel students being made to feel uncomfortable by other students, some of whom are also Jewish.
It seems essential that rather than exaggerate the levels of anti-Semitism on Campus, actual anti-Jewish incidents, like an attack on a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis, need to be confronted, condemned and the perpetrators brought to justice. The inflammatory reports on these varied and rare incidents cause large numbers of students to feel threatened, when not only are they secure but probably living in the best and safest time in history to be a Jewish student on a university campus in the US.
Some Jewish students claim that high levels of anti-Israel activity make them feel uncomfortable expressing their affinity with Israel. But rather than shrinking in fear, they should be encouraged to be outspoken in their support and to document instances of actual anti-Semitism at pro-Palestinian events, like people shouting “Hitler was right.” Don’t conflate all of it; a few dozen BDS students shouting “free Palestine” is not an anti-Semitic event.
Lumping all of it together allows the actual anti-Semitism to go unpunished.
A university student who once over four years hears someone make one anti-Semitic joke may truthfully answer on a survey that they have witnessed anti-Semitism on campus. However, before and after college they are equally likely to hear an anti-Jewish comment, or encounter a swastika painted somewhere. They are not actually suffering more anti-Semitism on campus, in fact they are probably suffering less.
Let’s do a better job reporting, explaining and examining the levels of anti-Semitism and calling out those incidents that must be addressed, rather than unintentionally exaggerating and turning campuses into places of fear.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.