Aristotle, Alarmism and the Fight Against Campus Anti-Semitism

by Kenneth L. Marcus

Wisdom is often found at the Aristotelian mean. In the debate over campus anti-Semitism, alarmists are too often pitted against quietists. The former see danger behind every corner, while the latter don’t see it until it is too late. In fact, the Jewish community can only succeed if it takes more measured and less polarizing positions on what is happening in American higher education.

To listen to the alarmists, one would think that anti-Semitism is everywhere in post-secondary education. In fact, survey data shows that university professors view Jewish students more favorably than any other major religious group. The institutional anti-Semitism of the mid-twentieth century – which ranged from restrictions on student admissions to dormitory segregation to bans on Jewish faculty hiring – has long since been dismantled. There has never been a better time to be a Jewish college student than now and there has never been a better place for a Jewish student to study than in America.

To listen to the quietists, one would think that anti-Semitism is nowhere to be found in American higher education. In fact, survey data shows that forty percent of Jewish American university students have experienced or witnessed some form of anti-Semitism on their campuses. Depending on how the data is interpreted, the number may be even higher. Disturbing incidents have been reported on so many campuses that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights – which this author previously headed – announced in 2006 that campus anti-Semitism is a “serious problem which warrants further attention.” The long, steady progress which our society made in the battle against anti-Semitism in the post-war period has come to a halt, and the situation is now starting to get worse.

Over the last several months, the organized Jewish community has conducted an interesting and important debate over how best to respond. Too often alarmists and quietists speak (or yell) at cross-purposes. Neither camp seems to appreciate that the other has seized upon an important kernel of truth. At its worse, the debate can descend into hurtful bickering. At its best, however, it can lead to consensus around a more reasonable position: Things are still very good for most college students, but the Jewish community would be foolish to ignore the times and places where campus environments are deteriorating.

A recent op-ed in these pages argues the Jewish community should not focus exclusively on anti-Semitism in higher education. This is hard to deny, since there are so many other important issues for the community to address, including other challenges on and off campus. But it is also off-base to the extent that it suggests that the community has indeed embraced such a singular focus.

In fact, Jewish organizations have filed fewer than half a dozen Title VI campus anti-Semitism cases since this author drafted the U.S. Education Department’s Title VI policy in 2004. During that period, well over 40,000 complaints have been filed with ED’s Office for Civil Rights on other topics. So the Jewish community’s legal efforts to combat campus anti-Semitism have been negligible in absolute terms or by comparison. During the last year, these efforts have picked up somewhat. (For example, earlier this year, this author established a new organization to combat campus anti-Semitism.) But the Jewish community’s collective response to this issue can hardly be confused with a laser-like focus. Moreover, much of the Jewish community’s recent debate over Title VI has addressed whether we have collectively been too aggressive (not too reticent) in the meager work that we have done to date.

The wisest course on campus anti-Semitism is neither to be unduly fearful (alienating potential friends and spoiling opportunities for collaboration) nor to be unduly sanguine (failing to protect those students who face hostile or dangerous environments). This should not be the Jewish community’s exclusive focus, but it should be a greater focus of Jewish communal attention that it has been in the past. Moreover, our focus should be on reasonable, effective response, rather than alarmism or quietism.

Kenneth L. Marcus is President and General Counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and author of Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America (Cambridge University Press 2010). He formerly served as Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.