Committee hearings

In the Knesset, American leaders, Israeli students discuss antisemitism on U.S. campuses

William Daroff says White House national strategy can help fight anti-Zionism in universities; former IDF spokesman, now at Harvard, says coalition is ‘feeding’ antisemites 

American Jewish leaders and Israelis studying in the United States appeared in the Knesset on Tuesday to discuss antisemitism and anti-Zionism on American campuses in light of recent incidents and the release of the White House’s national strategy to combat antisemitism.

The discussion was hosted by the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, which is chaired by MK Oded Forer of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. 

In his opening remarks, Forer noted a recent increase in violent antisemitic incidents worldwide in the first quarter of 2023, as well as a recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League, which found that 20% of Americans and 25% of Europeans hold antisemitic views. Forer said these figures “made us very concerned.”

One of the Israeli students who spoke at the hearing was Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, the former deputy military secretary to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also served as the Israel Defense Forces’ international spokesperson and as a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. Shefler, who is still in the military while on leave before he resigns,  is currently studying at Harvard University.

He described the struggles he and other Israeli students face in their classes, including a case where a Zionist project proposal was rejected by a Jewish professor as inappropriate while a pro-Palestinian proposal was accepted. 

Shefler also accused the current Israeli government of “feeding” antisemitism abroad with inflammatory rhetoric and actions. “Getting closer to parts of the ‘dark world’ like China and Russia, and the behavior in the occupation of the Palestinians are making Israel lose the ‘points’ that we had won in the past as the ‘beautiful’ Israel, which seeks peace and which has a deep and pluralistic Judaism that seeks justice,” Shefler said. 

“You are increasing the connection between the classic antisemites and those who [only] oppose Israeli policies. Coalition members, to my great dismay, you are feeding the antisemitism and you are widening the distance between Diaspora Jewry and Israel,” he said.

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, addressed the committee, reiterating American Jews’ support for and closeness to Israel and describing the White House’s antisemitism strategy and how it can be used to address the issue of antisemitism on campus. He also repeated his organization’s call for broader consensus following the passage of a piece of the government’s proposed judicial overhaul this week.

“Our community’s commitment to Zionism is an integral part of our Jewish identity and has become a facet of the hate directed against us,” Daroff said.

Daroff lauded the White House national strategy for making it clear that it considers anti-Zionism to be a form of antisemitism.

“The Biden plan emphatically states, ‘When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is anti-Semitism and that is unacceptable.’ The plan also embraces the [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s] definition of antisemitism, which clearly links forms of anti-Zionist rhetoric with antisemitism,” Daroff said.

“These are powerful words that are backed up by the strength of the United States government, and we hope they have the impact necessary to make Jewish students feel secure in their complete identity in colleges and on campuses.”

Kenneth Marcus, the founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, also provided his assessment of the situation, as did Mark Rotenberg, Hillel International’s vice president of university initiatives and legal affairs.

Marcus thanked Forer and the committee for holding the hearing about antisemitism considering the current turmoil in Israel.

“I am deeply moved by your attention to this issue today at a time of great difficulty in this country,” he said. “Nothing could be more symbolic of the friendship [between the U.S. and Israel] that at this moment with everything that is going on here, the first order of business should be a concern about the Diaspora.”

Marcus reiterated his concern that while the White House strategy “embraces” the IHRA definition, it also “acknowledges the NEXUS definition, which is a less protective definition,” which he said was a ”challenge for us.”

Rotenberg noted that the situation on college campuses for Jewish students was complex, both far better than it had been in the past, but still profoundly difficult.

“As Charles Dickens famously said, in a very different context, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. On U.S. campuses today, it is important to recognize the dichotomous presence of great opportunity for Jewish students and great trepidation, fear, and in many cases intimidation and exclusion,” Rotenberg said.

He noted that the past few years have seen a “dramatic decline in BDS campaigns” on university campuses, “from a high of 37 such campaigns in 2019 to only five in 2022.”

He credited the decline to the fact that “Jewish organizations and Jewish students and the Jewish community have successfully beaten that back. Not a single university in America has actually endorsed BDS as an administration. Not one, not a small liberal arts school, not a big public research university.”