Higher standards for Higher Ed

Universities must urgently reconsider their approach to the issue of antisemitism on campus

In Short

It's time for Jewish leaders and supporters of Jewish students to vocally make the case that a university without a proactive antisemitism strategy is an institution unprepared to address to hatred on campus.

The shock waves emanating from Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel will continue as they reach campuses with already significant increases in antisemitic incidents. As Israel responds to the unprecedented attack with the full force of its military, the inevitable humanitarian crisis in Gaza will further fuel tensions, especially on social media where college students live. University leaders must act now to protect Jewish students already reeling from the mass killings, rape and abductions of Israelis.

In another age, these atrocities might have caused a pause in the toxic debate about Israel, a period when those who criticize the Jewish state, and sometimes lurch into antisemitism, could reflect on what has been done by those who supposedly fight on behalf of Palestinians. Instead, before the dead were even buried, dozens of college groups across the country had already declared their solidarity with the terrorist organization Hamas. For example, 31 student groups at Harvard immediately declared that Israel was entirely to blame for the violence. Jewish students and their supporters should expect that the atrocities, far from embarrassing fierce critics of Israel, will embolden those who had already made anti-Zionism their obsession. 

An advertisement posted on Instagram on Oct. 10, 2023 by University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Students for Justice in Palestine features imagery referencing the deadly Hamas incursion into Israel just days prior. Image source @uncsjp via Instagram.

University leaders have yet to realize how much worse things can get. It is telling that, to date, campus leaders have yet to confront antisemitism in the same way that they fight the scourge of racism. When a campus group invites antisemitic speakers, even if the event is supported by university programs — as happened recently at the University of Pennsylvania — college presidents hide behind organizational niceties that their schools are not directly organizing the events. They are also unwilling to confront the question of why the students they ceaselessly champion have welcomed Jew-hatred to their campuses. This passivity stands in contrast to the willingness of leaders at Princeton, Brown, Penn and numerous schools across the country to produce unflinching statements about the racism that abides on their campuses. 

One particularly uncomfortable issue is the role of international students at some campuses. American universities have quite rightly celebrated their success in recruiting students from across the world. They reason correctly that the traditions and beliefs of students from many countries enrich campus life; but colleges have not directly confronted the quandary that a profound anti-Zionism, which sometimes morphs into antisemitism, is also a part of the culture of some foreign students’ homelands. Additionally, some students come from areas that have suffered from Israeli policies. The solution, of course, is not to tar any foreign students with the label of “Jew-hater,” but rather to recognize that schools have, to some degree, imported the Middle East conflict onto their campuses. With globalism — a good thing — comes global problems.    

University leaders will also have to be much more proactive in preventing their teaching and research programs from being politicized. At the height of the Gaza conflict in 2021, dozens of gender studies centers and programs signed an open letter criticizing Israel and rejecting even-handed treatment of the conflict. While individual scholars have the freedom to adopt positions that they choose — including being profoundly critical of the Jewish state — it was grossly inappropriate for programs and centers to adopt political positions that would inevitably structure the intellectual atmospheres they support and to invoke the authority of schools that are supposed to be nonpolitical. Yet very few university presidents criticized their faculty for this brazen breach of organizational governance. If Jewish students are to be supported, school leaders must make sure that their programs have not adopted official positions that foster the very hatred the schools supposedly oppose.

The old playbook of expressing regret when an antisemitic incident occurs is no longer good enough. The reverberations from the atrocities in Israel will be many and unforeseeable. Actions in the heat of the moment will be incomplete, however good the intentions. A university without a proactive antisemitism strategy is a university with a flawed approach to hatred on campus. It is time for Jewish leaders and supporters of Jewish students to make that case in as vocal a manner as possible.

Jeffrey Herbst is president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles.