Universities need to act

The hard facts about campus antisemitism—and what we can do to stop it

In Short

Antisemitism hardly confines itself to college campuses

As more students return to campus, colleges are thinking hard about how to keep them safe. But health should not be their only consideration. 95 percent of current students and recent graduates feel antisemitism is a problem on their campus, according to a recent survey conducted by Alums for Campus Fairness. When universities plan their transition into a new phase of the pandemic, administrators also need to introspect about how to reverse this frightening trend and make campuses more welcoming for Jewish students.

Antisemitism hardly confines itself to college campuses. Although Jews represent just two percent of Americans, they suffered 58 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2020, according to FBI statistics cited by The Jerusalem Post. That makes Jews the third-largest target of hate crimes out of all American minorities. But campus antisemitism is particularly damaging, because college is where the new generation of politicians, activists, and influencers form their ideas. In this way, campus antisemitism not only reflects the general climate, but forecasts the attitude of future American leaders.

Alums for Campus Fairness, where I serve as executive director, combats campus antisemitism in its various forms across the country. We publicize antisemitic incidents in the media, circulate petitions, and mobilize alumni to reach out to university leadership to protect Jewish students. We conducted our recent survey to expose the hard statistics so we could ascertain the scope of campus antisemitism.

The results not only confirmed that antisemitism taints campuses across the country; it made us even more concerned. We surveyed more than 500 students and recent graduates, from public and private schools across the country. Almost every one of them deemed antisemitism a problem—not just on campuses in general, but on their own campuses. 

The survey demonstrated that antisemitism pervades every level of the campus community. Offenses most commonly came from fellow students: nearly 80% of respondents had experienced or heard firsthand about another student making antisemitic comments in person. But students take their cues from their professors. More than half of survey respondents had received or heard firsthand about offensive or threatening comments from faculty or university employees. Nor is the administration free of blame. While university administrators are seldom overtly antisemitic, their lackadaisical responses to incidents of bias make Jewish students feel unheard and unsafe. In the survey, students who reported incidents told of being dismissed or even ridiculed. A campus police officer told one student she was “too sensitive” about an offensive poster. And when another student reported an antisemitic incident, administrators retorted, “You have friends, right?”

Recounted comments sometimes drew on old antisemitic tropes, like when a student had pennies thrown at him with the taunt, “You gonna pick that up, Jew?” Several students trivialized the Jews’ suffering in the Holocaust, or sweepingly demonized Israel. Other remarks demonstrated absurd generalizations, like “All Jewish men look alike and are ugly.” Among professors, antisemitism sometimes manifested in refusal to accommodate students when exams fell on Jewish holidays. One particularly hateful professor, when forced to give a Jewish student an alternative to a Rosh Hashanah test date, simply failed him, saying, “I didn’t have time to correct your exam, and I guessed what grade you deserved.”

But antisemitism goes beyond pointed remarks and even academic retaliation to primitive violence. 44 percent of survey respondents had experienced or heard firsthand about being physically threatened because they were Jewish. Students related being bullied, tackled, and beaten up, sometimes with impunity. One student who attends a private university in the Midwest reported an assault, only to be told “that there was nothing they could do because there is not a big enough Jewish population within the school.”

Universities need to act now to stop the hatred. They can effect real change by implementing a holistic strategy. This means proactively setting clear policies and positions and educating everyone in the campus community about antisemitism. As part of their preemptive measures, I urge them to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism so that it is clear which behaviors and attitudes are problematic. When incidents occur, university leadership must strongly condemn it and administer the appropriate consequences. The university should periodically evaluate to pinpoint policies that do not adequately serve Jewish students. 

But besides university administrators, there is another stakeholder—one often overlooked—who can play an important role in reforming campus culture: alumni. Alumni retain a deep interest in what happens at their alma mater, yet as outsiders, they can accomplish things that current students cannot. Their relationships with faculty and administrators and their importance as a source of donations give them influence. Alums for Campus Fairness focuses on this previously untapped population. 

By following the news at their alma maters, alumni can serve as watchdogs. When something problematic occurs, they can publicize the incident via social media, traditional media, and petitions. They can network with university policymakers and give feedback—both negative and positive—about university responses to antisemitic incidents. They can also provide students with encouragement and support.

With forethought and strategy, university administrators can work together with other stakeholders, like alumni, to banish this hate from our campuses. Just like universities take measures to protect students from illness, we can work to protect them from antisemitism’s emotional and psychological damage. Together, we can ensure all students a safe and enriching college experience.

Avi D. Gordon is the executive director of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF).