A Cornell University campus police officer and a state trooper sit parked outside the Center for Jewish Living on November 3, 2023 in Ithaca, New York, where a Unity Shabbat dinner was held. The university canceled classes after antisemitic threats appeared online. Credit - Matt Burkhartt—Getty Images
It’s not easy to be a Jew at an American university today. As one student tearfully explained to me, “We’re exhausted and we’re beleaguered and no one seems to understand.” University administrators have indeed mostly failed their Jewish students, staff, and faculty. Fears of imposing censorship and citing of First Amendment rights have allowed to circulate freely on campus Holocaust denial, the invocation of white privilege to dismiss antisemitism, and the rejection of the Jewish people’s inalienable right to self-determination.
How did it come to this?
There is first the obvious fact that, if Jews comprise only 2.4 percent of the United States population, Jewish students will invariably almost always be a minority on all but a few campuses. Even at universities where Jewish students comprise larger minorities, such as at Cornell, Columbia, and Tulane, they have often experienced the same opprobrium that has been seen on campuses across the country.
The relative paucity of Jewish students makes them a constituency that often receives only limited attention. At the university I teach at, Georgetown, for instance, the campus rabbi fought for years to get Kosher food in the dining hall. The consistent rebuff was that there were insufficient observant Jews on campus. Eventually, however, these entreaties succeeded and Kosher food became available. But the amount of effort and time it took underscores how challenging it can be at even the most inclusive and worldly campuses for such requests from Jewish students to be granted.
Second, like the reportedly liberal residents of the collective agricultural communities bordering Gaza, we Jewish-American academicians deluded ourselves into believing that our respect for Palestinian self-determination was mutual and that our rational arguments for a two-state solution, our opposition to Jewish settlement on the West Bank and East Jerusalem neighborhoods, and our criticism of Israel’s current extreme right government would eventually persuade our more progressive colleagues on the other side to accept and recognize Israel as a bona fide nation-state.
More revealing should have been the continued frequency of these colleagues’ denunciations of Israel and signing of protest letters decrying Israeli transgressions contrasted with the more pervasive silence over China’s treatment of the Uighurs, Turkey of the Kurds, Assad’s serial massacring of his own citizens, Hezbollah’s assassination campaign against independent Lebanese journalists and of a serving prime minister, etc. Accordingly, this historic imbalance of protests over the loss of Muslim life or repression on religious grounds when inflicted by countries other than Israel should come as no surprise, especially given the dominant anti-colonialist/anti-Western scholarly and didactic approaches so prevalent at many American universities today.
Third, how can we teach students scholarship’s guiding principles of objectivity, analysis based on empirical evidence, and logic when most of them get their news from TikTok or Instagram or YouTube and not traditional news media whether on television, radio, or print? According to a recent Reuters Institute report, this shift is the product of a demand for “more accessible, informal, and entertaining news formats, often delivered by influencers rather than journalists.” The desire therefore has become for news “that feels more relevant,”at the expense of accuracy, vetting, and objectivity. With so complex and complicated issues as war and peace with Palestine and Israel, the fact these social media sites have become the main news sources for student means that they are getting emotionally resonant and rewardingly cathartic memes and infographics that may be clever and entertaining but are glib and unenlightening.
Fourth, is the default cry of university administrators for more education and more dialogue. The belief is that talking is cathartic and can bridge or at least ameliorate disagreement and incivility over even the most divisive and polarizing issues. In reality, however, these campus forums often provide vehicles for Jewish students to feel even more marginalized, more isolated, and more victimized. As one of my students, who is not Jewish, complained to me, “There is a ‘both sides’ argument that quickly moves into a disturbingly pro-genocide narrative calling for the total annihilation of Israel.”
These “dialogues” and extra-curricular education opportunities are rarely balanced. A colleague at a small, liberal arts college wrote the other day about a planned seven-week special lecture series featuring speakers universally hostile to Israel and disdainful of the two-state solution once heralded by the landmark Oslo Accords and more recently envisioned by the Abraham Accords.
Finally, we thought that the fears and concerns of our parents and grandparents had been rendered anachronistic by “inclusivity,” the mantra of 21st-century American universities. Today, however, like the parents of school-age children, who are afraid to send their kids to Hebrew school, the parents of Jewish undergraduates and graduates worry about the febrile atmosphere on campuses and how their children are coping. In despair, a Jewish student told me of their bitter experience of “unprecedented loneliness on campus.”
Just as the October 7th terrorist attacks forever changed Israel, they will have a similarly profound impact on Jews at campuses throughout the country. Already some Jewish parents are steering their high school juniors and seniors away from attending or applying to more prestigious universities based on how their administrators have handled the frictions that have been continuously sharpened and the attitudes and behavior of faculty and students alike. And, many Jewish students already on campus are being encouraged by their parents, family, and friends to skip those classes where they feel that they somehow have to explain or justify Israeli policy and military operations or somehow apologize or atone for them. It is an unenviable situation that may never re-set. And, one that harkens back to a darker time when Jews felt and indeed were far less welcome at many universities throughout the U.S.
America’s universities have long been envied the world over as exemplars of the highest standards of learning and scholarship. Will they now become better known, and perhaps even emulated, for failing to adequately protect their Jewish communities? Jews know better than most how easily ostracism and intolerance spreads from us to others. And, then to books and ideas as well.
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