Lev Topor, PhD

Lev Topor, PhD

Dr Lev Topor is an ISGAP Research Fellow. Lev Topor is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Cyber Law and Policy (CCLP) in the University of Haifa and a visiting Research Fellow at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (Summer 2022).

Lev is the co-author (with Jonathan Fox) of Why Do People Discriminate Jews? (Oxford University Press, 2021). Lev is an interdisciplinary researcher that studies antisemitism alongside cyber-related topics like international cyber policies and anonymous communications. Lev is the recipient of the 2019 Robert Wistrich annual award from the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA) and the recipient of the honorary award from the Association of Civil-Military Studies in Israel for his research about the Dark Web.

The issue of terrorism and its impact on students on university and college campuses is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. While campuses are meant to be hubs of intellectual discourse and diversity, they can also become breeding grounds for radicalization or platforms for the expression of extremist ideologies. This is particularly evident in American campuses where free, limitless, speech is sanctified and where foreign countries, often with anti-Western stances, fund educational programs. That is, until some students engage in actual violence. After the horrible 10/7 terrorist attack by the terrorist organization Hamas on Southern Israel, the murder of over 1,200 people and the kidnapping of hundreds of others, some students worldwide have expressed support for those atrocities, and some deny this modern-day pogrom has ever happened. Students at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, Columbia University, UCLA, and elsewhere in the United States, deny acts of terrorism, many European campuses are no difference. Why do students (and faculty) deny? 

Before delving into the reasons for terrorism denial, it is important to understand the factors influencing Western students’ support for anti-Western, often extreme Islamist, terrorism. Some students, mainly foreign students or migrants from anti-Israeli and antisemitic countries have come to the United States and to Europe with predetermined and radical beliefs, they perceive Jews as evil and promote antisemitism while also oppose the existence of the sole Jewish state – they support any opposition to Jews, Judaism, and Israel. Some students may be indoctrinated into extremist ideologies through online forums, religious institutions, academic centers funded by foreign countries, or peer groups, leading them to support acts of terrorism as a means to advance their beliefs. Extremist organizations that fund American and European “Islamist” or radical left centers often prey on vulnerable individuals, offering them a sense of purpose and belonging through radical ideologies.

Further, some students have grievances and feel alienation. Students who feel marginalized or disenfranchised due to social, economic, or political factors may be more susceptible to supporting terrorism as a means of seeking revenge or addressing perceived injustices. While discrimination, racism, or xenophobia experienced by certain student groups can foster resentment and fuel extremist sentiments, they may also express the very same hatred towards other groups in return. For instance, a Muslim student or a Black student that had experienced discrimination or racism might seek to blame others for it. In the case of Israel, Jews and the 10/7 terrorist attack, they may even support this attack due to envy – as many Jews have assimilated and promoted themselves in Western societies more than other groups.

There is another influencing factor, of course, and it is the consumption of propaganda and mis/disinformation – “fake news”. Propaganda disseminated through social media, extremist literature, or charismatic influencers and leaders can distort students’ perceptions of reality and manipulate them into endorsing violent actions. Mis/disinformation campaigns often exploit grievances or manipulate historical narratives to justify terrorist acts, making them appear legitimate to impressionable individuals. In most cases, such propaganda is developed and promoted by anti-Western powers, including anti-Israeli regional and global powers like Iran or Qatar. The promotion of such fake news, alongside the fact that people tend to believe conspiracy theories which blame their own failures on others, are a key factor in students’ support of terrorism.

Peer Pressure and group dynamics also come into play. Students feel pressured to conform to the beliefs and actions of their peer groups, especially if these groups espouse extremist ideologies. Group dynamics, such as camaraderie and a sense of belonging, can reinforce support for terrorism among students who fear social ostracism or rejection. That is, if some “cool” or “influencing” students support and promote terrorism, others may follow simply due to lack of understanding and the need to feel being part of a group. If many spend their time in such social circles, eventually, they will be indoctrinated. Sadly, such Herd behavior is the very opposite of what they came to do in universities and campuses in the first place.

Support for terrorism and terrorism denial go hand in hand and many students in the West now deny the terrorist attack due to lack of information, media literacy, but also due to antisemitism.  First, some students are entangled with antisemitic and anti-Zionist circles, and they consume only this kind of media and information, not just from established anti-Israeli sources like the BBC or Al Jazeera, which is a Qatari state-owned news network, but also from anonymous and/or biased media channels on WhatsApp and Telegram, messaging applications that had become prominent news channels in recent years. Thus, for instance, the same Qatari source that funds antisemitic and anti-Western centers in American universities, schools and kindergartens also funds state-owned propaganda news networks, social media campaigns, websites, and messaging applications channels. This whole web of influence brainwashes the minds of young students who are also not exposed enough to true information.

Second, some students are not just the consumers of antisemitism, but they are the promoters of it. Students who support terrorist groups, perceiving them as “freedom fighters”, often deny terrorism acts in an attempt to whitewash themselves by whitewashing their supported terrorist group. Pro-Palestinian students may deny 10/7 in an attempt to legitimize their own support for terror organizations like Hamas. Other students deny 10/7 due to antisemitic worldviews as they claim Jews, and Israel, manipulate and control global media and that 10/7 was a Jewish/Israeli operation to justify a war in Gaza. This is similar to the age-old conspiracy theory about Jewish media control and promotion of wars. Further, just as anti-Western radical leftists, neo-Nazis and Islamists tend to blame 9/11 on Jews, to whitewash themselves, they also blame 10/7 on Jews and Israel.

Thus, what is terrorism denial? Like I have written previously, “terrorism denial is the act of denying, actively, passively, directly, or indirectly, terrorism”. Just like Holocaust denial and distortion, it is promoted to whitewash the perpetrators while simultaneously blaming the victims. Terrorism denial on campuses is a dangerous path many students choose or fall into since their experience in the campuses create the illusion of soundness and validity. In reality though, terrorism denial is based on conspiracies, lies and manipulations, just like antisemitism. Why deny terrorism, why deny the Holocaust, if not to legitimize it? Why do students rip down posters of those kidnapped on 10/7, if not to legitimize Hamas and blame Jews for “faking” the kidnappings.

The attitudes of students on Western college campuses towards terrorism are shaped by a multitude of factors, ranging from ideological indoctrination and grievances to empathy to lack of media literacy or lack of critical thinking skills. Understanding the complex interplay of these factors is very important to educators and policymakers which may be able to develop comprehensive strategies to counter antisemitism, radicalization, and promote a culture of tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect on campuses. To combat antisemitism, one must acknowledge that antisemitic pogroms have occurred.