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ISGAP Flashpoint

Campus Antisemitism and Pseudo-Intellectual Complicity

By Rachel Hirshfeld | December 11, 2017 | Flashpoint 49

In recent decades, academics promoting pseudo intellectual studies have sought to advance the notion that antisemitism in the contemporary context, and specifically on college and university campuses, is a mere illusion, created by a group of alarmists,”[1] attempting to exaggerate the severity of threats against the Jewish community. Recently, this phenomenon received attention when the Research Group of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University published a September 2017 report, entitled “Safe and on the Sidelines: Jewish Students and the Israel-Palestine Conflict on Campus.”[2] The report, which has been presented in testimony before the US House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee,[3] attempts to discredit the argument that colleges and universities have become “breeding” grounds and “hotspots of antisemitism.” While the report acknowledges that “[s]ince 2014, there have been at least seven separate studies[4] dedicated to tracking campus political discourse as it pertains to antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment,” it argues that “what [these studies] offer in numerical impressions, they obscure in the subtleties of student experience.” While the existing studies –conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (2015)[5], the AMCHA Initiative (2015, 2016, 2017)[6], Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar (2015)[7], Leonard Saxe et al. (2015, 2016),[8] and others — generated extensive data and statistics, using reported incidents, surveys, polls, and questionnaires, the study by the Research Group of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University is based solely on personal interviews with sixty-six undefined students across five California university campuses[9]. In fact, the study acknowledges that it “intentionally sought out Jewish students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life,” thereby excluding students who are most likely to either be the targets of antisemitic attacks or be cognizant of antisemitism on campus. In light of these findings, this paper will illustrate that the study by the Research Group of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University contains fundamental methodological flaws, omissions, and distortions, thereby presenting a highly inaccurate and misleading account of antisemitism on campus.

About the Author
Rachel Hirshfeld

Rachel Hirshfeld is a Strategic Consultant for the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP). Rachel attended New York University and served as the Jewish Agency’s representative on campus, combating anti-Israel delegitimization campaigns. She previously worked at NGO Monitor, where her research focused on the funding and political advocacy of Israeli, Palestinian and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations), as well as NGO involvement in the United Nations and NGO exploitation of international legal mechanisms to demonize Israel.

Given the atmosphere on many university campuses, which often curtails and inhibits freedom of speech and dissenting views, as illustrated by Jonathan S. Tobin[10] and others, it is no surprise that the report was “approved and supervised by the Stanford University Institutional Review Board,”[11] when it, in fact, is devoid of scholarly merit. One must look no further than the cover page of the report to see that the authors include Abiya Ahmed, a former employee of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization with close political and ideological ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ari Y. Kelman, a member of the Academic Council of Open Hillel, which seeks to overturn Hillel International’s guidelines that proscribe partnering with anti-Israel groups or individuals. Open Hillel gives recognition to supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, including Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), two of the organizations most directly responsible for creating a hostile campus environment saturated with anti-Israel sentiment.

While the report claims that, “students feel safe on campus” and that “[n]ot a single one of [the] interviewees described their campus as hostile to Jewish students,” its assertions are empirically false. In fact, it altogether discounts seven crucial studies, including claims that, “Student groups sponsored at least 520 anti-Israel programs on U.S. campuses in 2014-15, a 38% increase from the 375 anti-Israel campus programs during the previous academic year.”[12] It ignores similar claims that, “Antisemitic activity on campuses most popular with Jewish students continued to rise, increasing by 40% from 2015 to 2016”[13] and data indicating that, “While the number of anti-Zionism-motivated acts of anti-Jewish hostility stayed approximately the same from 2015 to 2016, the number of acts motivated by classic antisemitism rose sharply, with anti-Jewish genocidal expression more than doubling from 2015 to 2016.”[14] The report additionally overlooks evidence that suggests that, “Nearly three-quarters of [survey] respondents reported having been exposed at one time during the past year to at least one of six antisemitic statements,”[15] including claims likening Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust. In addition to the studies and data dismissed in the report, the Research Group of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University also fails to comment on similarly disturbing studies conducted by the FBI[16] and NYPD[17].

Yet, even if one were to only consider the sixty-six handpicked student interviews highlighted in the Stanford study, there is reason for concern. In fact, the study often seems to be proving an argument that is diametrically opposed to its underlying conclusion. For example, one interviewee, Amanda, a senior from UC Berkeley, “reported seeing swastikas on campus,” yet the study notes that, “her response was to be unintimidated and almost casual about them, as if student callousness was part of every day life.” She states that she has seen “maybe three or four” during her entire time on campus. She then corrected herself to say that she has seen “[m]aybe five. Actually, maybe more than five.” While the report maintains that Amanda “did not consider this to be part of a pattern of harassment,” it is safe to say that swastikas are arguably the most notorious hate symbol, evoking one of the most horrific periods in Jewish history, and certainly do not cultivate a safe or inviting atmosphere for Jewish students.

We must not forget that the antisemitism of today is not the antisemitism of the 1930s or 1940s. One does not have to witness swastikas on a regular basis or soldiers clad in Nazi-like uniforms marching through university dormitories or student libraries for antisemitism to exist on campus. In the contemporary context, attacks on the Jewish people, and on Jewish students and faculty, most often take the form of onslaughts against the State of Israel, the central manifestation of contemporary Jewish identity. While BDS campaigns[18], “Israel Apartheid” Weeks[19], mock checkpoints[20], mock eviction notices[21], and “die-ins”[22] pervade campus grounds, the report cloaks tactics of double standards, demonization and delegitimization in the language of political activism, when they are, in fact, manifestations of contemporary antisemitism, as explained by former Soviet dissident and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky in his 2004 book, The Case For Democracy[23]. Indeed, while criticism of Israeli government policies – like criticism of all government policies – is not only entirely legitimate, but a necessary and productive means of ensuring a thriving democratic society and vigorous pluralistic debate, BDS activists seek to conflate legitimate criticism of Israel with the complete delegitimization of Israel in the international arena. By exploiting the rhetoric of “human rights” and other universal moral principles, anti-Israel activists attempt to portray Israel as inherently racist, thereby questioning the very existence of the Jewish state and seeking to cast it as the pariah among nations.

The study notes that, “[w]hen students do feel threatened, the feeling derives generally from campus activism related to the tone of the debate about Israel-Palestine conflict,” which is described as “severe, divisive, and alienating.” In fact, according to the report, many students “fear that entering political debate… will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.” Elisheva, like many other interviewees, “keenly felt the social implications of political engagement” and “demurred from outright conflict, usually concluding that fierce political battles were not worth the high social cost they exacted.” Elisheva “observed that stating that her commitment to Israel might cost her friendships.” Similarly, Todd, a sophomore at Stanford, criticized the informal norms about political speech on campus, saying, “There’s definitely kind of a sentiment that you should stay within what Stanford students consider acceptable in terms of what you’re saying.” According to the report, he felt that violating these norms and expressing his support for Israel could have “negative repercussions.” The report goes on to state that, “[s]tudents who wish to speak up often opt out, choosing silence and avoidance,” while others “avoid spaces on campus where they know that they are likely to encounter uncomfortable confrontations.” As Elizabeth, a senior at UCLA, noted, “It’s easier to just stay out of it.” Ultimately, according to the authors of “Safe and on the Sidelines,” it is tolerable for Jewish students to be silenced, ostracized and sidelined, as the report’s title – intentionally or unintentionally – implies.

Academia prides itself on open scholarly inquiry, intellectual pluralism, and freedom of expression; universities are intended to be the epicenters of knowledge, ingenuity, and curiosity. Yet, the report points to an atmosphere that proscribes academic pluralism rather than advancing it and allows divisive speech to impede freedom of speech. While the Stanford report is both an academic debacle and a distorted narrative of events, it, like many other mendacious studies, is repeated on the global stage, thereby presenting a highly inaccurate and misleading account of antisemitism on campus. While the aforementioned studies documenting Jewish student life are extremely pertinent, additional high caliber, scientific, and scholarly research would be valuable to augment the current data and methodically ascertain the atmosphere on university campuses and its effects on Jewish students and faculty, as well as the Jewish community at large. Such research should rightfully supplant disingenuous “studies” and help inform domestic and international opinion. Indeed, we live in a world in which antisemitism masquerades as anti-Zionism; hatred, once again, casts a dark shadow on “liberal” societies; and “enlightened” institutions of higher education trample on the very ideals they claim to espouse. At this point, it seems that Jewish students and faculty may, indeed, be unsafe and on the sidelines.

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[1] Josh Nagli, “Anti-Semitism is not rife at universities – to suggest so is alarmist and wrong,” The Telegraph, December 23, 2016.

[2] Ari Y. Kelman, Abiya Ahmed, Ilana Horwitz, Jeremiah Lockwood, Marva Shalev Marom, and Maja Zuckerman, “Safe and on the Sidelines: Jewish Students and the Israel-Palestine Conflict on Campus,” The Research Group of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies, Stanford University, September 2017.

[3] Liel Leibovitz, “Jewish Studies Professor to Congress: No Anti-Semitism on College Campuses, Nothing Wrong With Comparing Israel to Nazis,” Tablet Magazine, November 7, 2017.

[4] Anti-Defamation League, “Anti-Israel Activity on Campus, 2014-2015: Trends and Projections,” 2015; The AMCHA Initiative, “Report on Antisemitic Activity in 2015 at U.S. Colleges and Universities with the Largest Undergraduate Populations,” 2015; The AMCHA Initiative, “Report on Antisemitic Activity During the First Half of 2016 at U.S. Colleges and Universities with the Largest Jewish Undergraduate Populations,” 2016; The AMCHA Initiative, “Antisemitism: At the Epicenter of Campus Intolerance Antisemitic Activity in 2016 at U.S. Colleges and Universities with the Largest Jewish Undergraduate Populations,” 2017; Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, “National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students 2014: Anti-Semitism Report,” February 2015; Leonard Saxe, Theodore Sasson, Graham Wright, and Shahar Hecht, “Antisemitism and the College Campus: Perceptions and Realities,” Waltham, Mass: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2015; Leonard Saxe, Graham Wright, Shahar Hecht, Michelle Shain, Theodore Sasson, and Fern Chertok, “Hotspots of Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Sentiment on US Campuses,” Waltham, Mass: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2016.

[5] Anti-Defamation League, “Anti-Israel Activity on Campus, 2014-2015: Trends and Projections,” 2015.

[6] The AMCHA Initiative, “Report on Antisemitic Activity in 2015 at U.S. Colleges and Universities with the Largest Undergraduate Populations,” 2015; The AMCHA Initiative, “Report on Antisemitic Activity During the First Half of 2016 at U.S. Colleges and Universities with the Largest Jewish Undergraduate Populations,” 2016; The AMCHA Initiative, “Antisemitism: At the Epicenter of Campus Intolerance Antisemitic Activity in 2016 at U.S. Colleges and Universities with the Largest Jewish Undergraduate Populations,” 2017.

[7] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, “National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students 2014: Anti-Semitism Report,” February 2015.

[8] Leonard Saxe, Theodore Sasson, Graham Wright, and Shahar Hecht, “Antisemitism and the College Campus: Perceptions and Realities,” Waltham, Mass: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2015; Leonard Saxe, Graham Wright, Shahar Hecht, Michelle Shain, Theodore Sasson, and Fern Chertok, “Hotspots of Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Sentiment on US Campuses,” Waltham, Mass: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2016.

[9] Stanford University, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University, UCLA, and UC Irvine.

[10] Jonathan S. Tobin, “Who’s shutting down the debate on Israel?” Jewish News Service, November 10, 2017; Jonathan S. Tobin, “Silencing Israel on Campus,” Jewish News Service, November 13, 2017; Hannah Dreyfus, “‘Free Speech’ Comes At High Cost For Jewish Students,” The Jewish Week, October 25, 2017.

[11] Ari Y. Kelman, Abiya Ahmed, Ilana Horwitz, Jeremiah Lockwood, Marva Shalev Marom, and Maja Zuckerman, “Safe and on the Sidelines: Jewish Students and the Israel-Palestine Conflict on Campus,” The Research Group of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies, Stanford University, September 2017.

[12] Anti-Defamation League, “Anti-Israel Activity on Campus, 2014-2015: Trends and Projections,” 2015.

[13] The AMCHA Initiative, “Antisemitism: At the Epicenter of Campus Intolerance Antisemitic Activity in 2016 at U.S. Colleges and Universities with the Largest Jewish Undergraduate Populations,” 2017.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Leonard Saxe, Theodore Sasson, Graham Wright, and Shahar Hecht, “Antisemitism and the College Campus: Perceptions and Realities,” Waltham, Mass: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 2015. 

[16] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “2016 Hate Crime Statistics,” accessed November 28, 2017, https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2016/tables/table-1.

[17] Will Bredderman, “NYPD Reports ‘Huge Spike’ in Hate Crimes Since Donald Trump’s Election,” The Observer, December 5, 2016.

[18] Anti-Defamation League, “BDS: The Global Campaign to Delegitimize Israel,” accessed November 28, 2017, https://www.adl.org/education/resources/backgrounders/bds-the-global-campaign-to-delegitimize-israel.

[19] Anti-Defamation League, “Israeli Apartheid Week: A Year-by-Year Report,” accessed November 28, 2017, https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/israel-international/Israeli-Apartheid-Week-Year-by-Year-Report.pdf.

[20] Jenna Lyons and Nanette Asimov, “UC Berkeley students stage mock checkpoint in protest,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 2016.

[21] Alina D. Sharon, “Campus eviction notices are fake, but their anti-Semitism is real, experts say,” Jewish News Service, June 22, 2014.

[22] “‘Die-Ins’ Spread To NYC,” Jewish News Service, July 23, 2014.

[23] Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer. The Case For Democracy: The Power Of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny And Terror (Cambridge, MA: PublicAffairs, 2004).

 


Rachel Hirshfeld is a Strategic Consultant for the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP). Rachel attended New York University and served as the Jewish Agency’s representative on campus, combating anti-Israel delegitimization campaigns. She previously worked at NGO Monitor, where her research focused on the funding and political advocacy of Israeli, Palestinian and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations), as well as NGO involvement in the United Nations and NGO exploitation of international legal mechanisms to demonize Israel.

Flashpoint is designed to foster discussion and public debate about critical issues related to current developments in global antisemitism.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISGAP, its other scholars, its officers or the members of its Boards. The reproduction of materials is allowed with proper acknowledgement.