By David Bernstein for the Jewish Policy Center • Winter 2024
By now it’s clear to anyone paying attention that many American college campuses have since October 7 become hotbeds of anti-Zionism and antisemitic fervor. One Jewish professor at a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, an institution you’re not hearing about in the news, recently told me that “From the River to the Sea” is among the mildest chants he hears in the raucous daily campus protests beneath his office window. That same professor has been subject to ongoing, fierce harassment from radical students for expressing moderate pro-Israel positions on social media. Jewish students on his campus have faced death threats and intimidation. Some have been escorted to class by campus security to avoid angry mobs. And we are seeing similar anti-Israel activity on numerous other campuses across the country.
My intention in this article is not to recount the horrors of the current moment, but to examine the roots of the problem and to offer a series of recommended long-term interventions. I say long-term because much of the discussion in the mainstream Jewish community revolves around short-term actions that may temporarily ameliorate the mayhem but fail to address root causes and stem the tide of hate and erosion of support for Israel. The problem on campus has been a long time in the making and it will take a long time in the unmaking.
As challenging as it will be to affect such a shift, the stakes couldn’t be higher. If future generations of young elites continue to be educated into hostility toward Israel, we should expect to see a decline in US-Israel ties with increasing pressure to end the special relationship. And if they continue to be educated into antipathy toward what America stands for and its role in the world, we can expect an America that will withdraw from the global scene, eschew the use of power, and abandon the field to hostile powers such Iran, Russia, and China. It’s hard to imagine that seemingly absurd ideological trends in the humanities departments at American universities could wreak such havoc. But quackery in American universities is a long-term threat to global stability.
The Roots of Campus Hate
Three trends converge in the emergence of today’s campus hate. The first factor is the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign of the late 1960s. Wilson Center scholar Izabella Tabarovsky describes the development of a field called “Zionology” in the late 1960s in the USSR that actively discredited Zionism. In the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, the Soviets were distressed that Israel had handily defeated their Arab allies, and that Soviet Jews, inspired by Israel’s victory, increasingly identified with the Jewish state. In 1969, a party official, Yuri Ivanov, wrote Beware: Zionism! It sold upwards of 800,000 copies in the USSR alone. Tabarovsky explains that the Zionologists’ “most important contribution to global anti-Jewish discourse was to make antisemitic conspiracy theories, typically associated with the far right, not only palatable to the Western hard left but politically useful to it.” In other words, the Soviets successfully created the template for the anti-Zionist campaign we are seeing on American campuses today.
[Editor’s Note: A landmark in the Kremlin’s anti-Zionism, anti-Jewish campaign came in 1975 with the United Nations’ General Assembly adoption of the infamous “Zionism-is-racism” resolution. Embarrassed by Israel’s defeat of their Egyptian and Syrian clients in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Soviets inspired and the Arab League promoted this defamation. Though the United States led a successful campaign to repeal the measure, it already had taken root and continues to echo widely in charges of “racist Israel” and “Israeli apartheid.”]
The second factor is the emergence of postmodern and postcolonial studies in American universities. Postmodernism holds that all of what we consider “knowledge” and attribute to science and free discourse is really the outgrowth of powerful interests encoding their preferred understanding of the world in social discourses so that they can continue to rule over the masses.
In the late 1960s, at the same time the Soviets were delegitimizing Zionism, postmodern scholars with an activist agenda forced their way into higher education and established ethnic studies and other “Studies” departments across the country, which did not adhere to usual standards of scholarly inquiry. Over time a more activist and less scholarly brand of postmodern scholarship emerged and became the basis of today’s radical leftist discourse, which gained further momentum through the writings of the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said, the founder of postcolonial thought. Said discredited the Western study of the Middle East and influenced scholars to see Zionism as a colonialist project. These popular academic theories today see the world through a stark oppressed/oppressor binary, and are predisposed to keeping alive anti-Zionism and other such canards about white, Jewish, and colonial power.
The third factor is the role of Middle Eastern money. In 2019, the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP) first presented research findings to the Department of Justice entitled “Follow the Money.” The research examines illicit funding of United States universities by foreign governments, foundations, and corporations. The research revealed billions in Middle Eastern funding, primarily from Qatar, to US universities that had not been reported to the Department of Education. Such funding has had a substantial impact on fueling antisemitic discourse, identity politics and anti-democratic sentiment within these institutions of higher education.
In other words, the ideological trends described above have been fomented by Qatari financing of American universities. A report issued by the National Association of Scholars, “Hijacked,” describes the problem: “The same leftist hysteria which has consumed the humanities and social sciences since the 1960s has spread to MESCs (Middle East Studies Centers)…Academics have repurposed critical theory to galvanize activism on Middle East issues. For instance, they have recast the Israel–Palestine debate as a fight for “indigenous rights” against the supposed evils of colonialism.”
A Long-term Strategy
There is an abundance of short-term responses currently under consideration. Among them are some which might reduce tensions, including exhorting university presidents to actively oppose radical voices and to discipline perpetrators who intimidate or accost Jewish students; enforcing Title VI anti-harassment laws against those who generate a hostile environment; banning Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters that cross the line and bully Jewish students.
These interventions can help, but none will likely permanently lower the level of animosity from students and professors. Some interventions, like trying to accommodate Jewish concerns in existing campus Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, may be downright counterproductive and merely reinforce the ill-bred ideological conditions that fomented the hostile sentiment in the first place.
Supporters of Israel and Jewish security in America and, indeed, all those concerned about the health of American democracy, need to mount a sustained effort to change the campus culture. Here’s what this involves:
End or Transform DEI
Campus DEI bureaucracies function as an ideological authority, reinforcing political orthodoxies on campus. The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education describes itself as “a leading voice in the fight for social justice” by “creating a framework for diversity officers to advance anti-racism strategies, particularly anti-Black racism, at their respective institutions of higher education.” Sprawling bureaucracies in major universities now typically have 45 paid staff members who reinforce the overall illiberal ideological environment. A 2021 study conducted by Jay Greene at the Heritage Foundation reviewed the social media output of campus DEI officers and found that a high percentage had hostile views toward Israel. One can only imagine what such a study would show today.
Bari Weiss, among others, argues that “it is time to end DEI for good. The answer,” she states, “is not for the Jewish community to plead its cause before the intersectional coalition or beg for a higher ranking in the new ladder of victimhood. That is a losing strategy—not just for Jewish dignity, but for the values we hold as Jews and as Americans.”
Another approach, proposed by interfaith leader Eboo Patel, is to replace DEI with a less ideological form of diversity built on the traditional American model of pluralism. Either way, as long as the current model of DEI reigns supreme, many universities will be hostile places for Jews and Israel.
Revive the Liberal Campus
As stated above, university humanities departments have become riven with ideological academic programs that perpetuate notions of power and oppression that cast Jews and Israel as oppressors. It will not be easy to totally unseat these departments but over time we can weaken their influence. Major Jewish donors have begun to withdraw their philanthropy from elite universities often run by weak-kneed presidents, such as those at Harvard and University of Pennsylvania. One of the most important things these donors can do is to reinvest their philanthropy in new academic programs that specifically and explicitly elevate free inquiry and freedom of expression. Yale Law School, for example, recently established a new free speech and academic freedom center. Such centers can begin to compete with the politicized “Studies” programs and attract superior faculty and student talent.
Indeed, there seems to be a strong correlation between campuses that stifle free inquiry and promote anti-Israel climates. The free speech organization FIRE, which conducts an annual College Free Speech Rankings, ranked Harvard and University of Pennsylvania, respectively, last and second to last. Not coincidentally, these schools are among the most hostile environments for Jewish students who support Israel. Restoring freedom of inquiry on college campuses is a long-term, generational challenge, and a necessary condition for improving attitudes toward Jews and Israel.
Cut Middle Eastern Funds
There is no reason that the US must continue to allow foreign funding of American university programs. In the aftermath of October 7, efforts to expose Qatari funding of American university programs have picked up steam. Hearings have been held on Capitol Hill detailing the failure of universities to disclose sources of funding. Now is the time to redouble such efforts. We should not forget that Saudi Arabia was once the major funder of such anti-American academic programs but, under scrutiny in the post-9/11 atmosphere, largely pulled back. Qatar filled the vacuum.
Like Saudi Arabia before it, Qatar has much at stake in its relationship with the US. Last year, the US designated Qatar a major non-NATO ally, undoubtedly owing in large part to the role the Gulf state played as an intermediary with Iran. Until recently however, the Biden administration has shielded Qatar from scrutiny over its funding of universities. Turning up the heat on the Biden administration to hold Qatar accountable will be critical.
Such a long-term, strategic approach to changing university cultures will not be easy. But unless we are successful in affecting such a change, the environment toward Jews and Israel will only worsen.
David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV.org) and author of Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews. This article was first published in the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune in November 2023.