By MIKE WAGENHEIM
A pro-Israel non-profit dedicated to combating anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses has released a recent study showing not only the safety of Jewish students under threat but Jewish identity itself.
Assault On All Fronts
The annual report from the AMCHA Initiative found a year-over-year doubling of threats related to Jewish identity at 60% of schools most popular with Jewish students. Those threats are defined as attempts to “dissociate Zionism from Judaism, pit Zionism against progressive values, accuse Zionist Jews of undue privilege, power and control, and purge Zionism and Zionists from campus life.”
The study includes analysis of the potential long-term ramifications of the “pervasive and relentless assault on Jewish identity” on U.S. college campuses. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that more than 80% of Jews view Israel as integral to their Jewish identity.
“On most campuses today, identity politics play a crucial role in campus life, and for Jewish students who identify as Zionists…campus life can be profoundly challenging,” the report’s researchers say. “The assaults themselves constitute a degree of harassment and identity suppression unparalleled on college campuses today. No other campus identity group is routinely subject to the kinds of well-orchestrated campaigns of identity assault that Zionist and pro-Israel students have had to endure for the last several years at schools across the country.”
The report paints a troubling picture of Jewish life in U.S. academia, logging 254 attacks on Jewish identity during the 2021-2022 academic year spanning 63 campuses. The threats were particularly egregious at Harvard University (25 incidents), the University of Chicago (13), Tufts University (12), UCLA (10) and Rutgers University (10). Bullying and intimidation of Jewish students tripled, as did attempts to disconnect Zionism from Judaism and from progressive causes.
“[W]hen faculty and academic departments assert as fact propositions that are germane to Jewish identity—for example, that Zionism is not an authentic part of Judaism; that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism; or that Zionists misuse religion to justify Israel’s crimes—they provide those propositions with academic legitimacy and the power to justify and incite behavior that targets Jewish and pro-Israel students for harm,” the report says.
The study showed major increases in attempts to rid campuses of Zionism and attempts to cancel Israel-related events, programs, classes and trips. For instance, calls for Jewish students to reject Birthright or other Jewish identity trips increased nearly 20-fold.
The report homed in on two particular sources of threats to Jewish identity: BDS-supporting faculty, and campuses where a combination of both Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Zionist student groups exist. The study concluded that schools with BDS-supporting academic faculty were three to seven times more likely to have such attacks, with 20% of threats to Jewish identity and over one-third of “challenges to well-established definitions of Zionism, Judaism and anti-Semitism” taking place at academic department-sponsored events.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and executive director of the AMCHA Initiative, described to JNS the unprecedented nature of anti-Israel rhetoric coming from within university faculties, whereby entire departments call for Israel boycotts and label Israel an apartheid state.
“We’ve never seen anything like that before. We felt like the floodgates had sort of opened up with those statements,” said Rossman-Benjamin. “Once you allow faculty departments to legitimize that kind of bigotry and anti-Semitism, it gives kids on campus clear license to say and do whatever they want.”
The study noted that the presence of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) or a similar group on a campus, combined with that of Students for Justice in Palestine or a like-minded organization, led to a significantly increased likelihood of Jewish identity-threatening incidents compared to campuses where only SJP or a similar group exists. Notably, the study indicates that on campuses most popular with Jewish students, “no JVP group exists in the absence of an SJP or similar group.”
Jewish anti-Zionist individuals and student groups such as JVP were involved in the perpetration of 12% of overall threats to Jewish identity, according to the report.
Students Hide Identity
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how JVP is such a useful showpiece for SJP because, like faculty, they give legitimacy to SJP and similar groups,” said Rossman-Benjamin. “They say they are walking, living, breathing proof that anti-Zionism is not Jew-hatred, because how could they hate themselves? It’s trite, it’s ridiculous, but when people operate in tweets, that’s a tweet that allows people to not think carefully about what is happening.”
The researchers warned of the increasing numbers of Jewish students “feeling the need to hide their Jewish identity on campus, or to detach from Jewish life partially or completely,” leading to the potential for a generation of young Jewish adults struggling with communal identification and participation. Recommendations include “adding to the existing identity-based approach to fighting campus anti-Semitism,” including utilization of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 with a focus on requiring schools to use the same standard to judge objectionable behavior from and directed at all students, irrespective of the motivation of the perpetrator or the identity of the victim.
Rossman-Benjamin said the attempts to strip students of their Jewish identity is a side effect of the primary mission of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic campus groups: to redefine the meaning of anti-Semitism so that it doesn’t include them, and to push a narrative of Jews as a privileged class in order to remove their protections.
“They’re going right for the jugular. If you take away the broadly accepted definitions of anti-Semitism, or if you take away the understanding that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, then anti-Zionist-motivated harassment just becomes another form of free speech, rather than harassment that Jews are protected from,” she said.