College Campuses and the New Antisemitism
It is a scary time to be Jewish in America. Antisemitism has experienced a precipitous rise in the last several years — in 2019, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported 2,100 acts of antisemitic hate, the highest number of such incidents that had been recorded since tracking began in 1979. One does not have to look very far to see such antisemitism being espoused and perpetuated on both sides of the political spectrum.
On the right, Donald Trump claims to be a Jewish ally while trafficking in anti-semitic tropes such as dual loyalty, “Jewish money”, and a purported Jewish obsession with power — not to mention his tacit support for Neo-Nazi and alt-right movements that have increasingly targeted Jews during the years of his presidency. On the left, figures such as Louis Farrakhan, who has called Judaism a “gutter religion”, compared Jews to termites, and espoused the deeds of Adolf Hitler, have been gaining increasing traction in activist circles. The increasingly mainstream nature of this hatred has left many Jews feeling ostracized, even by the political parties or movements they once supported.
This trend is not uniquely American — in almost every European country, the number of recorded antisemitic incidents has also been increasing. A 2018-2019 report by the E.U.’s Fundamental Rights Agency surveyed 16,395 Jews from 12 E.U. countries, and found that 89% of Jews felt that antisemitism had been increasing and that European Jews were subject to “a sustained stream of abuse”.
In France alone, there was a 74% increase of antisemitic incidents between 2017 and 2018, and in the U.K., the Labour party has been described as “institutionally antisemitic”, particularly under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. This rhetoric is pervasive — in July, U.K. rapper Wiley, who is a member of the Order of the British Empire, went on a two-day long antisemitic rant on both Twitter and Instagram, which, while being condemned by some, received an astonishing amount of support from others. Antisemitism, it seems, is once more in vogue.
Why, only 75 years after the end of the Holocaust, are we once more experiencing this rising tide of antisemitism? Part of it seems to lie in the fact that the hatred of Jews never truly went away — the antisemitic tropes and canards that have been used for hundreds of years, and popularized by the fabricated 20th-century text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, continue to be exceedingly popular, especially among the alt-right. These groups assert that Jews control various industries, including the government, and that they seek to exterminate all white people.
However, a new, large part of the animosity directed at Jews comes from a new form of antisemitism that hides behind anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment. This new form of antisemitism, which some scholars have accordingly deemed “New Antisemitism”, takes these old, worn antisemitic tropes and attempts to frame them as legitimate criticism of the state of Israel. While Israel, like any other state, can and should be subjected to criticism, this New Antisemitism pushes well beyond the bounds of what is reasonable, crossing the line from criticism to polemical dogmatism.
What’s more, this New Antisemitism is used to attack not only the state of Israel but also Jewish people as a whole. This is precisely the problem we face on many college campuses today, where such New Antisemitism is not just widely tolerated, but sometimes even espoused, both by students and administrations.
One doesn’t even need to look beyond Yale’s campus to see evidence of this New Antisemitism. This past fall, a chapter of Students For Justice in Palestine (SJP), a national organization that has been tied to incidents of antisemitism on various college campuses, was restarted at Yale and began hosting various events that decried the purported iniquities of the Israeli government and argued for the freedom of Palestinians from their Israeli oppressors.
While condemnation of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, their occupation of the West Bank, and their plans for annexation are well within the bounds of valid criticism, Yale’s SJP chapter, like many SJP chapters across the country, has at times used their platform to demonize Zionism, Israel, and any Jews who support either.
In November of 2019, students from SJP staged a protest in front of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life, allegedly protesting the Israeli flag that is flown by the building. However, when primarily Jewish students entered or exited the building, they were subjected to a wide variety of verbal attacks, ranging from “colonialist” to “baby killer”. Not only did these accusations play on tried and true antisemitic tropes, but they also implicitly equated the actions of all Jews with those of Israel. In their eyes, in order to be a “good Jew”, one had to reject Israel — for many a major part of Jewish culture and religion — outright.
This phenomenon is not unique to Yale, and is in fact more glaring at other universities. For example, the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) group — a group that champions Palestinian nationhood and calls for the dissolution of the state of Israel — has gained considerable traction at many universities, where it calls for university divestment from Israeli businesses and products. The organization is problematic in that it demonizes Israel, subjects it to double standards, and, most damningly, calls for its dissolution altogether.
Advocates of BDS often work with SJP chapters to advance their narratives, and are even often supported by professors and administrators, who sometimes themselves demonize Israel. This leads to the antagonization of Zionist Jews, incitements of violence against Israel, and the spread of vile antisemitic narratives. For example, in April 2019, SJP at Barnard released a statement that equated Zionism with racism and called for students to disavow themselves of any Zionist organizations or individuals. In addition, the same group condoned terrorism against the state of Israel in an official verbal statement the following month.
At UC Berkeley, a pro-Palestinian organization constructed a display that honored terrorists convicted of killing Israeli Jews, which the student senate refused to condemn as recently as February 2020. Incidents such as these show that these organizations have no interest in dialogue or in acknowledging the terrible acts of violence that have been perpetrated on both sides of the conflict, but are rather solely interested in demonizing Israel, and the vast majority of Jews who support it. Accordingly, many of the campuses that have strong SJP/BDS presences have also exhibited a rise in antisemitic incidents and discrimination.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so much more complicated than calling for a boycott of one side or the other. Both sides of the conflict have committed horrendous crimes against one another. Both sides have governments that perpetuate the conflict rather than attempting to solve it, and both sides have extremists that call for the dissolution or destruction of the other.
Movements on college campuses today seek to falsely reframe this conflict in the context of colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy while ignoring the actual nuanced reality of the conflict. This position only serves to portray Israel as a wicked aggressor and serves no purpose in actually taking action to end the dispute. In addition, this gross oversimplification provides a comfortable narrative that plays into age-old antisemitic tropes.
If we are to put an end to this New Antisemitism, we must call not for one-sided organizations that promote a singular narrative, but rather for discussion that addresses the shortcomings of both sides, and calls not for violence, but for radical empathy. In doing so, we may be able to separate antisemitism from Israel once more — forcing those who simply dislike Jews to shed the veneer of political criticism and be open in their hatred, and freeing legitimate criticism of Israel from the taint of antisemitism.
Jake Kalodner is a senior at Yale University, and a content creator on the instagram account @jewishoncampus. When he’s not doing something related to Judaism or Zionism, you can usually find him making absurd sandwiches and vehemently defending the great state of New Jersey.