In education circles, we often talk about “teachable moments”—opportunities to pause and reflect, engage in conversation, and ideally come to a deeper understanding. This moment in time is as teachable as it gets.
After Hamas launched a nightmarish terror attack on Israel, U.S. college and university campuses erupted with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hate, creating a toxic mix of fear and animosity among students and educators. This is all taking place against a backdrop of growing antisemitism in America that, according to the FBI, has reached “historic levels.”
The current campus climate should be sobering for everyone who cares about our collective future, which today’s students will have a direct hand in shaping. School leaders must take swift action to make our institutions of higher learning safe again, but they must do much more than that. The time has come to repair what is broken.
They can start by asking themselves a simple question: What kind of graduates do we want to produce and put forth into the world? If they are honest about what we are all witnessing, it will quickly become clear that education needs to go back to the basics.
Put a moral stake in the ground
Between the qualifications and celebrations of the October 7 massacre, moral clarity has been in short supply.
The leaders of our institutions of higher learning are entrusted with a great privilege and responsibility: developing our future leaders. They must therefore set the tone on their campuses by modeling integrity and accountability. This includes acknowledging and unequivocally condemning terrorism, antisemitism, and hate of any kind.
They also cannot ignore or excuse faculty who extoll and rebrand murder, torture, rape, and kidnapping as “resistance.” That is the ultimate failure to educate. Nor can they stand by silently as student organizations engage in victim blaming and support violence, lest these actions grant tacit permission to the wider community to perpetuate dangerous rhetoric and behavior under the guise of academic enlightenment.
Taking this moral stance does not preclude showing empathy to all those who are suffering, or mourning every innocent life lost to the tragedy of war. We have the capacity to do both.
Enforce civil discourse
Hate on campus will not bring peace to the Middle East. What it will do, and has already done, is perpetuate a cycle of anger and trauma that serves no cause—that frees no one.
Leaders have a responsibility to define and enforce acceptable norms for speech and conduct on campus grounds. When a red line is crossed, whether by students or faculty, there can be zero tolerance. But reacting after the damage is done is only a partial solution for a recurring problem. This moment presents an opportunity to proactively redirect students—to teach them to navigate even the most complex and emotionally laden topics with humility, curiosity, and dialogue, rather than as an exercise in intellectual combat.
In a recent open letter, Harvard alumni implored the university president and deans to address antisemitism and “become a model for campus free speech.” Among their recommendations was the creation of a required course on “productive discourse, critical thinking and the interrogation of facts so students learn to debate through reasoned inquiry.” That would certainly be a step in the right direction.
It is infinitely easier to chant inflammatory slogans than to unpack them and confront one’s own ignorance and biases. If we can’t challenge students to do this work within the sandbox of our academic institutions, where can we do it?
Read between the lines
Many adults take what they read at face value, without pausing to confirm that the source is credible and the narrative is grounded in facts. Couple this with a human tendency to prioritize information that aligns with our world view. If adults are vulnerable, how can we expect the younger generation, who worship at the altar of TikTok, to distinguish historical and present-day facts from fiction unless we teach them to become discerning consumers of media?
Particularly in times of war, when emotions run high and the situation on the ground is constantly changing, educators can serve as guides to help students access, analyze, and process knowledge. They can start the conversation by examining negligent reporting, misinformation, and bias—and their real-world consequences—to encourage students to evaluate how a feature story or social media post might be designed to influence rather than inform.
Media literacy is not a one and done exercise. These skills must be built and sharpened over time, as they will be tested constantly.
Think before you speak
“Silence is violence” has been a popular call to action during times of social unrest. When we are outraged by an injustice, we instinctively raise our voices in despair and dissent, in the hope that it never happens again. And we call on others to speak out on our behalf because silence feels like indifference—more importantly, because it can breed more injustice.
But rhetoric has the power to both heal and destroy. Words can be violence, too. Educators must internalize and impress upon students that incendiary words, once uttered in the hallowed halls of higher learning, rarely remain there. In the past month, provocations were projected on the façade of university buildings, then broadcast by major media outlets for the world to see. Online messages threatened students with brutal violence. We have seen how quickly antisemitic rhetoric can devolve into intimidation, vandalism, assault, and a host of other appalling acts.
There are no safe spaces when ideas are weaponized.
Today’s students are tomorrow’s educators, judges, innovators, and global change makers, which is why school leaders and educators owe it to them, and to us, to get this right. Beyond investigating and disciplining behavior that runs afoul of established codes of conduct, those in power would be wise to urgently develop curricular shifts and reimagine community policies. This moment is a watershed for courageous leaders to repair fractures and rebuild trust. They should start by fortifying a foundation for learning that prioritizes character, intellectual honesty, and respectful engagement above all else.