Anti-Semitism, the college campus, and liberal education

The recent decisions of the Board of Regents of the University of California and the New York State Senate on the growth of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments on the college campus are arresting.

The UC Regents passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism on campus, while the NYS Senate voted to cut funding to the City University of New York dramatically until it adequately responded to allegations of anti-Semitism on its campuses.

No political actions are without their contexts. The California resolution was a carefully phrased statement against anti-Semitism; it did not address the atmosphere of intense anti-Israel protests that cultivate anti-Semitic incidents directly. The Republican-sponsored resolution passed by the New York State Senate positioned itself in the midst of a contest between a Democratic governor and a protesting Democratic New York City base over state support for the city, the perennial issue of New York State politics. But these contexts do not mitigate the underlying storm that continues to brew on college campuses across the country.

When a student at UCLA is questioned about her ability to serve in student government because she is Jewish, or when a kippah-wearing professor at Brooklyn College is publicly called “a Zionist pig,” we have a serious problem that cannot be forgiven as allowance for freedom of speech. The lines between legitimate anti-Israel protest and illegitimate anti-Semitism have been violated. I note here as well that what makes these developments so disturbing is that they took place (and these were but two examples among many) in New York and Los Angeles, home to the two largest Jewish communities in our country, where our children ought to be able to attend public universities and feel safe.

University administrators find themselves in an increasingly difficult position because they cannot limit the discourse of debate and criticism of Israel on campus. What makes the university a university is that it provides a sanctuary for intellectual and artistic expression. As Jews we celebrate the freedom of speech and of the press. We remember how over the centuries our rabbis were dragged into public disputations over supposedly anti-Christian statements in the Talmud, how our libraries were burned, and how we had to self-censor what we wrote and said so as not to offend the authorities. And we remember how just a century ago we still were denied access to certain professions, and how within living memory American universities employed a quota system to limit the number of Jewish students on campus. The right to add our bodies and voices to the university is the symbolic ground upon which a true modern liberal society is built. For these reasons we are proud of Israeli society, where the Israeli government is certainly subjected to more criticism than anywhere else. And for that reason we react with dismay and sadness when we listen to the nature of discourse on the American college campus today.

There always has been an articulate anti-Israel protest voice on campus, but in recent years it has grown exponentially and serves to cultivate expressions of anti-Semitism that we thought we had all moved beyond. Outwardly identified Jewish students, faculty, and administrators are finding themselves more and more exposed to criticism because of the association of Jewish identity with Israel. Some analysts have suggested that where Israel was once a source of pride for American Jewry, it has become a liability, the very exposure to anti-Semitic prejudice that Zionism sought to overcome.

I want to offer a different perspective, one driven by my dual loyalty as both a committed Jew and Zionist and as a product of the value system of the American university (and a CUNY alum at that). I am troubled by the onus that is laid upon American Jewish college students today to stand as representatives of the state of Israel. We are asked to provide our college students with all the “ammunition” that we can so that they can “counter” the “attacks” of the pro-Palestinian groups on campus and defend Israel. Not only is that an uncomfortable and unfair position for our students to be in, it also rubs against the ethos of what the university environment ideally should be. Isn’t college supposed to be where we go to explore different ideas, open our minds up to different views, and learn from each other? Sending our kids to college with a list of talking points with which to defend Israel against relentless attacks is not what we are supposed to be paying exorbitant tuition for.

While I am in no way suggesting that we not continue to invest in education on Israel on the college campus and elsewhere, we also might take heart in recognizing that Israel’s security is not dependent on votes by American university student councils.

Just as Israel does not depend on the good will of the United Nations General Assembly, neither does it depend on other, smaller scale popularity contests. Notwithstanding the economic threat of the BDS movement, it is important to maintain perspective. The college campus can take on the aura of a mini-universe where the fates of nations depend on how their defenders duel in the debating arena, but in reality there is a reason why universities are referred to as ivory towers.

In a way, the tenure of the campus tends to reflect a countercultural reaction to “the real world.” Just as Israel’s standing seems to be at an all-time low on the college campus it has attained a position of great importance in the presidential election campaign, as each candidate has tried to outdo the other in Israel credentials. Perhaps the highest profile venue for the candidates was the recent AIPAC conference in Washington. While some may connect the growth of anti-Israel rhetoric on campus as evident of growing impatience with the stalled peace process, I prefer to understand it as a reflection of the warmth that the American people in general feel towards Israel.

We should work to maintain the college campus as a safe space for discourse and learning. The great experiment of American liberal education is to create a laboratory where ideas can mix and challenge each other in an elevated and purer environment than the street. But just as that high ideal needs us to allow for views that we don’t like, and to listen to angry voices, it also means that we need to draw a very sharp line between debate and prejudicial hatred. What makes the college campus the safe environment that the laboratory of liberal education demands is that it must be safe.

Once critical discourse is transferred from an idea to a person, the laboratory loses its security and the experiment is compromised. Hatred of others must be checked at the door. There must be zero tolerance for prejudice. Anti-Israel sentiment is permitted on campus, but it cannot be allowed to develop into anti-Semitism and threaten the Jewish members of the campus community. University and government authorities must be ready to step in and protect not only the rights of the victims of anti-Semitic hatred but also the very fabric of the campus community if it is to have any hope of achieving the ideal of liberal education.

Indeed, the ugliness of the anti-Israel and the related anti-Semitic nature of the college campus today reflects a greater failure of liberal education. Rather than approach the university with an openness to learning, students — and some faculty — approach from a position of entrenchment, seeking not to listen but only to speak — and yell — at others.

This may be an unexpected product of the success of liberal education. We have taken the mix of ideas so seriously that the course of learning today includes more areas and fields than any single person ever could consider. While we see multiculturalism as a value, in embracing cultures that were once ignored in the older “dead white men” curriculum, we also, ironically, suffer from learning how to encounter the Other when there are so many Others to choose from. When courses of study are organized by culture and geography (East Asian studies, African American studies, Middle Eastern studies, American studies, Latin American studies, etc.) rather than academic discipline of inquiry (history, religion, literature, political science, etc.), we focus on the object of interest rather than on how to examine any object of interest critically. The university, in its well-meaning attempt to avoid dictating to students how to think, has forgotten how to teach students how to think, and instead we are left with noise and hatred.

Erring too much on the side of acceptance of everyone and everything, universities end up fostering an atmosphere of prejudice, the very vice that the university was seeking to overcome.

Our universities must not forget that their primary focus is to teach. The alarming rise of anti-Semitism on the college campus should serve as the starting block to a conversation on how our universities are failing to fulfill. their promise. We certainly invest enough in them to demand better.

About the Author
David J. Fine is rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, NJ, and president of the New Jersey Rabbinical Assembly. He received his PhD from the City University of New York in 2010, and his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999.
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