Moshe Vardi

Antisemitism, Anti-Zionism, and Israelophobia

US campus antisemitism is much in the news these days.

To understand why, we have to go back to October 7, 2023, when invading Hamas gunmen murdered, tortured, mass raped, and mutilated some 1,200 Israelis. The vast majority of the victims were unarmed women, children, infants, and the elderly. About 240 Israeli hostages, including women, elders, children, and infants were taken as hostages to Gaza. This was the opening act of the Hamas-Israel war, which is still raging as I write these lines, with tens of thousands of Palestinian casualties, combatants and non-combatants, and over 120 hostages still in captivity in Gaza.

On December 6, 2023, I published a short essay about the moral rot at Rice University, in which I charged the academic community at Rice with the antisemitism of double standard. I wrote: “It is ok to criticize Israel, but not ok to pay lip service to Palestinian atrocities. It is ok to call for a cease-fire, but not ok to ignore the hostages. It is ok to call for a two-state solution — which I strongly support — to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not ok to talk about Palestinian liberation, while mentioning the 1948 Nakba, implicitly suggesting ethnic cleansing of Jews in Israel. It is ok to express sympathy with Palestinian refugees. It is not ok to ignore close to one million Jews that were pushed out of Arab countries after the 1948 war. It is ok to talk about Palestinian casualties. It is not ok to ignore Jewish casualties and civilian casualties elsewhere in the Middle East. (Civil wars are raging in Syria, Yemen, and Sudan.) It is ok to express concerns about anti-Palestinian hate crimes. It is not ok to ignore anti-Jewish hate crimes. It is ok to demand a culture of care for Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students, faculty, and staff. It is not ok to ignore Jewish and Israeli students, faculty, and staff.” I followed up with a longer essay, trying to offer a historical perspective on the rise of US campus antisemitism.

The continuation of the war in the Middle East and the high number of civilian casualties, triggered an intensive and extensive student protest movement across US campuses. That movement has been described as antisemitic by many Jews. In January of this year, a group of five non-identified Jewish students sued Harvard University in federal district court. The suit stated that Harvard “has become a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.” Similar lawsuits have been launched against several other colleges and universities. The basis for these lawsuits is the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI of the Act prevents discrimination on the ground of race, color, or national origin by programs and activities that receive federal funds. Title VII of the Act prohibits discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. On June 17, 2024, U.S. Education Department announced that the University of Michigan and the City University of New York did not adequately investigate complaints about antisemitic or anti-Palestinian harassment linked to campus protests over the Hamas-Israel War, according to the results of their investigations.

A counterargument to the antisemitism charge is that the campus-protest movement is not antisemitic, it is anti-Zionist. This leads to an endless debate whether anti-Zionism amounts to antisemitism. Many Jewish organizations argue that anti-Zionism is antisemitic. In fact, in December 2023, The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a measure declaring that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. But others argue that anti-Zionism and antisemitism should not be conflated.

Rather than continue this endless debate, I argue here that we can conclude that many US colleges and universities are in violation of Titles VI and VII because of pervasive anti-Zionism on campus. Consider the claim by many “I am not antisemitic; I am anti-Zionist.” What do these people mean by the term “Zionist”? Are they referring to adherents of the movement for (originally) the re-establishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel? Are they objecting to the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government in Israel? Let us examine how the term “Zionist” is actually used. For example, Kuwait Times uses the term “Zionist forces’’ to refer to the Israeli Defense Forces. A Rice University Faculty Statement of Solidarity with Palestinians also referred to “Zionist forces’’. Pro-Palestinian protesters at Rice chanted (see above) “Zionist get out; Free, free Palestine;”. As the usage makes it clear, the term “Zionist” is not used in these protests in a political sense at all, rather it is used by anti-Zionists to refer to Israeli Jews — Israelis, for short, in the context of this essay. So anti-Zionism on campuses is simply anti-Israeli bigotry. Why is the term “Zionist” preferred to the term “Israeli”? The main reason, I believe, is the desire not to grant the State of Israeli any legitimacy — hence the term “the Zionist entity”. It also does not hurt that in English it is much easier to pronounce the word “Zionist” with utter disdain, due to the leading “Z”.

Anti-Zionism used to be an ideology that contrasted itself with the ideology of Zionism. In fact, anti-Zionism arose first, in the 19th Century, within Judaism — ultra-Orthodox Jews objected to political Zionism, believing that Jews must wait for redemption by the Messiah. But, as I argued, that anti-Zionism has nothing to do with the anti-Zionism displayed these days on US campuses. Judea Pearl coined the term “Zionophobia” for today’s anti-Zionism. I prefer to use the term “Israelophobia”, coined by Jake Wallis Simons. Israelophobia, hostility towards Israelis, should be distinguished from legitimate criticism of the Israeli government, but you hear little of such criticism in campus protests. What you do hear, as seen in the flier included above, for example, is, plain and simple, Israelophobic hate speech. Rice has declared that hate speech will not be tolerated. So why is Rice tolerating Israelophobic hate speech? What about Rice’s famous “Culture of Care”? To contrast, an incident in 2019, where a few Rice students dressed up as US Immigration and Custom Enforcement officers on Halloween, sparked enough outrage to be denounced by then Rice President David Leebron.

My aim here is not to ignore antisemitism. Many Jews believe that the pro-Plestinian campus-protest movement is deeply antisemitic, and, undoubtedly, there have been plenty of patently antisemitic incidents on US campuses. Furthermore, as Robert Wistrich pointed out, there is significant overlap between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. But the endless debate about antisemitism vs anti-Zionism misses an important point. Campus anti-Zionism is clearly anti-Israeli, that is, Israelophobic. There are Israelis on US campuses and they deserve to be free from harassment and discrimination on the basis of their national origin. Just as no one would accept the excuse “I am not Islamophobic, I am just anti-Palestinian”, no one should accept “I am not antisemitic, I am just anti-Israeli.” So the question now is not whether anti-Zionism is antisemitism, but whether the pervasiveness of Israelophobia on US campuses constitutes a violation of Titles VI and/or VII. For example, let us examine what happened at Rice University in the 2024 spring semester.

On February 15, 2024, a group of pro-Palestinian protesters, organized by the Rice chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), disrupted a presentation by Antonio Neri, Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett Packard Enterprises, organized by the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership and attended by approximately 200 guests. After the disruptors were escorted out of the auditorium by Rice University Police Department (RUPD) they regrouped outside the Brochstein Pavilion at the center of the campus, where they mounted a loud demonstration. (Another demonstration was held to protest the visit to the Baker Institute of Condoleezza Rice.) As on other campuses, the demonstrators did not call for a ceasefire or for an independent Palestinian state. Rather, their loud chants included “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free”, “Intifada Revolution is the only solution”, and “Globalize the Intifada”. Undoubtedly, the chanters would agree that their chants are anti-Zionist.

Furthermore, chants about the Intifada are threatening to Israelis, rather than merely offensive. The Second Intifada was a 2000–2005 Palestinian terror campaign aimed at Israeli civilians — which included suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings — resulting in over 1,000 people murdered. I lost a very good friend in the Passover Massacre, a suicide bombing carried out by Hamas at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel in March 2002, during a Passover festive meal, in which 30 civilians were killed and 140 were injured. For Israelis, “Globalize the Intifada” means that not only Israelis in Israel are legitimate targets, but that Israelis everywhere are legitimate targets. As Jonathan Chait recently wrote about the recent US campus-protest movement: “The movement’s ideological character invites rage and violence.” My personal sense of threat is sharpened by the fact that many of the protesters at Rice may not even be Rice students. In campuses where arrests have been made, a significant fraction of those arrested were not affiliated with the campus, and there is evidence that, also at Rice, demonstrations were attended by non-students. There are about 15 Israelis at Rice. We find the Intifada chants highly threatening. They are plainly and incitement for violence.

As a recent Stanford University report on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias recently asserted: “But the encampments and other protests have, at times, gone beyond these lines of argument and advocacy to call, implicitly or even explicitly, for violence, as in `Death 2 Settler Colonial Projects,’ `Long Live Palestine, Die Israel,’ `Decolonization is not a metaphor,’ and numerous calls and chants for Intifada. Additionally, the chant of `From the river to the sea, Israel will be Arab’ is hard to view as anything other than a call for ethnic cleansing.” Harvard’s antisemitism task force recently found a ‘dire’ situation for Israelis on campus and urged swift action. In December 2023, Rice’s president, Reginald DesRoches issued a strong statement condemning antisemitism and calls for violence against Jewish students or any other group of people, but President DesRoches never addressed explicitly the threatening chants against Israelis on the Rice campus.

My response to the Israelophobic threats at Rice was to launch a formal complaint with RUPD. On February 16, 2024, I informed RUPD, as well as Rice’s leadership, that threats of violence have been issued against me and against other Israelis on the Rice campus. The only response I received was that I should download an alert app to my phone. (Other Israelis received similar advice.) Inquiries as to what happened with my RUPD complaints have been answered with “We cannot comment due to students’ privacy.”

I and others Israelis also filed complaints with Rice’s Office of Access, Equity and Equal Opportunity (AEEO), arguing that the threatening chants violate Rice’s Policy 830 on Discrimination and Harassment. (See Rice’s definition of Harassment here.) AEEO is now investigating if the chants that we found threatening are truly threatening. Perhaps “From the river to the sea” is just about freedom, never mind that the origin of the phrase, as coined by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1960s, was “from the water to the water, Palestine will be Arab”, which is what protesters at the Rice “liberated zone” (see above) have been chanting in Arabic. Perhaps, “Intifada” just means ““shaking off injustice”, and “resistance is justified” is just about “self-defense”, never mind the 1,000 Israelis that were murdered in the Second Intifada, and the 1200 Israelis that were murdered on Oct. 7. So the era of content warnings and policing of microaggressions in academia seems to have come to an end, as well as the understanding that a speaker’s intent is irrelevant in deciding what speech is problematic. In fact, Rice’s Policy 830 states that “Rice expects all members of the University community to … consider how our words and acts might injure others.” In the past, perceived microaggressions were deemed to be a justification for sanctioning professors. In contrast, now speakers get to define the meaning of their utterances.

To understand the absurdity of this most-benign-interpretation approach to the chants I find threatening, imagine a hypothetical All-Lives-Matter demonstration at Rice in 2020, in response to the Black-Lives-Matter movement. Imagine demonstrators carrying Confederate flags, chanting, “Jim Crow was right about state rights’’, or dressing in white robes and hoods, carrying burning crosses. Suppose they would have claimed that the flags and outfits are symbols of “Southern heritage”, the crosses are symbols of Christianity, and the chants are about “federalism”. Does anyone believe that such claims would have been taken seriously? Does anyone believe that Rice would not have taken action against these hypothetical demonstrators? A burning cross is threatening to Blacks because it is the symbol of the Ku Klux Klan, of lynching, of random violence against Black. Given the mass murders of the Second Intifada and of October 7, for Israelis, Intifada chants are just as threatening as burning crosses are for Black people.

Looking at the full set of chants (see image above) clarifies their ominous nature. “Free Palestine” means that “Zionists should get out”; “Palestine will be redeemed in blood”; “ Only martyrs can enter the door of al Aqsa”; and “Death before humiliation”. Put in the context of the atrocities of October 7, and the threat is clear. Israel made a tragic error before October 7 not to take Hamas at its own words. We should not make the mistake of not taking the campus protesters at their own words. Yet, several months after the complaints about the threatening chants at Rice, there is yet no resolution.

Trying to push Rice’s Students Judicial Program to tell me what was the outcome of my complaint about threats of violence, I quoted to them from the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit an institution of post-secondary education from disclosing the final results of any disciplinary proceeding conducted by such institution against a student who is an alleged perpetrator of any crime of violence,” where, by Federal statute, the term “crime of violence” means “an offense that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another.” The response was still “We cannot tell you because of students’ privacy.” In other words, “We are not obligated to, so we will not tell you.” The student-privacy argument is just an excuse.

As I have documented at length, the above are just a small part of what I called “The Rule of Lawlessness” at Rice University. In addition to Policy 830, other policies that have been violated are Policy 820 on Campus Demonstrations, Protests, and Organized Expression of Opinion, and Policy 856 on Display of Posters, Flyers, and Similar Materials in Public Places. Yet Rice refuses to say how it deals with this rampant policy violations. As the New York Times’ Editorial Board recently wrote: “Rules matter only when guardrails are consistently upheld. It’s in that enforcement that the leadership of too many universities has fallen short.” Indeed, Rice is patently failing to enforce its own rules and policies. It is this combination of Intifada threats and the lawlessness on the Rice campus that caused a deep sense of anxiety among Israelis at Rice.

On April 7, 2024, I wrote to the Director of Human Resources at Rice to tell her that “I am a faculty member of Rice University, and I do not feel physically safe on the campus.” I added that Rice has a duty of care to provide a workplace that is physically and emotionally safe. The response on April 12 was that if I do not feel physically safe, I should call RUPD and if I do not feel emotionally safe, I should seek counseling. Following that deeply unsatisfying answer, a group of about ten Israelis — faculty members, staff members, and students — held a meeting in mid April with the leadership of the university, including President Desroches. We made it clear that we do not feel safe on the Rice campus. Two people pulled out pocket knives (allowed by Policy 835 on Weapon Prohibition) that they carry with them for self defense while on the Rice campus. The leadership listened with interest, but no promise of concrete steps to address these issues was made, other than a vague statement about something to be done during Orientation Week in the fall. So far, no plan has been announced on how to keep Israelis safe on the Rice campus.

A response of sorts came a week later, when Rice SJP declared a “liberated zone” on campus. This encampment was in response to a “Call-to-Action” by National SJP. The image above is of a flier distributed by the protesters at the Rice encampment. It clarifies what the chant “Free Palestine” means; it means “Zionists get out”, i.e., ethnic cleansing. Another chant glorifies violence against Israelis, “with blood we redeem you Palestine”. The chant “We don’t want Zionists here”, turned the “liberated zone” into a Israeli-exclusion zone on the campus of Rice University. Yet, in an end-of-semester email sent to campus April 28, 2024, President DesRoches described the encampment activities as “responsible, personal expression”.

The Clery Act requires colleges and universities to report campus crime data, support victims of violence, and publicly outline the policies and procedures they have put into place to improve campus safety. The Clery Act also covers intimidation motivated by bias, which is considered a hate crime. I asked RUPD whether my complaint about the threatening chants will be included in their Clery Act report. They promised to look into that, but so far, Rice has yet to say whether it will report the Intifada chants as a threat of violence.

The commencement ceremony in US universities is the highlight of the academic year. It marks the end of the academic year, but, more significantly, it marks the start of educated life for the students who are graduating with academic degrees. It is a very formal event, with regalia, music, marches, and speeches full of life wisdom. This year would have been my 30th commencement event at Rice University, and I have decided to skip it. The campus was not safe enough for me to attend it..

So Israeli students and employees are harassed and threatened on the campus of Rice University. Furthermore, these threats occur in a campus environment that can be fairly described as lawless. Under Title VI, a hostile environment exists where there is conduct, including verbal, that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school. Under US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidelines, harassment become unlawful when “the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating.” Israelis at Rice have to arm themselves in order to feel safe on campus. Is this not a hostile environment?

So, does “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” provide an exemption from the Civil Rights Act? Absolutely not! Not at Rice and not on other US campuses.

About the Author
Moshe Y. Vardi is a University Professor and the George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering at Rice University. He is the author and co-author of over 750 papers, as well as two books. He is a member of of the US National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences.