Alon Tal

Antisemitism is in the air at Stanford University

A visiting professor on campus, I thought reports of Jew-hatred and anti-Israeli bias were overblown. A new report demonstrates how wrong I was
Participants at Stanford pro-Palestinian encampment, 2024. (Alon Tal)
Participants at Stanford pro-Palestinian encampment, 2024. (Alon Tal)

In April 2024, the Anti-Defamation League issued a report card ranking the level of antisemitism on disparate US college campuses. Stanford University initially received an “F” – although the ADL recently raised it to a “D.” At the time I was a visiting professor at Stanford. Based on my own experience, I was skeptical about the severity of the grading scale, even questioning its reliability. This week, the Subcommittee on Antisemitism and Anti-Israeli Bias at Stanford University released a detailed report about antisemitism on campus. It is an extremely thorough, thoughtful, compelling and ultimately unsettling document. After reading all 148 pages, I must admit I was wrong. As the report’s title declares, “It’s in the air.” It is pernicious and it needs to be addressed.

Hamas impersonators at Stanford pro-Palestinian encampment, 2024. (Alon Tal)

Stanford is one of the world’s leading universities. It is no surprise, therefore, that when its faculty was called upon to consider the phenomenon, it embraced the task with intelligence and sincerity. The resulting Antisemitism Report reflects a deep dive into the challenges this year for the school’s Jewish students, staff, faculty and alumni. It offers insights that are instructive in general efforts to address the global explosion of hatred on campuses against Jews and Israelis. It is also boldly prescriptive, containing many key recommendations. This essay offers a modest synopsis.

The Stanford committee was co-chaired by two veteran and venerated Stanford scholars, political scientist Larry Diamond and environmental engineer Jeff Koseff. Over the course of their work, the committee conducted more than 50 different listening sessions, and individual meetings, with over 300 people in attendance. While neither co-chair is an antisemitism specialist, they are seasoned researchers and fast learners: the report reflects an impressive mastery of the field. More importantly, the collective ability of the committee to listen and synthesize provided a plethora of examples and testimonials to support their conclusions. By showing readers how antisemitism is manifested on campus, the report tells a disturbing story.

From the outset, the committee refused to decouple antisemitism and anti-Israeli bias. Citing a recent Pew survey that found that “82% of Jewish adults in the United States care about Israel as an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them,” the committee consciously conflates anti-Israeli bias with antisemitism. It acknowledges the legitimacy of criticizing Israel – along with the fact that many in the Stanford Jewish community are openly critical of Israeli government policies. Yet, the report sees a priori nullification of Jewish nationalism or “Zionism” and eradication of the Jewish state as fundamentally illegitimate. Indeed, readers learn that Stanford pro-Palestinian protesters frequently use the term “Zio” as a pejorative reference to all Jews who don’t preemptively renounce their ancestral ties to Israel.

Accordingly, the report details innumerable overt incidents in which Jewish students felt singled out, intimidated, and harmed solely due to their identities as Jews: requiring Jewish students to say “F*ck Israel” in order to join a student-organized party on campus; destroying mezuzahs posted on the doors of student housing; even a class where an instructor singled out Jewish students, taking their belongings as “an example of what Jews do to Palestinians.” Jewish faculty describe targeted disruptions of their classrooms, which typically have no Middle Eastern content and even campaigns to get students to drop their class because of their religious affiliation. More subtle antagonism can be found in the open trivialization of Jewish culture and dismissiveness of Jewish concerns in ways that would never be tolerated with other ethnic or racial groups.

There are approximately 150 Stanford students with Israeli citizenship and over 50 Israeli faculty. Their national identity is often conspicuous, making their status on campus over the past year precarious. The report acknowledges how untenable the situation became for them, especially when participants at pro-Palestinian demonstrations and encampments openly praised the October 7th Hamas massacre of 1,200 Israelis. The hostility they faced was often linked to their “unwillingness to qualify or reject those identities through abject apology for having any connection, however ancestral, to the State of Israel. The imposition of a unique social burden on Jewish students to openly denounce Israel and renounce any ties to it was, we found, the most common manifestation of antisemitism in student life.”

The report does acknowledge that there are entire corners of the university where antisemitism does not appear to have taken hold. The Graduate School of Business and the Engineering and Sustainability Schools are three such healthy ecosystems, coincidentally (and fortuitously) where I taught classes. But there are academic departments that impose highly toxic environments on Jewish and Israeli students. More importantly, in many of the dormitories and residences, where 97% of all eligible Stanford undergraduates live, a picture of harassment of Jewish students emerges which ranges from the subtle – being “tokenized,” viewed as “a representative of the Jewish people all the time” – to direct harassment by their dorm mates and even occasionally their Resident Assistants (RAs).

Stanford pro-Palestinian encampment, 2024. (Alon Tal)

The report does not seek to coddle Jewish students or faculty: “We rejected the idea that ‘safety’ requires ‘protecting’ students from views that might make them uncomfortable. Universities exist to consider contending perspectives and subject them to rational debate and critical inquiry. Our goal is for community members to be safe from injury or the threat of it.”

Perhaps the most troubling sections of the report are the testimonials about the intolerable conditions for some Jewish students in their dormitories. Vandalism targeting Jewish residents has gone as far as swastikas drawn on dormitory doors. While it is fair to expect Jewish students to toughen up a bit when encountering anti-Israeli graffiti and slogans on campus, violation of the sanctity of their homes constitutes an entirely different level of vulnerability. Part of the problem has been some resident assistants, who at times are obtuse, and in the worst cases, actively join in the harassment and intimidation. One post on social media from a Stanford RA jeered: “Jews don’t need protection because antisemitism isn’t real.”

Antisemitic malice via social media is one of the primary sources of fear and stress among Jewish students. This is no different than internet dynamics anywhere. Studies suggest that 37% of social media bullying victims develop social anxiety. The report singles out the abusive misuse of “Fizz,” a private social media feed used in university communities, which maintains the anonymity of individuals posting messages. The most violent verbal assaults enjoy impunity. When Stanford undergraduate student, Theo Baker, wrote an excellent and generally cerebral article about the post-October 7th state of affairs at Stanford, he received numerous death threats online, with calls that he be waterboarded (but with gas – and then cooked) and compared on Fizz to Hitler’s propaganda writers.

While some of these anecdotes may be idiosyncratic, the general diagnosis and analysis in the Stanford Antisemitism Committee report resonates far beyond Silicon Valley. More importantly, the committee’s prescriptive recommendations constitute a playbook that should be considered at hundreds of universities that seek to address similar waves of anti-Jewish malevolence and anti-Israel bias. Walking the fine line between respecting freedom of expression and protecting the dignity, mental and physical health of a university community, the committee proposes many tangible actions that make sense.

To begin with there must be a much more efficient, transparent, and responsive system for reporting antisemitism and anti-Israel bias. Students who find the courage to complain to the school authorities rarely receive word of any institutional response and assume that the university simply prefers to bury their complaint. A permanent office or staff member who coordinates the response process can ensure that such complaints are not marginalized. An annual review describing the university’s record in addressing antisemitism should characterize and quantify the extent of antisemitic incidents reported and university responses, with the goal of reassuring Jewish students and mapping institutional progress over the years.

Much more needs to be done to train the staff that provides leadership in dormitories about the manifestations of antisemitism and anti-Israeli bias. In some cases, selection of residence staff presently allows for RAs to pick their replacements, perpetuating preconceptions and locking in antisemitic or anti-Israel views. This needs to change, with selection criteria testing tolerance and openness to a broad range of views.

The university needs to do a better job of clarifying the limits of speech and enforcing its rules in practice. The committee fully respects the rights of students to express their views through materials that are posted on bulletin boards and other public spaces as long as the materials clearly identify the individual or organization responsible for content. But the committee believes that the exterior of student residents should be off limits for political speech lest it create the appearance of a dorm having a particular political view.

Graffitti on the Stanford campus, 2024. (Alon Tal)

Recent findings show that in many other universities’ pro-Palestinian encampments, a majority of student protesters were not really students at all. This suggests that Stanford needs to address the problem of outside agitators who take advantage of the university’s forbearance towards students. Typically, these external organizations negatively affect the content, tone, and tactics of protests, making them far more acrimonious and less respectful of civil discourse. At Stanford, for instance, a well-known radical imam, who supports Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (organizations designated by the State Department as foreign terrorist organizations), was asked to speak in the pro-Palestinian encampment. This phenomenon needs to be called out and prohibited. Other recommendations involve addressing content review on university-wide social media (like Fizz), proposed changes that will enhance the university’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs, mental health support and bolstering Hillel’s formal status on the campus.

While the report’s authors are fully committed to preserving free speech on university campuses (Diamond is an international expert and esteemed advocate for democratic norms), they also recognize “time, space, and manner” limitations. “The First Amendment protections do not extend to speech that disrupts classes, public events, or essential university business, including meetings, research, and writing in the vicinity of classrooms, public events, and academic and staff offices. Such speech can and should be sanctioned.” The report notes that allowing such outbursts contradicts the principle of equality since groups who violate the rules receive greater visibility and attention while students who comply with the university’s restrictions are disadvantaged in their access to the persuasive potential of the public square. Here the university simply needs to do a better job enforcing its existing policies.

Antisemitic incidents have increased by 360% in the US since October 7, 2023. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect universities to solve this mounting national problem. The Stanford Antisemitism Committee report comprehensively documents how the scourge has spilled onto campuses. But it also shows how universities can be part of the solution.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.