Charles Asher Small

Antisemitism masquerading as intellectual discourse

Illustrative. A US college graduation ceremony. (CC BY John Walker/Flickr)

In the hallowed halls of US academia, where the pursuit of truth and the exchange of ideas should flourish, a worrying phenomenon is gaining traction—a phenomenon that not only jeopardizes the safety and well-being of Jewish students but also undermines the very essence of academic integrity. This insidious trend is the normalization of antisemitism under the guise of intellectual debate, particularly manifested in the normalization of hatred towards Israel, which naturally fosters an environment ripe for the propagation of antisemitic attitudes within university campuses.

At institutions like NYU and Columbia, where antisemitic incidents have exploded since the October 7 attacks in Israel, I have witnessed firsthand the normalization of Israel hatred under the guise of intellectual debate. Events employing literary criticism, philosophy, and post-colonial studies are used to propagate the notion that the Israeli occupation is a form of violence that must be met with resistance, including violence. Speakers remove basic agency from Palestinian terrorists and leaders, arguing that it is the Israelis who are responsible for the violence against them because of their status as occupiers. This narrative dangerously blurs the lines between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and incitement to violence against Israelis. And it effectively normalizes the notion that Jewish students or faculty with ties to Israel are justifiers of occupation and thus legitimate targets—an appalling justification for bigotry and violence against Jews.

The correlation between the normalization of Israel hatred and the proliferation of antisemitic attitudes is unmistakable. By reducing the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict into simplistic dichotomies of oppressor and oppressed, universities inadvertently perpetuate age-old antisemitic stereotypes. When Israel is consistently demonized as the epitome of evil, it becomes a convenient proxy for the Jewish people as a whole, rekindling latent antisemitic sentiments among the academic community.

Moreover, the intellectual dishonesty inherent in the normalization of Israel hatred distorts the very essence of academic discourse. Rather than fostering genuine dialogue and critical inquiry, universities have degenerated into echo chambers where dissenting voices are suppressed, and alternative perspectives are ostracized.

Since the attacks in Israel on October 7 and the start of the current war in Gaza, the already alarming issue of antisemitism within US universities has escalated exponentially. The Anti-Defamation League reported a total of 2,031 antisemitic campus incidents between October 7 and December 7, the highest two-month number since they began tracking antisemitism in 1979. These incidents included physical violence, verbal attacks, vandalism, and rallies featuring antisemitic speech or anti-Zionism. Jewish institutions, including synagogues and campus Hillels, were also targeted. Shockingly, some self-proclaimed academics have openly justified the murderous attacks in which over 1,200 people were killed. This disturbing trend has not only further normalized antisemitism but left Jewish students on campuses across the US gripped by fear for their personal safety.

While some top universities have established task forces to combat antisemitism, these efforts have often backfired, inadvertently legitimizing antisemitic tropes and narratives. By including academics who openly challenge accepted definitions of antisemitism and propagate the preposterous notion of Israel as an apartheid state, these task forces unwittingly contribute to the toxic environment on campus. In some cases, federal officials have taken action, such as charging a Cornell University student for making antisemitic threats online. In others, such threats have been ignored.

Prominent US academic figures like Judith Butler exemplify this normalization of antisemitism, advocating for the inclusion of terror groups under the guise of global resistance. Earlier this year, her sentiments turned into a full-throttled defense of the October 7 attacks, as she wrote: “We can have different views about Hamas as a political party, we can have different views on armed resistance, but I think it is more honest and historically correct to say that the uprising of October 7 was an act of armed resistance… It is not a terrorist attack and it’s not an antisemitic attack, it was an attack against Israelis.”

University presidents have rightly faced backlash for their evasive responses to questioning about antisemitism on campuses, but to confront the challenge at hand, universities must work to actively reclaim their role as bastions of intellectual honesty and integrity. This necessitates a concerted effort to foster a campus culture that values diversity of thought, respects all members of the academic community, and recognizes the intellectual and indeed physical threats to Jewish students.

All members of the academic community must confront this challenge head-on and reaffirm their collective commitment to upholding the highest standards of intellectual rigor and integrity. Only then can US universities fulfill their mission of advancing knowledge, understanding, and true mutual respect.

About the Author
Dr. Charles Asher Small is the Founding Director of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP). He is the author of a five volume book entitled “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity. (ISGAP Publications and Brill Press). He is currently the director of the Fellowship Training Program on Contemporary Critical Antisemitism Studies at the Wolf Institute, Cambridge University, a research fellow at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge University, and senior research scholar at the Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies.
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