Confronting Antisemitism on American College Campuses

The American Jewish community has rightly responded with alarm at the dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents in America in recent years, especially since October 7, 2023 when Hamas terrorists viciously attacked Israeli civilians in southern Israel. We are also feeling stung by the dramatic surge of anti-Israeli protest demonstrations on college campuses. University presidents are struggling to address this sudden increase of protesters while striving to preserve free speech and condemning antisemitic intimidation and rhetoric that can lead to violence against Jewish students and supporters of Israel. Many colleges and universities, struck by the speed and intensity with which the demonstrations have arisen and grown, have canceled classes for the remainder of the semester and graduation ceremonies altogether. The metastasizing effect of antisemitism is stunning, though not surprising at a time in which ignorance of Israeli and Middle East history, Judaism and Zionism, compounded by the media’s repetitive focus on the tragedy that has unfolded in Gaza and engulfed millions of innocent Palestinian civilians, and in light of the widening cultural and political polarization and upheaval that has taken hold in American culture that began with the presidency of Donald Trump.

What do we do about all of this? First, it’s important for everyone, and especially young college and university demonstrators, to consider what antisemitism really is, what it isn’t, and what constitutes legitimate criticism against the policies of the State of Israel.

A short blog does not provide nearly enough space to discuss the age-old phenomenon of antisemitic hate. That said there are a number of modern and classic iterations of antisemitism that are being promulgated by the hard political left and the conservative right in the United States. They include Holocaust denial, offensive stereotypes of Jews as Christ-killers, puppet masters, imposters, and swindlers who manipulate national events for malign purposes. Antisemitism casts Jews as foreigners, controllers of banking, the media, entertainment, politics, and government. It denies the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination and a nation state anywhere in the Biblical Land of Israel based on the false premise that there never was a Jewish presence there despite massive literary and archaeological evidence to the contrary. Antisemitism applies double standards to Jews and the Jewish state not applied to any other people or nation, uses the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism to characterize Israel, Israelis and Jews, draws comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, and holds Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel. At its core, antisemitism is self-righteously based in the irrational and in fear and ignorance of Israelis, Jews and Judaism. It is anti-liberal, intolerant, racist, and immoral.

Not all anti-Zionism, however, is antisemitism for there are many anti-Zionists who are proudly self-identifying Jews. To characterize Zionism quickly is also beyond the purview of a blog. But I can say at least the following; that the Zionist movement began in the late 19th century as a political movement to address European antisemitism and to bring oppressed and persecuted Jews to the ancient Homeland of the Jewish people and build the institutions of a future state of the Jewish people. It was also a cultural movement to renew the Hebraic spirit amongst the masses of Jews around the world and in Palestine based upon the teachings of the ancient Prophets of Israel who called for a society based upon justice, compassion and peace. There are many streams of Zionism today that have developed over the years from left-wing to right-wing, political to orthodox to Reform, to secular.

Legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies and freedom of thought, press and assembly are not only intrinsic to Israeli culture but to Diaspora Jewish culture too. Criticism of Israeli policies is therefore not necessarily antisemitic, though some of it is if such criticism is based on the denial of the inherent right of the Jewish people to a state of their own. To be able to judge whether anti-Zionism is also antisemitic, it is necessary to study and understand Jewish, European and Middle East history, how and why the Zionist movement emerged and grew, and the history of the State of Israel and its relationship with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinian people.

For Jewish students and supporters of Israel to fear walking on any college or university campus anywhere in America ought to alarm not just the Jewish community, but people across religious, cultural, racial, ethnic, and gender lines. That there are students at Columbia University and other campuses who chant their approval of Hamas ought to terrify anyone who values freedom and a liberal progressive society. When Hamas took control of Gaza in a violent military coup in 2007, its first action was to march leaders of the rival Palestinian Authority to the highest building in Gaza and throw them to their deaths. LGBTQ individuals are punished severely by Hamas as are women who stand up for their rights. Hamas, an extremist Islamic terror organization that is uncompromising and repressive, does not value human rights nor the lives of its own citizens who Hamas has used consistently as human shields in its many wars against Israel. How American students who profess to be humanitarians and progressives can chant their support of Hamas and the destruction of the democratic liberal state of Israel is confounding.

I have written in former blogs about this Israel-Hamas war, that it is not a war against the Palestinian people but rather an existential struggle against Islamic extremism that seeks the destruction of Israel on any land between the river and the sea and the murder of all Israelis and Jews. I have written as well consistently for the return of the Israeli hostages as a first order of business for Israel and for a massive infusion of humanitarian aid into Gaza for Palestinian civilians. I have supported the hope that when the fighting is over that Gaza ought to be governed by a moderate alliance of Arab states led by a reconstituted Palestinian Authority without Hamas being a part of the next government. And I hope that the Israeli military will not continue its war in Rafah and cause more death and suffering as it continues its mission to root out and kill Hamas, and instead enter into a formal alliance with Saudi Arabia and other moderate western-oriented Arab states along with the United States against Iran and its proxies.

I understand and empathize with those students on American campuses who are deeply pained by the suffering of innocent Palestinians caught up in this awful war initiated by Hamas. I support their outrage and am disgusted for all kinds of reasons by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his failures as a leader of Israel. I am concerned that Israel has used far too many 2000-pound “dumb bombs” to root out Hamas commanders hiding in their 400 miles of deeply dug tunnels everywhere under Gaza and consequently killed too many innocent Palestinians whenever it dropped those bombs. But, I ask those students to weigh their motives that have drawn them to the ramparts of protest against Israel, and to ask themselves whether they are also offended by the suffering of Israelis on October 7 at the hands of Hamas, and whether they are as concerned for those Israelis who have been held as hostages by Hamas as they are for the Palestinians who have suffered for years because of Hamas’ totalitarian rule. And I ask them to search their own hearts and souls and ask if they are propelled by deep-seated antisemitism or not.

This war is not only a war between Hamas and Israel. It is a struggle between western civilization and extremist Islam. That is why the United States, Britain, France, Jordan, Egypt, and some say even Saudi Arabia, joined in shooting down thousands of Iranian drones and missiles aimed at Israel to do extensive damage and killing of Israelis on April 13th. Those countries understand what this conflict is really all about and I would hope that thoughtful university and college students who represent the intellectual cream of American society would understand what is really going on in the Middle East too.

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and a past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of 3 books - "From the West to the East - A Memoir of a Liberal American Rabbi" (2024), "Why Israel Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to the Next Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Revised edition 2023), and “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (2017). All are available at John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren and he lives in Los Angeles.