Kenneth Jacobson

How growing illiberalism on campus is giving fuel to anti-Israel campaigns

Anti-Israel activity has been a hallmark of campus life in America for decades. Protests, calls for boycotts of Israeli institutions and apartheid weeks have been features at universities for years. And yet, something is happening now that not only builds on that history but goes beyond it in its intolerance, hostility and disregard for civility.

Among the most alarming manifestations of this trend is the increase in efforts on many campuses around the United States to exclude Jews, on the grounds that they are Zionists, from a variety of campus activities.

Take, for example, the recent decision by nine student organizations at the University of California Berkeley School of Law to adopt bylaws prohibiting speakers that “hold views…in support of Zionism.”

Or the expulsion of two Jewish and Zionist students from a support group for sexual assault survivors earlier this year at SUNY New Paltz.

Or, also earlier this year, a student dismissed from her a cappella group at the University of Connecticut for identifying as a Zionist.

We have also seen this in efforts to address civil rights and social justice issues, whether these are issues of race, women’s rights, transgender rights, or climate change.

These are all areas where many Jewish students have an interest in participation in keeping with the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. More and more they are being told that they are disqualified from involvement because, by supporting Israel and Zionism, they are advocating for racism, colonialism, and genocide.

While many of these accusations have been around for over a century – including the infamous 1975 UN Resolution declaring that “Zionism is Racism” – the application of these assaults on the legitimacy of the Jewish state had not impacted Jewish students nearly to the extent that we are seeing today. Just in the past academic year alone ADL’s Center on Extremism tracked more than 350 anti-Israel incidents on US college campuses, including some that devolved into antisemitic tropes and actions that sought to exclude and ostracize Jewish students.

It can truly be said that the lives of Jewish students on campuses are increasingly becoming uncomfortable either because they are being treated as outsiders by virtue of being excluded, or, in places where that hasn’t happened, because of self-censorship with regard to Israel out of fear that speaking up could lead to that very exclusion.

The question arises: Why is this happening now?

Factors operating in broader society that have been leading to a surge in anti-Israel activity may be partially relevant but not insignificant here.

For example, the role played by the fact that Arab countries, who had long been the leaders in anti-Israel activity, are now normalizing relations with the Jewish state through the Abraham Accords and beyond, which has induced a new concern among leaders in the anti-Israel community, including on campus where anti-Israel activists appear to have harnessed their anger about the Accords to double down on their calls for Jewish and Zionist students to be vilified and ostracized.

What seems to be a significant element in setting the stage for this hyper anti-Israel, anti-Jewish activity on campus is the broader context of progressive illiberal ideology, which has seen a growth in general over the years but an even more significant increase among college students already leaning toward the left.

Some of the characteristics of this ideology are a tendency to generalize about whole populations in negative terms, the suppression of free speech when it is deemed prejudicial, the dividing of the world into a binary of oppressors and oppressed, and a willingness to cancel those with whom one disagrees and considers beyond the pale.

With these premises in play broadly, and many seeing a world where some nations or entire groups of people are simply the oppressors, others the oppressed, it is hardly surprising, indeed almost inevitable, that these ideas would be directed at Jewish students simply because of their support for the Jewish state.

ADL has tracked this troubling pattern, increasing across college campuses. Instances of anti-Israel harassment from 2021-2022 were recently highlighted in ADL’s annual report on anti-Israel campus activity. The report found many examples of attempts to cancel the vast majority of Jewish students as participants in student groups, student governance, and campus activism.

This results in Zionist speakers being boycotted, prevented from speaking, or even barred from campus, and all Israelis and Jews labeled as racists no matter their views of Israeli policies or support for a two-state solution. There is no room to discuss possible compromises between Israel and the Palestinians and the nuances of the conflict because Israel is simply the oppressor and the Palestinians the oppressed.

Addressing these expanding threats to normal Jewish life on campus, which has existed ever since the quota system on Jews broke down 50 years ago, requires a multi-pronged approach. Direct action demanding that administrations act in the face of this anti-Jewish trend is an imperative. There may as well be moments to invoke Title VI prohibiting antisemitic behavior by universities.

None of which will be successful in stemming the tide without also addressing the illiberal tendencies that provide that backdrop for this anti-Jewish surge.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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