Joel Cohen

Is antisemitism in America as bad overall as it is on campus?

The mere question might offend many American Jews. To be sure, I don’t relish that. I simply recognize the potential for such a reaction in the wake of October 7 when Jews have repeatedly been under verbal, sometimes physical, attack on and off campus.

To begin, though it is deeply painful to say, antisemitism and its attendant attacks occurred in America and elsewhere even in the short period before the IDF’s incursion into Gaza began. The protests, the aggressive attacks on Jewish students and the cries for Intifada occurring on American campuses largely since the IDF’s invasion of Gaza are far more substantial. There has been palpable antisemitism directly (and indirectly) linked to a perceived overbearing effort by Israel’s government to eradicate Hamas. And this despite Hamas’s inhumane tactic of forcing Palestinians to be human shields, raising the inescapable question of precisely who is really at fault for the death of innocent civilians.

Nonetheless, whether vocal antisemitism in America was always here submerged beneath the surface and Gaza simply brought it to the fore, or the events since October 7 in Gaza actually caused it, isn’t the point of this essay. An interesting question, but not raised here.

The questions here are different. First, is the conflating of Jews, Zionists, Israel and the Israel government on America’s campuses today (seemingly directed largely by BDS-supportive students) — suggesting that all Jews are responsible for what Israel’s leadership has done in Gaza and in its previous battles — something new to this collegiate generation? And is the undeniable outbreak of vocal antisemitism today largely limited to the campus – but something that the fearful Jewish population has extrapolated onto American society at large?

Yes, undoubtedly, students and younger people generally typically empathize with the seeming underdog, and tend, therefore, to see Israel as the aggressor, despite the October 7 massacre. And that fact, more than anything, may account for what is currently occurring on campus where “all Jews” are currently considered Zionists, whether or not they actually are. Yes, on campus and elsewhere, believing in Israel — the idea of and need for a Jewish state — is often conflated with agreeing with the actions taken by the Israeli government militarily.

Importantly, the protests that one sees on campus aren’t typically seen at the mall back home during holiday breaks. It’s not that students abandon their “principles” when they leave campus. It’s just that their empathetic view of the world isn’t necessarily supported by the population at home. It also may be that their “empathetic” views are more aggressively fueled on campus by social media and a crowd mentality in ways that their parents’ more subdued views aren’t.

Are the families and communities of the often-radicalized American students in harmony with the mindset of their offspring? Sometimes for sure. But more often it seems, the older population may also have a totally different perception which involves a more nuanced view about the world. It may be that those with more “real world” experience and less empathetic instincts, recognize that Hamas, distinguished from Palestinians generally, is a terrorist octopus that simply seeks to destroy Israel (“river to the sea”) and those of the Jewish faith, totally unconcerned with the lives of their own people. It’s odd indeed that the protesters against Israel don’t seem to see that at all.

And so, what we see on versus off campus may be the historic battle between the conflicting values of young versus old, at this moment focusing on “Jews” as the aggressors. Significantly, the ADL found that college students hew to roughly the same number of antisemitic beliefs as their parents’ generation. However, they are nearly twice as likely to hold negative beliefs about Israel.

Do students away from campus often call for a “ceasefire” in Gaza? Absolutely, and it makes total sense given their beliefs. Indeed, many Israelis do as well – their priority frequently being the release of the hostages even if that means the cessation of combat.

But what about such calls for ceasefire and hostage release from their elders? Should those calls be confused with antisemitism? Or are those reactions to what is occurring in Gaza simply because Americans typically oppose war, preferring peaceful resolution? Put differently, is a request or even “demand” for a ceasefire an act of antisemitism? Or is it just how Americans tend to want to see wartime hostilities resolved?

A bigger question may be this: whether or not limited to the campus, how do we account for the fact that since 1947 neither Israel nor American Jews have seen the outpouring of bipartisan “political” support for Israel and American Jews who have been attacked in acts of antisemitism? And that no previous American president has actually risked reelection when – in the face of some left-wing members of his party who oppose his public stance regarding Israel, threatening his ability to win  battleground states — he has stood as an obelisk in the desert of western leaders vigorously supporting Israel’s right to defend itself?

And why has Israel received such strong, bipartisan support from American politicians? Indeed, Republican members of Congress don’t typically represent Jewish constituencies. And they don’t foolishly defy the views of their constituencies. This suggests that the constituents themselves don’t universally disdain the Gaza invasion or even the so-called “occupation” of Gaza that preceded October 7, as some suggest.

Rather, it may be that the voting American public off-campus is simply realistic – that Hamas’s intentions against Israel are the frontline of their intentions against America too. And given how Americans perceive it generally, perhaps they basically want to see Hamas defeated in Gaza. And, accordingly, they might argue: “Israel’s Jews are our best bet to defeat those terrorists. Go Israel. Kill them if you must.” Sure, as they may see it (as do I) far too many innocent Gazans are dying, but that’s always the cost of war – “and because we don’t particularly like ‘those people’ anyway, we see Jews and Israel as basically our gladiators on the frontline at this critical moment.”

The Harvard CAPS-Harris poll is well worth studying. It suggests a wide gap in views about the Israel-Hamas war based on age. Essentially, the study, noted in a recent article in The Hill, finds that two thirds of voters between age 18 and 24 see Jews, as a class, as oppressors who deserve to be treated that way. Seventy-three percent of all voters say that this notion is wrongheaded. See “Wide generational gap on views around Israel-Hamas war: poll”, Jared Gans, The Hill, 12/18/23.

I don’t doubt for a moment that American Jews must remain extremely vigilant about rising antisemitism in America – the type of antisemitism that the Anti-Defamation League so ably documents. At the same time, we need to see the problem for what and where it is without casting too wide a net. And, indeed, when polls talk about unprecedented antisemitism and conflate that with the current wartime policies of the IDF in Gaza, we should promptly disprove and address that unsubstantiated link.

Finally, when we think about antisemitism in America today one cannot ignore the remarkable words of Michael Walzer in his 1995 preface to a reprinting of John Paul Sartre’s 1944 iconic “Anti-Semite and Jew.” As Walzer put it: “ .  .   . [i]t is as a Jew (and a member of the Jewish nation) that the Jew is perceived by the others, and this is an identity that he cannot escape – more accurately, that he is not allowed to escape.”

That reality, whether it connotes a more problematic antisemitism or not, does indeed exist existentially in one form or another both on campus and in society at large. As Walzer so ably put it, Jews are all undeniably seen as “members of the Jewish nation” – small “n”. Still, is the result of that state of affairs, as raised here, even nearly the same off campus as on?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.
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