We are barely a month into the new academic year, and anti-Zionism activities on university campuses are in full force. Over the weekend before Yom Kippur, from Friday, September 22, 2023, to the afternoon of Sunday, September 24, the University of Pennsylvania is hosting a conference on Palestinian culture, “The Palestine Writes Literature Festival.” The event, however, sparked an attack and vandalism at Penn Hillel’s while students were getting ready for morning prayers. Later in the day, at another Penn building, a swastika was discovered. These incidents will become part of the hundreds of anti-Israel episodes on American campuses during the new 2023-2024 academic year. On September 12, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released its annual report analyzing “anti-Israel activism on college campuses.”
ADL reported 665 campus anti-Israel incidents in 2022-2023, up from 359 in the previous year. Surprisingly, at my alma mater, McGill University in Montreal, Canada, a hotbed for anti-Israel activity, there has yet to be a reported incident in the new academic year. However, the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU) has yet to release their meeting minutes this past month, and their General Assembly is set for Monday, October 2, 2023; in the past, most of the anti-Israel motions have happened at their GAs. However, the first reports on the inaugural legislative council meeting show criticizing Israel or any anti-Israel activities were not on the agenda.
McGill’s pro-Palestinian club, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), has continued its anti-Israel activities without fanfare or press coverage. This past summer, they held an emergency rally calling for Israel to free Walid Daqqah, who participated in abducting and killing an Israeli soldier in 1984. Instead of telling the truth, SPHR maligned Israel and wrote on their Facebook page: “Walid Daqqah is a revolutionary and intellectual leader who has spent 37 years in prison, making him one of the longest-held Palestinian prisoners. The Zionist prison administration has refused to release Walid, despite his leukemia diagnosis and critical health condition which continues to drastically decline. Walid continues to uphold the spirit of resistance, and so must we!” On Thursday, September 28, they are hosting their first general meeting of the year, where they intend to roll out the planned activities for the semester.
I have been covering the situation at McGill University for nearly ten years. When I went to McGill as an undergraduate and my first graduate degree, neighboring Concordia University was the hotbed anti-Zionist activity. I reported on the situation as McGill’s SSMU attempted to pass a BDS motion on campus. However, in 2019, as the SSMU executives were kicking out Jewish student Jordyn Wright for accepting a free trip to Israel, the articles turned into an entire book-length history of how McGill went from Philo-Semitic to antisemitic to anti-Zionist. The study became “A Constant Battle: McGill University’s Complicated History of Antisemitism and Now anti-Zionism.” This academic year, we have yet to hear anti-Israel rhetoric on campus of note, which is surprising. McGill is now the hotbed for this activity in Canada.
Unfortunately, elite universities are getting all the press on anti-Semitic activity on their campuses. Jewish organizations have condemned the Penn conference, which includes speakers accused of antisemitism, notably former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, who has been very outspoken anti-Zionist; he uses antisemitism and “Holocaust imagery to bash Israel during his concerts” and often speaks to campus anti-Israel groups supporting their endeavors. Waters talked to the conference virtually after being barred from campus for his antisemitic rhetoric. Others speaking at the meeting also have a history of “using language that condones or encourages Israel’s destruction.” On Wednesday, University president Elizabeth Magill wrote to Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and said she was not stopping the conference because of the university’s “commitment to open expression and academic freedom, which is “central to our educational mission.” Students feel the university president’s response is insufficient, and considering the attacks that transpired, they were right. These events often incite antisemitic and anti-Zionist attacks on campus, both physical and rhetorical.
On September 22-24, the Palestine Writes festival began peacefully at Penn’s Irvine Auditorium. The number of people who attended and the money raised speaks volumes about the anti-Israel sentiment on the Penn campus. The conference had over 1,500 attendees, including Penn students and faculty, and featured “speeches, dance numbers, and spoken word poetry,” nearly 800 people raised $81,472. Palestine Writes Executive Director Susan Abulhawa tried to separate antisemitism from anti-Zionism. According to the Daily Pennsylvanian, Abulhawa told the conference in her opening remarks, “antisemitism and anti-Israel criticism cannot be considered interchangeable.”
Jewish organizations, including ADL, had trucks and signs “criticizing Penn’s decision to include Waters as a speaker and denouncing the festival as antisemitic.” Abulhawa said that Jewish organizations, hoping to shut down the festival, launched a campaign in which they ‘paraded digital billboards around campus, photos of us in sinister colors, and quotes out of context.'” These types of comments have become cliché on university campuses and Palestinian events. The other cliché is the student paper quoting the token Jewish student or students in attendance praising the event. One student expressed, “They were claiming to act on my behalf as a Jewish and Israeli-American student. That’s unconscionable to me. It was an attempt to use me as a pawn to target the wonderful environment … just because of my identity.”
Just two days before the conference sparked a backlash when a student came in and vandalized the Penn Hillel building and screamed antiemetic tropes and obscenities at the Jewish students present. The police described the student as “a person experiencing a crisis.” The incident occurred Thursday morning, September 21, just before 7 a.m., during Orthodox Jewish students’ morning services. The intruder came in, smashed and flipped over a table, scattered papers, and yelled profanities. Students heard the incident but did not witness it, saw the images that surfaced online, and were unnerved by what happened. Later, administrators announced a swastika was discovered at Meyerson Hall, part of the Weitzman School of Design.
Top Penn administrators condemned the attacks. President Liz Magill and Provost John Jackson Jr., among others, wrote a statement and promised to increase security at Penn’s Jewish clubs and organizations, including Hillel and Chabad. In the letter, they expressed, “We unequivocally condemn such hateful acts. They are an assault on our values and mission as an institution and have no place at Penn. Sadly, incidents of hatred, including antisemitic rhetoric and acts that denigrate Jewish people, have become all too common.”
On September 22, after Erev Shabbat services, Penn Hillel hosted a “Shabbat Together,” event promoting Jewish unity after the recent antisemitic incidents and the planned Palestinian conference. Hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish students attended to celebrate Jewish pride and togetherness. Penn Hillel Co-Presidents and Eitan Weinstein told his fellow students in an email, “Despite how wonderful it is to be with one another as one, we all know that there is a palpable tension in the air this weekend, especially after yesterday’s horrible act of vandalism in this place that so many of us call home.” While Hillel’s Rabbi Gabe Greenberg told students in a speech at the event “to be proud of their Jewish identities on campus, no matter how they manifest that identity.”
After the attack on the Hillel building, Maya Harpaz, a junior and executive board member of Hillel, remarked to the Daily Pennsylvanian, “When I heard, my stomach just immediately dropped. It’s definitely a scary feeling that this could happen to somewhere that you consider very safe on campus.” A Hillel representative expressed, “This person did not accidentally choose to enter our building. He did not accidentally choose to shout antisemitic slogans. He chose our building. He chose to do so just three days before Yom Kippur. He chose to do so one day before a number of speakers are coming to campus, who have histories of making antisemitic and hate-filled statements against Jews. This was not a coincidence.”
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports included zero physical assault, nine vandalism, 24 harassment, 303 events, 326 protests, and three BDS resolutions, some being antisemitic. ADL found a drop in student governments attempting to boycott Israel last year despite a nearly doubled increase in anti-Israel activity on college campuses. The ADL has strengthened its ties with Hillel to understand anti-Israel activism better. The report concluded the emergence of “a more radical activist movement that seeks to make opposition to Israel and Zionism a pillar of campus life and a precondition for full acceptance in the campus community, effectively causing the marginalization of Jewish students.”
ADL’s analysis of incidents shows increased violence against Israel and rhetoric vilifying Zionism and Zionists. Like Students for Justice Palestine, activist groups support terrorist organizations and call for Zionists to be excluded from communal life. These messages often call for “anti-normalization” or rejection of cooperation with Zionists. Radical anti-Israel activism on campus is evident in the acceptance of violence against Israel and calls to eradicate Zionism and dismantle Zionist institutions by SJP chapters of Resistance News Network (RNN), Jisr Collective, and The Mapping Project.
The Mapping Project is a website the National SJP and campus chapters promote. The project claims that Jewish communal organizations are responsible for colonizing Palestine and Zionism. The website calls for dismantling and disrupting these organizations despite ADL filing a lawsuit against it in Iceland. Resistance News Network (RNN), an anti-Zionist channel on Telegram and Instagram, promotes violence against Israel and is disseminated by various student groups. It encourages terror organizations like Hamas and PFLP and occasionally posts communiques from Hamas’ Al Qassam Brigades and Hezbollah. In the summer of 2022, Jisr Collective, a social media channel and website, gained popularity among campus anti-Zionist activists. Promoted by SJP chapters, it explicitly opposed Israel’s existence, supported armed resistance, and opposed “normalization,” which they defined as endorsing or collaborating with Israeli aspirations or sentiments.
Nine vandalism incidents occurred on campus, referencing Israel/Zionism and posting threatening messages against Jews, Zionists, and Israelis. Hillel and Chabad were vandalized, causing fear in the Jewish community. Types of vandalism consisted of “graffiti or art in campus areas designated for that purpose or, in general, chalking on property.” The antisemitic activity affects Jewish individuals and institutions, holding them responsible for Israel’s actions.
Last year, there were 24 Israel-related harassment cases involving hateful language and threats against individuals or groups identifying as Zionist or pro-Israel, targeting specific individuals, groups, or institutions, and disrupting events featuring Zionists or anti-Israel activists. In 2022-2023, there was a significant increase in support for violence against Israelis, including civilians, by U.S.-designated terror organizations like Hamas, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). This was mainly due to anti-Zionist activists sharing Resistance News Network posts. The slogan “armed resistance is justified when people are occupied” was frequently used.
Student campus groups and faculty often participate in anti-Israel activities, with 329 events recorded. These include protests and demonstrations in campus quads and mock “apartheid walls” replicating the 1967 Green Line. Universities posted 29 apartheid walls, including Ohio State, George Washington, and Harvard. Some walls featured messages supporting “intifada,” recalling the First and Second Palestinian Intifadas. Support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement remained central to the campus anti-Israel movement, with 2023 marking the twentieth anniversary of the first divestment resolution.
ADL tracks BDS resolutions from undergraduate and graduate student bodies and faculty/staff unions. Three universities passed BDS resolutions in 2022-2023, but they still need to be implemented. The BDS movement advocates for economic, academic, and cultural boycotts of Israel, targeting Israeli companies, academics, and cultural institutions. Support for the BDS movement remains central to campus anti-Israel efforts, with 2023 marking the twentieth anniversary of the first divestment resolution in the US.
Campus activists affiliated with SJP and JVP have been associated with racism and bigotry towards Zionists. However, they have also called for the ostracization of Zionists from all aspects of life, including job terminations and disruptions. This phenomenon is often labeled as “anti-normalization.” SJP, the most active anti-Israel group on US campuses, promotes “agitation” against Zionism. Campus anti-Israel organizing often includes antisemitic themes, such as Israel’s excessive influence and historical blood libel against Jews, despite not being a pillar of organizing. Recently, the ADL faced criticism for straying from its core mission of monitoring and responding to antisemitism. The report suggests that, collectively, anti-Israel incidents may contribute to a hostile campus environment for Jewish students. ” They “may be characterized as antisemitic,” but “collectively, they may contribute to a more hostile campus environment for Jewish students.”
US House Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) is calling out two Ivy League universities for allowing or not stopping anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on their campuses. On Sept. 10, Rep. Gottheimer wrote a letter to Penn President M. Elizabeth Magill over the university allowing the Palestinian Writes festival.
“I am dismayed that this is now occurring at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. While policy discussion and differing views are a welcome and critical part of building cultural understanding, they cannot provide a bully pulpit for those who seek to divide others. If the university’s goal is to promote mutual understanding and bring students together, it will fail so long as antisemites and anti-Israel advocates are given a platform to spew hate.”
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt issued a statement, “Every year, young Jewish people go to college with the hope that their Jewish identities, including their connection to the Jewish state, will be welcome on campus. This sense of community is increasingly at risk as concerning anti-Israel incidents increase. University leaders must respond effectively to this hatred so that Jewish students feel safe.”
Last winter, students from Canadian universities spoke to TVO and asked if students at Canadian universities felt safe on campus. Their responses mirrored ADL’s survey findings, with most saying that online hate on social media is most prevalent, anti-Israel student campus groups are the problem, and there is a double standard regarding how Jews are treated versus other minorities. TVO spoke to one student at McGill, who found the most hate coming on social media. However, anti-Israel students are most afraid to confront physically Jewish students about Israel.
The McGill student explained, “Online hate has become more prevalent on social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, making it easier for people to create micro-aggressions and stereotyping. Camps are becoming harder due to people trying to show different faces, but there are more people with similar stories.” The student continued, “I find on campus it’s a little bit harder because people are trying to show a different type of face, if that makes sense.” Another student pointed out the double standard of discriminating, “People understand that you wouldn’t say bad things about black, Asian, or indigenous people, but sometimes it’s okay against Jews due to conventional wisdom.”
Keeping in line with the McGill campus’s reputation for being one of the most contentious in Canada, the student described how campus groups harass McGill’s Jewish students; “It’s a campus that’s very loud with a lot of groups that support BDS, boycott, divest, and sanctions. There are a lot of groups on our campus that are very loud in terms of their dissatisfaction with what’s happening in the Middle East in terms of Israel and Palestine, and I think a lot of that time, me personally, just speaking for myself and my friends that I’ve kind of come in contact with, whether it be through Chabad at McGill events or Hillel events at McGill, a lot of things that I would kind of say is that people assume that — like that the issue is completely intertwined and everything is one and the same.”
The situation at Penn, a high-profile Ivy League university just months before early admission season, says a lot about the anti-Semitic activity at American universities. Penn’s response is detrimental to the university’s reputation but also gives other high-profile universities the bad idea that allowing anti-Zionism events on campus is acceptable. Students and others also get that terrible idea, leading to the two clearly anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish organizations and buildings on campus. If we are lucky, the attack on Penn’s Hillel will go down as one of the most violent incidents on a university campus this academic year, scaring the students inside. While the graffiti vandalism of a swastika in a campus building shows to outsiders who claim otherwise that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, Jewish studies faculty on university campuses must step up and advocate for the students because the administrations are certainly not.
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