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Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Reckoning with Jew-hatred from the American campus protests

Photo is from I-stock
Photo is from I-stock

Are Jewish American students facing Nazi-like views on American Universities? Are the protestors an extension of Hamas’ genocidal hatred of Israeli Jews? Do student dissidents hope to trigger an existential threat against Israel, to delegitimize American Jewry and Jews all over the world?

First, objecting to Israel’s existence does not automatically make one antisemitic, as there are hundreds of thousands of Jews from a wide range of backgrounds who argue that Israel has no right to exist as a political state. On the one hand, there are the Satmar and Naturei Karta Hasidic sects, who contend that there can be no Israel before the coming of the Messiah.

These are not whom most Americans think when they consider Jewish anti-Zionists. They more likely mean groups like American Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) which holds that October 7th was a rightful act of Hamas resistance brought on by Israel’s policies.

The Satmar Hasidim and JVP are quite different groups, but they are all self-identified Jews despite their opposition to the existence of Israel. Their combined numbers make up around 1.3 percent of the world’s 15,000,000 Jews—a small, but non-trivial amount.

But this does not mean that there is not Jew-hatred coming from the campus protests. There absolutely is. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), among the leaders in student protests, shares the genocidal approach to Israel with Hamas, and taunts American Jewish students while doxing American Jewish faculty on social media. The antisemitism of the group is evident in that SJP hates Israel more than it cares for Palestinian lives, as evidenced by their silence when Syrian President Bashir Assad starved Palestinians in the Syrian Yarmouk refugee camp in 2014, denying aid to the camp. SJP remains silent about suffering Palestinians in Lebanon, where they are denied citizenship and are treated as foreign workers. They suffer unimaginable economic deprivation. 

In the same vein, SJP ignores the complicity of Hamas in Palestinian murder and misery. In a Haaretz interview published on April 13th, former head of Israeli prison intelligence, Yuvall Bitton, said: “I asked Sinwar (now the Hamas Leader in Gaza) is it worth 10,000 Gazans to die, in order to free 100 prisoners? The reply was, Even 100,000 is worth it.” Bitton claimed they are ready to pay with their blood: “each person who dies is a Shahid (martyr). It’s warfare in the name of God.” But the willingness of Hamas to sacrifice those human lives they are supposedly defending is never criticized by SJP.

SJP activists identify Jews as White European colonialists. Jews are considered part of white systemic dominance. That many members of the protests don’t counter SJP misrepresentations of Jews from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is alarming. Like Hamas, SJP views Israel as occupying Waqf land (dedicated in the name of Allah) and thus must be eradicated. It gives a pass to Hamas, as do many protestors. Allowing Hamas a pass is antisemitic, just as giving Netanyahu and his gang a pass is anti-Palestinian, erasing ordinary Palestinian aspirations for a secure life of dignity.

Furthermore, outside groups have hijacked some protests, actions that played a role in subsequent arrests. Of those arrested at Columbia University, 29 percent were not students, and at the City University of New York (CUNY) that figure jumps to 60 percent. What we all saw on our screens was not necessarily what it was made out to be. There were agitators, extremists from both sides (some antisemitic) who were artificially stoking the fire by staging media-ready events to get attention in hopes that it would generate sympathy for their side.

But there were real passions stirred on campus. While they received much less attention, there were actual student activists. So, I ask again: Are Jewish American students facing Nazi-like views at American Universities? Are the protestors an extension of Hamas’ genocidal hatred of Israeli Jews? Do student dissidents hope to trigger an existential threat against Israel, to delegitimize American Jewry and Jews all over the world? No.

Most campus activists are not Jew haters or violent. Like many Israeli and American Jews, they are outraged at the Netanyahu government’s handling of Israel’s response to October 7th. These are 18 to 22-year-olds who have only known Israel as an occupier, denying life and liberty to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. They saw the suffering before October 7th, and they see the killing of civilians now, many of them children. They hate that their tax dollars are complicit in the slaughter.

Painting these dissidents as Nazi-like Jew-haters misses the moment, as evidenced by some Los Angeles Jewish people attacking anti-Israel UCLA student activists. Most area Jews came out against this violence. The brutality, however, buried the opportunity for conversation and exchange at UCLA. Sadly, most protestors and counter-protesters absent dialogue and exchange with one another. Each trying to drown out the other with louder shouts of their own. There is no speaking and no listening. And when you do not hear the other, it is easy to make them into whatever straw person you find it convenient to attack.

Imagine how different this may have been if counter protesting Jewish students responded with invitations for argument and debate by setting up a table for two near protestors with a sign on it saying: ‘Discussion and debate desired about Israel and Palestine.’’ Then sat there. Waiting.

Perhaps discussion and debate would not have followed. After all, it is easy for passion to overrun reason when a nerve has been touched. But even if this were the case, students shouldn’t give up. Many of the protestors are neither Nazis nor Jew-haters. These are people who begin with a political bearing that is opposed at its core to such biases. Treating them as bigots misses the mark, destroys the opportunity to rationally engage, discuss and debate. As one who teaches these issues in the classroom, I have observed firsthand that rational debate, the opening of minds, and the changing of positions is possible. It is what I do for a living, and it is effective, unlike what we observed from the protests and counter-protests.

But what is more important is that seeing them as Nazi-like could be irreparably harmful to Jews. There is a real Neo-Nazi threat. 

Hitler’s Great Replacement Theory is being defended by major media figures, elected congressional representatives, and a candidate for President of the United States. There is the undeniable possibility that political circumstances could allow these dangerous antisemites to take power. Scholars on authoritarianism like Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Masha Gessen are sounding the alarm as loudly as they can. When authoritarian regimes take over, the nationalists target minorities, and history has shown again and again that Jews are among the first to get attacked. This is a very real, rising threat to Jews in America.

And if it came to be? American Jews would need allies. Who would stand with us against bigotry? Those whose core beliefs oppose such biases. Exactly the people who are being wrongly painted as Nazi-like. Those are undoubtedly the ones we will need if and when the real Nazis reappear.

Let me be clear. While there are antisemitic elements among the protestors, Jewish students are not being attacked by Nazis on activist campuses. Yes, we should never dismiss voices who want Jews dead, such as the Columbia University protest-leader who said, “Be thankful I’m not going around murdering Zionists.” Talking to anyone uttering such words would be a waste of time. But to create a caricature of the bulk of the student activists as being among them is an error, one that could come back to haunt us. We may not speak to that protest-leader, but it is critical to do so with those who followed him.

Some University Presidents have woken up to lead the move toward dialogue. This is the only move. Education, rational discussion, speaking and listening are essential for both this moment and the even more dangerous one that may come when Jewish students may actually be in real danger on campuses.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College