Gefen Bar-On Santor

Safe on campus?

Source: Image circulating on social media
Source: Image circulating on social media

In the aftermath of the October 7 pogrom, a video recorded by Shai Davidai, a professor at Columbia Business school, has resonated with many people:

Davidai delivers a powerful message to parents who send their kids to prestigious universities: your kids are not safe.  Students cannot be protected from pro-terror organizations because university leaders will not speak out against terrorism masking as liberation from oppression.  For pro-terrorist organizations, any Israeli is a legitimate target of “resistance,” Davidai reminds us.

Davidai’s emphasis on safety is justified when it comes to the lack of emotional safety that many of us have been viscerally feeling.  Heartbroken and unable to process the magnitude of the horror, we have continued to function in academic environments that are often at best indifferent or at worst hostile to Israel, indulging in distortions and false moral equivalents— even though more principled and empathic exceptions can also be found.

One of the tendencies that I find most difficult is the misleading assumption that people who care about Israel want war and that other people are more peaceful than we are.  In fact, I deeply hate and fear war, and I have been thoroughly educated by my parents and teachers to want peace.  And yet, sometimes I encounter the implied message that other people are morally superior to me because “they understand both sides” (while I “only” understand that the Palestinians must abandon Jew hate if we are to have any chance to avoid war.  This does not mean that I do not care about Palestinian suffering. I do).

However, as we peacefully resist Jew hate, we also have to understand the mindset and strategies of Israel haters in different contexts in order to avoid stepping into their context-specific traps.

I hope very much that what I am saying will not be proven wrong, but in my opinion Israel haters on North-American academic campuses are unlikely to engage in physical violence.  Any physical violence in North-American campuses is likely to be harshly condemned and legally punished.  As such, physical violence is not a sustainable strategy in North America and is not something that Israel haters in academic environments are likely to be attracted to do.

In contrast to the futility of physical violence in North America, there have been viable possibilities to use the academic curriculum, polite conversation, as well as popular media culture, to train people without deep knowledge of Israel to believe in distortions and lies about Israel.  In many cases, Jew haters hide not only behind the claim that they are “only” criticizing Zionism, but also behind the intellectual shield of “the Jewish friend who agrees with me”—a common trope of present-day Israel hate.  I wonder if some Jewish people believe that they can escape Jew hate by agreeing with distorting and disproportional “criticism” of Israel and Zionism.

To the best of my intuitive guess, academic Israel haters are not deeply disturbed by the actions of terrorists (I am not sure how else to explain the lack of condemnation for what is so clearly evil)—but theirs is very much a passive, sit-back, second-hand-smoke type of engagement.  In my opinion, they are unlikely to feel the desire to do anything that would require risk-taking on their part.  They are unlikely to want to do something that could lead to getting arrested, getting fired or losing privileges, career momentum or reputation.

Therefore, the focus should not be to emphasize a risk of physical violence that has not been manifested but rather to understand how academic privilege can be used to cultivate Jew hate masked as criticism of Israel.

An academic Israel hater listening to Davidai’s video might feel smug because they know that they themselves have no plan to commit physical violence.  As such, they can use Davidai’s video to look down upon “the Jews” as hysterical and full of biases and assumptions about “imaginary” threats.  This inadvertent provision of fuel for Israel hate would be unfortunate because Davidai is in fact channeling very legitimate emotions about the problem of Jew hate masked as support for liberation from oppression.

Unless physical violence occurs on university campuses—and I hope very much that it won’t—we must focus on what has in fact occurred and is occurring.

Two general points should be emphasized, with the understanding that they do not apply to every institution or every situation but are intended to describe problems that might in some cases exist:

  1. In the aftermath of October 7, some Jewish persons on university campuses have faced inadequate responses to their anguish and trauma. These included, for example, silence from academic leaders who had the moral obligation to speak, failure to reach out to affected community members, as well as, in some cases, “minimalistic responses” or false moral parallels that erase basic facts about the sadistic pogrom—sometimes amounting to covert taunting of the suffering persons.

Academic institutions have to understand that some community members who are NOT feeling okay were made to feel, as a result of inadequate response from academic leadership, even worse—forsaken through the moral indifference or superiority of their environment.  The result was a feeling of lack of emotional safety.  Academic institutions must self-reflect on how and why that failure occurred, and whether there are factors specific to their attitude toward Jewish persons that have facilitated it.  For example, is it tacitly assumed that Jewish people should just cope silently no matter what? This is all the more imperative if universities truly want to live up the inclusion part of EDI policies.

  1. Academic institutions should self-reflect about how factors such as the content taught in courses, research activities or other academic activities that take place within their institutions might in some cases contribute to fueling Jew hate in the form of significant distortions and disproportionate attitudes about Israel—which contribute to the dehumanization of Jewish people and to the failure to regard their suffering and concerns as worthy of empathy and institutional response.

In the tragic period ahead, the academia should take steps to delegitimize the dehumanization of Jewish people.  I hope that I am right that the risk of physical violence on North-American academic campuses is low. I hope that reality does not prove me wrong.  In any case, the academia does not have the moral right to redirect our intellectual gaze away from the horror of the October 7 pogrom:

Acknowledgement re: Safe on Campus?

I would like to acknowledge that when I posted my previous blog “Safe on Campus?” I was not aware that there was in fact an act of violence outside the Columbia University Library against an Israeli student.  It is also reported that the suspect, Maxwell Friedman, self-identified as Jewish (which raises important questions about the participation of some Jewish people in Jew hate in the form of “criticism” of Israel):

Any act of violence must be condemned and legally responded to.  Any act of violence also challenges my opinion expressed in the previous blog that the risk for physical violence is low.  I still believe that the risk of violence on academic campus is low—though clearly it should be emphasized that it is non negligible.

At the same time, I stand by my opinion that while physical violence must be legally defended against, the main problem on academic campuses is not physical violence but the vast indifference or hostility to Israel that is encouraged by misleading and disproportional analysis—and that ultimately leads to a dehumanization of Jewish people (dehumanization that, in turn, lends indirect intellectual support to real physical violence).

Campuses must ensure the safety of all students, but I believe (as explained in the previous blog) that Israel haters in the North-American academia generally understand the need to avoid physical violence and are not motivated to engage in physical violence. Therefore, advocacy should focus on the forms of Israel hate that are in fact allowed to exist—the distortions and disproportionate ideas about Israel that are sometimes developed though academic education and other academic work and activities.

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at
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