Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Something American Jews can do to stem the tide of rising antisemitism

Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo is from shutterstock.

More than 2,000 [antisemitic] incidents reported in US since Hamas massacre, a 337-percent increase” in the last year. — The Anti-Defamation League 

Conspiracy theorists, alleged truthers, have entered the discourse denying Hamas’s terrorizing attacks against Israeli Jews on October 7th in the present face of Israel’s horrifying response in Gaza. Why? Same old reasons and more. We must again ask ourselves as American Jews: what more can we do to fight Jew-hatred coming from both the right and the left?  By evaluating the events leading to the resignation of former Harvard President Claudine Gay, I conclude that our hope is with the universities/colleges now under attack by the radical right. 

The day three university presidents crashed into New York State GOP congressional representative, Elise Stefanik.

On December 5th 2023, Harvard President Claudine Gay crashed into a right-wing mob led by the number three republican in the House of Representatives, congressperson Elise Stefanik. Gay was testifying at a congressional hearing on college campus antisemitism. Representative Stefanik – who has argued for white supremacist, xenophobic, replacement theory – of which Jews are accused of orchestrating — pretended to be worried about Jewish students experiencing antisemitism at Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania. 

Stefanik is a radical critic of higher education, using her time at Harvard to support her misrepresentations of it. She speaks of higher education as ‘woke’ Marxist industries polluting American values.

She is wrong.  Besides, many Trumpists gaming on the extreme right whom she admires attended Ivy League schools. Not one of them flirted with or were indoctrinated by Marxists. There are not a lot of Marxists in American higher education. 

Stefanik and her crew’s goal was to use these leaders to score political points by showcasing saving America from woke Marxists. Most professors I meet haven’t read Marx, just a few essays about him. Nevertheless, she took on fabricated woke elitists who are alleged by her crew to be informed by Marx. Selling wokeism as robbing us of our country is fueling Stefanik in her meteoric rise as a Trumpist star, putting her in his mix to be the 2024 Vice Presidential candidate. 

The three presidents didn’t do well under questioning from Stefanik. They fumbled. Two of the three were forced to resign soon after testifying before Congress, University of Pennsylvania’s Elizabeth McGill and Harvard’s Claudine Gay. MIT’s Jewish President, Sally Kornbluth, survived the post congressional fallout, although she virtually said what the other two spoke that contributed to their downfall. All three reflected similar legal advice. Their remarks were not impromptus. 

Gay’s resignation as President of Harvard was and is not only bad for American higher education, it is bad for American Jewry. McGill had already suffered setbacks as President at Penn. Things quickly cascaded against her. Before getting into what happened to Gay, let’s refresh our memories. Below is a small portion of the transcript of Gay’s troubling moment, for which she should have been more prepared. 

“At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment?” Stefanik asked.

“It can be, depending on the context,” Gay responded.

Stefanik then strong-armed Gay into a binary answer, yes or no, whether calls for genocide of Jewish peoples violates Harvard’s student and employee conduct codes.

“Antisemitic speech when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct and we do take action,” Gay said.

The rub. Stefanik was investigating whether the three campuses have policies in place to punish present campus anti-Israeli protesters chanting –  “from the river to the sea” — which most American Jews hear as a call for genocide against the eight million Israeli Jews while wondering are we next? When many do chant it, they mean Palestine will be from the river to the sea. The chant concerns, even frightens many Jews all over the world, but not all. Thousands of American Jews, Rabbis included, marching with American Palestinians shout the chant while identifying Israel as a criminal and illegal state. 

An Anti-Israel Jewish group on American college campuses: Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)

Paradoxically, Rep. Stefanik doesn’t seem to know that thousands of American Jews march with American Palestinians and other non-Jews chanting from the ‘river to the sea’ when protesting Israel. Unlike Hamas, JVP doesn’t support the mass murder of Israeli Jews, but does identify Israel’s existence as criminal and illegal. They support Boycott, Divestment Sanctions, BDS, against Israel.  

Most American Jews have nothing to do with JVP, probably haven’t heard of it, but some young college going Jews are drawn to it. These young adult Jews have  known an Israel with only Benjamin Netanyahu bellowing American Jewry is a waste of time. Israel is better off with the ethno white Christian right wing, not to mention their deep discomfort with Israel’s campaign against Palestinians. (Another critical group of Israel at Universities/Colleges is JStreet U. It works for a two state solution.)

When these Jewish students chant “from the  river to the sea,” they are chanting for equal rights for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians living between the river and the sea. They are not calling for the murder of Israeli Jews, but for one state where everyone is equal. Are they genocidal in calling for the dismantling of Israel?  It seemed odd that not one of the presidents brought this up. It would have challenged Stefanik’s reasoning. 

JVP is a far left, political Jewish group. JVP Jews despise Israel as a Jewish state denying Palestinians self-determination. It’s a hate they share with another extreme Jewish group at the other end of the spectrum, the largest Hasidic movement in the world, Satmar Hasidim. Like Satmars, JVP Jews spend a lot of time protesting Israel’s existence as a state. Who are the Satmars? Watch the Netflix movie, Unorthodox, or the celebrated tv Israeli Netflix series, Shtiesl. 

JVP members are in the student and faculty bodies at Harvard, MIT and UPenn. They allege to fight for equal rights for all in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while many of them observe an American (secular) Jewish life here. These Jews count toward a minyan for public prayer, sometimes, perhaps, completing the necessary minyan of ten for one needing to say the mourner’s Kaddish. JVP and Satmar Jewish people are no less Jewish than Jews who love Israel.

Most – if not all JVP members – accuse Israel of genocide against the Palestinians. They cite it all, but frame the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza under Article ll C of the 1948-1949 UN genocide convention to support this claim. The Genocide convention is found in the following link. Upon reading it, you’ll see that Hamas hits most – if not all – of the genocide criterion in its literature and terror campaign against Israel; this may surprise some, but Hamas is equally genocidal against LGBQT people. JVP,  like the American student group, “Students for Justice in Palestine” (SJP), struggle to acknowledge these facts.

Link to the Genocide Convention

Lack of Presidential preparation for the Congressional hearing

Each President argued constitutionally guaranteed free speech for their students. Being private institutions that sometimes curtail student speech came back to bite them. Free speech only means freedom from government abuse over one’s speech. Nevertheless, free speech orientations are a big deal on many — if not most — American college campuses. Students are free to protest Israel’s existence as a state on college campuses, just as one may protest Saudi Arabian existence as a nation state. But I’m guessing few, if anyone, protests against Saudi Arabian existence or even its policies, such as crucifying or chopping up the bodies of perceived enemies of the state.

Although the three Presidents were not as prepared as they needed to be, not one of them had public issues with Jewry, not until they ran into New York’s “no friend to Jewish Americans” GOP Rep Elise Stefanik and her right wing, white Christian, ethno populist agenda she parrots in undermining American Higher Education and citizen trust in U.S. democracy. It’s ironic. Stefanik attended Harvard as an undergraduate and didn’t encounter anyone trying to indoctrinate her into Marxism. I’m guessing she didn’t take a class with a Marxist professor. As said, there are not a lot of them in higher education today. 

The Presidents’ responses were embarrassing, but correctable after the fact. They sounded like they were given quick advice on what to answer, as if a socially and politically oblivious lawyer drove with them to the hearing and coached them to say what they said on the drive there. All three were and are capable of greater nuance than we saw that day. 

After the hearing, President Gay apologized: “There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students. Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard. Those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

Surprisingly, former terminated Harvard President, Lawrence Summers, was quick to call for Gay’s resignation.  He attacked Gay for not responding fast enough to the attack on October 7th. Summers should stick to economics. Harvard’s governing body agreed, having forced Summers out in February of 2006 after a chaotic five years managing the Harvard. Gay was sleeping when the terrorizing attack took place. Like most of us, she likely woke up to the news. She spoke against it Monday, Oct. 9th, but failed to cite Hamas.  She should have mentioned Hamas. People, such as Summers, called for her resignation. Harvard trustees and its governing board said they would have none of this ‘witch hunt.’ Gay will remain President. 

Plagiarism charges against President Gay

Right after apologizing, President Gay was accused of plagiarism. Stefanik and crew threw everything against the wall, hoping for something to stick. This stuck. The plagiarized sentences were unearthed by Trumpists screaming higher education is a hostage to Marxist wokeism. They don’t know what they’re talking about.* 

Gay was subsequently investigated by leading scholars in her field. Rock star intellectuals. The academics identified a few light examples of plagiarism, but nothing substantial or anything of real value. It’s difficult to infer she intended to plagiarize when she gained nothing from the sentences discovered to be plagiarized.

Academics know that when one does a great deal of research, especially investigations done pre-internet, one writes down lots of material one may afterward use. I’m guessing Gay inadvertently did not source the material no one looks for to be plagiarized. Like the acknowledgements section in her dissertation brought up by her critics, which did look weird when juxtaposed to the original acknowledgment section of another scholar. She most likely wrote it down with some changes as an example of how to acknowledge those who helped her. Probably later forgot and thought they were her words when subsequently getting to it, and did a little more editing. Gay’s editing of it fueled a Trumpian accusation, twenty six years after the fact, of trying to make it appear she didn’t plagiarize. Gay is smarter than this. The only workable explanation is the one I just gave. The plagiarized writing was irrelevant to her scholarship. Again, it is weird, but it makes little sense to infer the intention to plagiarize on her part. 

Although Gay’s offenses were light, they violated the student conduct code at Harvard, which I’m guessing is generally used a bit more flexibly than it reads. For example, students sometimes forget to mention a source or all sources. (I can’t speak for Harvard students, but I suspect this to be sometimes true.) Are all of these students intending to plagiarize? No. Composing academic papers can be anxiety inducing, especially for non-humanity majors. Some faculty members I know return papers to students to resubmit with citations while others grade them down for not citing, but I don’t know of any professor who would report this inattention as defrauding. 

Our handbook identifies such forgetfulness as cheating. When first seeing an example of it, it is deceiving. However, when in the weeds of teaching, experience teaches professors how busy and aimless many students may be when writing a specific paper. Some are too happy about ‘who knows what’ to create a good essay, some have to write a paper right after being dumped by their love, while caring for a terminally ill parent, sibling or friend, or battling cancer, the death of loved ones, such as grandparents, and occasionally a parent, sibling, or friend. I have had some students in class over the years living with chronic heartbreak and grief, learning how to live (while young) with feelings of being unmoored from life and community because of frightening illness while creating their futures. 

It is fairly obvious to professors when a student is using someone else’s words as their own and when a student forgets to cite. When forgetting, as said, they often receive a professorial warning, kind of like what one hopes to get when caught rolling through a stop sign. There is a problem, though, when a president, e.g. former Harvard President Gay, isn’t held accountable for plagiarism for which students may be punished. 

There is a quick solution. Change the student conduct code to better reflect reality. Create a committee of faculty and students to come up with a more nuanced policy to be voted on by the faculty senate or faculty body at large. Mistakes happen. Don’t get me wrong, plagiarism is a serious offense. It is stealing. But taking a few grapes from the grocery store grape well, which is stealing, doesn’t warrant calling the police or the store punishing the grape grabber. Imagine the absurdity of a family member banned from a supermarket for eating a few grapes while buying grapes? 

Why Gay had to resign 

Cauline Gay resigned, not because of committing a felony, but because the right-wing mob wouldn’t let her go, turning it all into a distraction from Harvard’s mission, not to mention the threats to her life and her family’s security. How do you get rid of a mob distracting all from Harvard’s mission, and the security Professor Gay needs for her family to thrive? Resign. It’s not fair, but mobs are not about fairness. They want you gone and won’t stop until you’re gone, or you outlast them. This mob was too dangerous to try and outlive. 

Don’t be fooled by the Harvard donors who called for Gay’s resignation. They were part of the mob. It’s not good for American Jews when someone, e.g. Stefanik, or a major donor, says nothing against the antisemtic tropes used by those attacking from the right while pretending to defend American Jews from Claudine Gay. Laughable. Claudine Gay does not flirt or socialize with Jew haters. Stefanik does flirt with them. As the Jewish Telegraph noted on Dec. 11, 2023, “… the upstate New York Republican [Stefanik] has drawn condemnation for comments echoing the white supremacist “great replacement theory,” which… claims that Jews are orchestrating the mass immigration of people of color into Western nations in order to replace their white populations.”  

Link to the Anti-defamation leagues’ warning about replacement theory:

Stefanik speaks for “great replacement theory,” which is a wink to the white supremacist part of her base that believes American Jews are orchestrating replacing American citizens with foreign workers. A logic that leads to American Jews are fueling the crises on the U.S. southern border where tens of thousands of asylum seekers and economic and crime fleeing refugees clamor in their attempt to escape monetary, criminal and murderous hell. Stefanik doesn’t identify Jews as the root cause of replacement theory, but she knows that part of her base connects the dots between undocumented immigration, the border and American Jews. It is a common perception in white supremacist communities.  

Elise Stefanik’s Trumpist fight to end American Democracy is not good for American Jewry. 

Elise Stefanik supports the ruin of American democracy. She worked to overturn the 2020 election, refusing to acknowledge that Joe Biden won. She refuses to commit to certifying the future 2024 election results. Why, when she knows there was no election fraud?  Because Stefanik’s base believes in ballot fraud. Today, in the battle between Trumpism and American democracy, representative Stefanik and her congressional crew and base have chosen Trumpist fascism over democracy. 

Finally, Elise Stefanik and crew are not the figures we want defending or fighting for us. I’d like to think she wouldn’t have been a Nazi in Hitler’s Germany, but it’s hard to miss that she doesn’t resist white supremacist/Nazi hatred of Jews. Neither does Donald Trump. Remember when Trump praised some of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville, VA? Stefanik didn’t protest that praise. Remember when he hosted white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer, Nick Fuentes for dinner at his Florida estate? Stefanik didn’t care. She may not hate Jews, but she won’t get in the way of or protest against those who do and want us dead, e.g. Nick Fuentes. 

How to fight Jew-hatred in the United States

This whole affair put American Jewry, antisemitism, our fears and more on the front page for a bit. All American Jews share concerns about antisemtism. We don’t always agree with one another’s concerns, but do agree non-Jews need to learn and know about the complex, collage or mosaic of Jewish communities that make up Jewry. 

How do we combat the spreading scourge of Jew-hatred on both the right and the left? There is a way: Jewish Studies. If you’re not donating to Jewish Studies programs or departments nearby your home, start giving now.  Give what is affordable. Ten, twenty-five, fifty, one hundred dollars, or if you can afford it, an endowed chair in your or a parent’s name, or in your community’s name as a bundled donation. An endowed chair anchors JS, making it resistant to budget stresses. 

Help us help our Jewish communities fight and extinguish antisemitism through education. That’s you. If you’re not already doing it, take advantage of Jewish Studies programming where you live. Take or audit a class from time to time. We are here for you, too. 

There may be faculty in JS with whom you strongly disagree. However, know that JS isn’t reducible to one position, such as one you even hate. JS both amplifies and protects the giant collage Jews are continually creating in our never ending discussions and disagreements. Thriving Jewish Studies is one of our best bets in the struggle against American antisemitism. I’ve seen how effective it is. 

A year and a half ago, a professor was lecturing on contemporary Jews and Christians. The Professor’s portrayal of Jews and Judaism outraged two non-Jewish students. They each spoke out, confronting the Professor for being “unfair” to Jews, for presenting antisemitic tropes in the lecture. These two students were not Jewish, but they had taken Jewish Studies courses. There were also one or two Jews in the class, too scared to speak up. One of them told me about that moment. The moment had nothing to do with Israel, but American Jews and Christians.

One student who spoke up was taking the history of antisemitism with me, which met right after the above class. My entire class on Jew-hatred heard about the other class. As for the offending professor, they backed off the lecture and allowed the two students to explain why the lecture was antisemitic. This moment educated dozens of students between the two classes about why the lecture was antisemitic. The professor also learned. They’ll forever be more careful. The students will not forget and hopefully pay the awareness forward if and when cued to act, just like their two peers did.  

Jewish Studies classes are effective in diminishing Jew-hatred. It is most likely the only opportunity non-Jews will ever have (as well as many assimilated Jews) to learn about the Jewish worlds making up Jewry. Jewish Studies departments and programs.

If American Jews are to feel secure, we need to be more aware of being used by those who are not our friends, e.g. Elise Stefanik. The best way to know who is and isn’t our friend is to study the history of Jew hatred. I recommend starting with David Nirenberg’s “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition.” If the work is found to be too dense, pick up a copy of Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll.  Nirenberg’s has a lot more to it, but both will make you smart about the history of  Jew-hatred. I likewise suggest reading about American political movements from their inception. Historian Heather Cox Richardson is a good place to start. Begin with her book, “How the South Won the Civil War.”

We also need houses of study for non-Jews to learn about Judaisms. Fortunately, we already have them. Universities/colleges. They’re a major reason for American Jewish integration, which helps in our fight against homegrown antisemitism. Jewish Studies are on many campuses, but not anywhere else, not church, not work, social clubs, not anywhere. 

Let’s not let up. Let’s accelerate. Donate whenever you’re able to a Jewish studies program in your area. Be sure to make a check out to Jewish Studies followed by the institution’s name. Do the same on any donation, “for the Jewish Studies program or department,” otherwise the donation may go into the University/college’s general fund. 

Finally, let’s not depend on the undependable Elise Stefanik for Jewish protection when we have the opportunity to depend on education. It’s a more reliable partner in our fight against Jew-hatred. 

*To understand what is normally meant by wokeness and Marx’s influence on it, read my co-authored opinion with Dr. Steven Gimbel, author of “Einstein’s Jewish Science” a one time finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.

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