This year, January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a time when people around the world will come together in recognition that antisemitism allowed to metastasize in the 20th century resulted in the murder of millions. Among them, according to data from the National World War II Museum, were “six million European Jews and at least five million Soviet prisoners of war, Romany, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and other victims.”
This is a moment at Stanford University in which the meaning and message of International Holocaust Remembrance Day are urgently needed. Members of the campus community walking through White Plaza can easily see why. It doesn’t take a Stanford degree to understand that virulent anti-Israel banners and chalk messages are not a substitute for higher education that requires students to grapple with the complex realities of the world that awaits them beyond Campus Drive and prepares them to become informed and engaged citizens.
The stakes for all of us could not be higher. This year Americans will elect our next president and vote in other key national and local races. All candidates’ views on antisemitism should be extensively scrutinized. As we struggle to preserve our democracy, and fight against antisemitism becoming normalized, we must remember that who holds office matters greatly. Yet according to a study by the Pew Research Center, “fewer than half of Americans (43%) know that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic political process.”
WHO DECIDES WHAT ANTISEMITISM IS? Misperceptions about what constitutes antisemitism in the 21st century exacerbate this issue, as well as who gets to decide whether actions or speech actually are antisemitic. Stanford is not an exception in this regard. Because the University has not adopted a definition of antisemitism that is applied across the institution, it is essentially up to each individual—whether faculty, students or staff—to opine subjectively, or actually decide, what is or is not antisemitism.
Allowing this to continue brings to mind an often-quoted 1964 statement by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. When asked to define obscenity, he said, “I know it when I see it.” The Stanford Jewish and Israeli community knows antisemitism when we see it. It too is a form of obscenity that must be recognized for what it is.
The U.S. Department of State has used a working definition of antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance since 2010. Other definitions have been created and debated, including in the “the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism” and “the Nexus Document,” which link modern forms of antisemitism and Israel. The Jerusalem Declaration preamble notes that “while antisemitism has certain distinctive features, the fight against it is inseparable from the overall fight against all forms of racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender discrimination.”
The absence of an institutionally adopted definition of antisemitism at Stanford enables individuals and groups who are neither Jewish nor Israeli to assert their own biased or uninformed interpretations. It is unimaginable that Stanford would support, for example, that a minority group of one race should define what constitutes bigotry, prejudice or discrimination toward another minority racial group on campus, or that the non-LGBTQ members of the community should determine what is, or is not, bigotry based on gender identity or sexual orientation. There can be no real understanding of how individuals affected by bias or harassment are impacted when even the terms being used for assessment are unclear.
When the White House published “The National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism” in May 2023, well before the horror of October 7 and the devastating events since then, it acknowledged that rising antisemitism and the growing threat of its normalization look different in the 21st century than in the 20th. College campuses, including the Stanford “Farm,” are increasingly where the seeds of antisemitism grow.
WILL STANFORD FULFILL ITS PLEDGE TO DO BETTER? In November 2022 upon release of “A Report from the Advisory Committee on the History of Jewish Admissions and Experience at Stanford,” the University confronted its past discriminatory practices towards Jews and pledged to do better. Shining a light into the dark corners of its own history has the potential to illuminate Stanford’s path forward today, even in the post-October 7 world.
Let Holocaust Remembrance Day this year be the start of a new chapter at Stanford. If the University can mobilize a major institutional initiative to make the experiences of students more fun through its “Social Life Accelerator,” surely it can bring Stanford’s world renowned leadership to the urgent work ahead. Everyone at Stanford will benefit from a newly invigorated institutional commitment to create a pluralistic 21st century campus environment, in which the lessons of the past inspire a better future for all.