Universities are meant to be bastions of academic freedom, free thought, inclusion, and personal expression. These institutions are supposed to serve as centers of academic discovery and acceptance, where diverse groups of individuals congregate to learn with and from each other. Unfortunately, this has not been the case for many Jewish students. Throughout history, Jewish students have faced antisemitic hate and prejudice in places of higher learning. Tragically, the same antisemitism that motivated past discriminatory actions can still be seen today even in our nation’s top educational institutions.
Higher education has a long history of antisemitism. During the interwar period, universities in Poland instituted an official form of segregation called Ghetto benches. Under the threat of expulsion, Jewish students were segregated and forced to sit only in the left-hand side section of lecture halls. This policy of university-sanctioned segregation was accompanied by acts of violence towards the Jewish community. This policy was met with harsh criticism and opposition. The majority of Jewish students originally refused to cooperate with the system of segregation. They naturally saw that it was a violation of their civil rights. At many universities, Polish students attempted to physically move Jewish students to the ghetto benches. The policy was criticized across the world. Professors in New York condemned the policy as “alien to the spirit of academic freedom.” However, this practice remained in place until the Nazis invaded Poland in World War II, at which point the Jewish students were rounded up for extermination rather than merely subjected to segregation.
The longstanding tradition of antisemitism can still be felt at today’s universities. According to a recent complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, Jewish employees at Stanford University have experienced severe and persistent anti-Jewish harassment. The complaint alleges that Stanford University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts have created an unwelcoming and exclusionary environment for the Jewish community. Stanford’s DEI program has perpetuated antisemitic stereotypes of Jews and advanced the false and dangerous narrative that Jews support and contribute to systemic racism.
The complaint further alleges the DEI program has refused to address antisemitic attacks and undermined Jewish voices who have challenged the program’s unwillingness to discuss antisemitism at Stanford. Unknown individuals hijacked a virtual Stanford community town hall last May. These hijackers spewed racist messages including imagery of swastikas and the use of the N-word. At the next DEI meeting, committee members addressed the anti-Black messages but did not even mention the antisemitism. Rather than advocate for diversity and inclusion for all, Stanford’s DEI actively works to perpetuate a false dichotomy wherein one must choose between opposing anti-Black or anti-Jewish racism. This has real-life consequences considering the rise of violent antisemitic attacks across the country.
Those without a true knowledge of history are bound to repeat past mistakes. Clearly many do not have an understanding of the long and painful history of antisemitism at universities. These conscious efforts to publicly target Jews amid a rising tide of antisemitism are more than unacceptable. The fact that they are coming from individuals who claim to be fighting against oppression makes it even worse. We must ensure that future generations understand the history of antisemitism and are prepared to stand against present injustices, even if those injustices don’t fit the preferred narrative.