Jason Reed
Writer and broadcaster on politics and policy

The risk of trans-Atlantic campus antisemitism

Photo by Zhanhui Li on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/brown-concrete-building-1iuxWsIZ6ko
Photo by Zhanhui Li on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/brown-concrete-building-1iuxWsIZ6ko

University campuses are hotbeds of fierce political debate and passionate protest; rightly so. Increasingly, though, that passion is morphing into racist hatred. Numbers of recorded incidents of campus antisemitism are still much lower in Europe than in the US, but the rest of the world tends to import the good and bad of American culture.

Millions of us non-Americans watch Friends, for example. Unfortunately, there is a real danger a trend in campus antisemitism will follow the same path of culture osmosis and cross the Atlantic, allowing racism a stronger foothold in European universities. We are already seeing early signs of a European repeat of what has happened in the US in the past few months.

At the College of Europe’s Bruges campus, a Jewish student returned home last weekend to find their door had been daubed in swastikas, among other antisemitic graffiti. It was the latest in a flood of antisemitic incidents on university campuses in Europe. In Belgium alone, there were at least 66 separate recorded incidents of antisemitic hatred between 7 October 2023 and 15 January 2024.

The numbers are going in the wrong direction. With record numbers of young people getting their news from the US, Europe ends up downstream of whatever is happening in America. If it’s making the news in the US today, watch out for it in Europe next month. That seems to be what’s happening with campus antisemitism.

After 7 October, there was an avalanche of antisemitism stateside. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were a whopping 3,283 incidents in the following three months. While European Jewish students have no doubt experienced more than their fair share of antisemitism already, the worst may be yet to come as a fresh wave of hatred crosses the Atlantic.

If the American precedent is anything to go by, the next few months on European campuses will not be a pretty sight. A US congressional committee investigating campus antisemitism recently issued a flurry of subpoenas to Harvard University after its failure to produce documents requested by the committee resulted in its “obstructing” the ongoing investigation, in the words of congresswoman Virginia Foxx.

Foxx did not pull her punches in dealing with Harvard’s top brass. She also wrote a letter to Harvard officials claiming the “evidence suggests that the school is obstructing this investigation and is willing to tolerate the proliferation of antisemitism on its campus.” Then, in a statement, she said: “It is my hope that these subpoenas serve as a wakeup call to Harvard that Congress will not tolerate antisemitic hate in its classrooms or on campus.”

How have things fallen so far, so fast? Harvard University remains one of the world’s top educational institutions by any reasonable measure. That campus antisemitism has become so endemic that the university’s senior leadership apparently feel the need to cover it up by omitting to provide a congressional committee with relevant documents suggests a cultural failing which cuts much deeper than more leadership of an academic institution.

There is a firm and clear line to be drawn between debate and hate. If university managers are brushing evidence of campus antisemitism under the carpet, whether the root cause is conspiracy or incompetence, then they are wilfully or carelessly blurring that line. Universities are where future generations of politicians, academics and cultural figureheads form their worldview. If we allow that pool to become polluted by antisemitism, the consequences will be near-impossible to unpick for decades to come.

The danger now is that campus antisemitism in Europe rises, following the American trend, at just the same time as antisemitism begins to drop down the news agenda thanks to shiny new news stories like elections and other political shenanigans taking up all the oxygen in the public square. The result will be a deadly mix of rife antisemitism in concentrated locations and indifference or obliviousness from the surrounding population.

Right-thinking people everywhere owe it to Jewish students to keep our finger on the pulse of campus antisemitism. We must refuse to allow it to fall off the general consciousness. If we fail, it is hard to say how low Europe might fall on the measure of antisemitism before any recovery can begin.

About the Author
Jason Reed is a writer and broadcaster on politics and policy for a wide range of media outlets around the world.
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