For years, like a frog in a slowly heating pot of water on a stove, Americans have tolerated the creeping incremental rise of hatred toward Jews on college and university campuses. Many Americans explained it away as hatred coming from the “other” side of the political aisle. Even in the Jewish community, we sidelined it because Jewish life within Hillels and Jewish student groups remained vibrant and flourishing.
However, ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization where I serve as the Vice President of the Israel Action and Addressing Antisemitism Program, found that more than one-third of Jewish college students feel forced to hide their Jewish identity. The same survey found that more than half say they feel less safe on their campus since the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack.
As students return to campuses after the break, it’s crystal clear that we must adapt how we combat the scourge of anti-Jewish hatred that burst forth at institutions of higher education after the horrific Hamas terrorist attack on Israeli civilians last month.
After October 7, anti-Zionists on campus started wearing their antisemitism on their sleeves, when North American university professors and students glorified terror and openly celebrated the slaughter of Jews. Since the attack, more than 500 antisemitic incidents on campuses across the country were reported — representing a 700% increase compared with the same period last year.
While the U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt reminds us that there is a clear distinction between legitimate political debate about Israeli policies and demonizing the only Jewish state with eliminationist and hateful rhetoric and actions, student experiences clearly and unambiguously demonstrate that anti-Zionism created campus environments that tolerate antisemitism.
External organizations with extremist ties support and coach radical anti-Israel campus groups on how to copy strategies used throughout history to incrementally dehumanize Jews and slowly normalize the idea of violence against them. The tactics, used most infamously by the Nazis in the early 1930s, rely first on spreading propaganda portraying Jews as power-hungry, greedy, and dirty before ratcheting up to physical attacks on Jews in their homes, workplaces, and synagogues.
On campus in the present day, those radical campus groups began with calls to boycott Israel and increasingly hostile rhetoric toward anyone who dared to show their connection to the Jewish state, which slowly gave way to aggressive disturbances of Israeli speakers and educational programs, and then physical assaults.
Protesters at New York University carried signs reading, “keep the world clean” accompanied by drawings of trash cans filled with Jewish stars.
Masked students marched through George Mason University yelling, “Glory to the resistance fighters!” in celebration of Hamas terrorists who tortured and killed entire Israeli families.
A Jewish student at the University of Georgia was shoved to the ground by a student screaming, “You Israeli, I’m going to murder you and your whole family!”
A Jewish student who dared to stand alone at a table set with empty chairs to remember Israeli hostages at the University of Massachusetts was punched by a classmate.
These incidents all happened at institutions of higher learning, schools that these students pay to attend, schools that have a moral and legal obligation to protect them. But it is not surprising that so many students at elite American universities lack a moral compass or easily cast it aside when it comes to Jews, as too many of their professors teach that terrorism is freedom fighting and Jews are oppressors like at Cornell, Stanford, UC Davis, and Wake Forest University.
Campus communities charge the quad with enthusiasm at other cultural watershed moments, writing passionate statements of solidarity with targeted minorities and social justice movements. Yet, when Jewish students are targeted, the campus solidarity machinery goes suddenly – but not surprisingly – quiet.
When university leaders do not respond to anti-Zionist antisemitism with moral clarity and a decisive abhorrence of identity-based hatred, they allow hate and violence to fester. It was only days after Cornell’s leadership failed to forcefully discipline the professor exhilarated by Hamas’ atrocities that a student on campus issued threats to rape, stab, and murder his Jewish classmates.
These first steps in the strategy of dehumanization are familiar because they have been employed by other hateful actors–some of the worst in history. But this time, we recognize the strategy and can, and must, stop it in its tracks.
Jewish students on campus are scared, but they also have the courage and the resilience to stand together in the thousands to defend their right to live and learn on campus without fear. They are gathering together at the University of Michigan, Harvard University, and Kent State University and at dozens of other campuses, even in the face of overwhelming antisemitism.
To support their students, Jewish organizations are strong and ready to help. Jewish students report feeling safest at Hillels and other Jewish spaces. Hillel has been nurturing and protecting Jewish life on campus for more than a century, and we have robust infrastructure and passionate professionals on 850 campuses to support Jewish students and hold university leaders responsible for their legal and ethical responsibility to protect their Jewish students.
Some university leaders are beginning to take action to protect Jewish students and have suspended or derecognized antisemitic anti-Israel student groups at The George Washington University, Columbia University, and Brandeis University, and Florida officials are navigating legal avenues to prevent antisemitic groups from operating on campus. Jewish students need more universities to step up.
We do not accept an America where Jewish students are not safe, so we know there is more work to be done.