Joachim Behar

Tracing the Roots of Anti-Israel Sentiment in Higher Education

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activists gather for a protest at Columbia University, October 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activists gather for a protest at Columbia University, October 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)

Recent events in Israel and Gaza have led to an increase in anti-Israeli sentiment and antisemitic incidents on university campuses worldwide, particularly in the United States.

While the governments of the USA and in Europe, as well as the general public opinion, appear to support Israel’s right to self-defense, a contrasting trend is observed on university campuses. Why is there such a discrepancy?

One reason might be the absence of unequivocal condemnation of Hamas’s actions. Amidst what has been called the most significant massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, many university administrations and scientific societies have either remained silent or issued neutral statements that express sympathy for all lives lost and students distressed by the Middle East conflict. These tepid statements have occasionally been altered under pressure from individuals and donors, though not substantially.

This lack of decisive condemnation and the university authorities’ failure to support Israel has arguably allowed for the creation of a hostile environment on campuses. This is fueled by numerous demonstrations against Israel, incitements for the destruction of the state, harassment of Jewish students, and the removal of posters about Israelis kidnapped by Hamas, among other issues.

Such attitudes are not so new within university settings and were foreseeable. During my time at Oxford University from 2010 to 2015, it was clear to me that this trend was emerging. The responsibility for this lies squarely with the university governance, which I will discuss further.

Non-governmental organizations, like the boycott divestment sanctions (BDS) Palestinian-led movement, have capitalized on what they perceive as vulnerabilities in our universities – notably, the liberal ethos that allows the free expression and exchange of individual opinions on campus. Under the guise of liberalism and humanitarianism, the BDS movement and alike have organized campaigns purportedly to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians. A well known yearly event delivered on dozens of university campuses across the globe is the Israel Apartheid Week. However, these meetings often devolve into expressions of hatred against Israel and Jews. Instead of scrutinizing these meetings, universities have provided the space to host them, thereby allowing destructive ideologies to infiltrate and spread within their communities. What began as benign expressions of purported concern have, in some cases, escalated into more malignant forms of expression that have spread to various facets of university life.

An illustration of this was when Dennis Prager, a famous American talk show host, was invited to speak at the Oxford Union in 2015 on whether Hamas or Israel was a greater obstacle to peace. I remember him, starting by expressing his astonishment at the premise of the debate, which by itself seemed indicative of the prevailing atmosphere. This type of debate, which places Israel and Hamas on equal moral footing, would have been unthinkable for conflicts involving the USA and ISIS, highlighting the peculiarity of the situation within universities.

This cancer within Western universities has metastasized and invaded many aspects of academic life. To address this, surgical measures may be necessary. This could mean prohibiting organizations that spread hate from accessing university spaces and resources. Students who promote hatred on campuses should face disciplinary action, including potential suspension or expulsion.

Universities, as well as the broader realms of science and academia, cannot afford to remain neutral and should not serve as platforms for the expression of hatred against Israel and Jewish people, as we have recently witnessed. Should they continue to do so, they will bear responsibility for any future consequences.

About the Author
Joachim Behar, PhD made Aliyah from France. He is a scientist and academic working at the Technion-IIT, Haifa.
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