American Campuses: Cause For Alarm?


A student at the University of Ohio recalls the heated moments when she and three of her classmates were arrested last September while protesting the fiercely anti-Israel rhetoric of a fellow student, the president of the Student Senate.

A young woman at the University of New Mexico worries about grade reprisals from professors who routinely denounce the Jewish state and don’t like her pro-Israel views.

Other students recall the appearance of swastikas on a Jewish fraternity house (at Emory University last fall), fake eviction notices slipped under the dorm-room doors of Jewish peers (at New York University last spring), and the refusal of some Palestinian students to engage in any sort of dialogue with pro-Israel classmates.

Those and other scenes make up the meat of a new documentary, “Crossing the Line 2: The New Face of Anti-Semitism on Campus,” screened at a special showing last week at the 92nd Street Y. Presented by Jerusalem U, a pro-Israel group that seeks to promote Jewish education and identity through film, the documentary was followed by a panel discussion that included Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, and three of the students who appear in the work.

The film is aimed at “sounding the alarm within the Jewish community,” said Raphael Shore, founder and CEO of Jerusalem U. But while that alarm is shared by many in the Jewish community, the view of what constitutes anti-Semitism and of how to approach it differs greatly among pro-Israel activists.

Shore, for instance, told The Jewish Week that he subscribes to Natan Sharansky’s “3D” definition of anti-Semitism, which covers the demonization of Israel, the delegitimization of the Jewish state, or the use of a double standard in criticizing the country. By that standard, he said, he’d call the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, the leadership of which favors the elimination of Israel, an anti-Semitic group.

But Sarah Turbow, director of the left-leaning J Street U, said that painting all BDS activists with a broad brush is wrong not only rhetorically, but also strategically. “It means we can’t confront BDS in an effective way,” appealing to those segments of the movement that might be swayed, said Turbow, whose group opposes BDS.

Last week’s event coincided with the release of two reports on the subject — a listing of the 10 American universities believed by its author, the Los Angeles-based David Horowitz Freedom Center, to have the highest levels of anti-Semitism, and a study by a pair of highly respected research institutions.

The Freedom Center report, “Jew Hatred on Campus,” drew immediate fire from Jewish students and professionals from campuses appearing on the list, including Columbia University. One of those critics, Brian Cohen, executive director of the Columbia-Barnard Hillel, said that while Jewish students have encountered some anti-Israel professors and events, the atmosphere is hardly hostile to Jewish students, even the hundreds of visibly Orthodox ones.

The report, part of a new campaign launched by the Freedom Center to fight anti-Semitism, also includes on its list, Cornell University, George Mason University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Vassar College. But for many, developments last week involving Horowitz called into question how thoughtful or serious he is.

The conservative activist admitted in an interview with the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that he and his organization were responsible for a spate of posters on campuses across the nation that include the words #JewHaters and link Students for Justice in Palestine, a national group with chapters on dozens of campuses, with the terrorist group Hamas.

Those slamming Horowitz’s actions included Judea Pearl, president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation and a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, who said he wished Horowitz had consulted Jewish faculty members at the school, the Jewish Journal reported. Horowitz’s actions undermine one of the strongest arguments of pro-Israel activists on campus, Pearl said — “that Israel and Zionism, as identity-forming symbols to thousands of students on campus, are entitled to the same respect and protection from abuse as Muslim students claim for their symbols of identity.

Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University, said the Jewish community on campus had done a good job of defending itself and asked why “an outside agitator” would “come in uninvited and decide that his priorities should be the priorities of that community.”

In addition to Horowitz’s report, last week saw the release of the National Demographic Survey of Jewish College Students, a study by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. The two institutions surveyed self-identified Jewish students on 55 campuses, which found that more than half of the 1,157 respondents, 54 percent, believed they had experienced some form of anti-Semitism during the spring of 2014.

Conducted before Israel’s war against Hamas terrorists in Gaza, which caused an international increase in anti-Semitic incidents, the online survey showed that the rate of campus anti-Semitism varied little from region to region.

Barry Kosmin, one of the survey’s lead researchers, said the patterns reported by the survey surprised those who conducted it. “Rather than being restricted to a few campuses or restricted to politically active or religious students, this problem is widespread,” he told The Jewish Week. “Jewish students are subjected to both traditional prejudice and the new political anti-Semitism.”

That would certainly include students who appear in Jerusalem U’s documentary, a follow-up to an earlier film on the same subject. All three spoke of the harassment and intimidation they felt on campus while defending Israel’s right to exist.

The film’s director, Jerusalem U staff member Shoshana Palatnik, said she chose students who represent a diverse cross-section of students on campuses across the country. But J Street U’s Turbow suggested that the film was missing students who agreed with her organization’s view — namely, that even among those students who back BDS or criticize Israel fiercely, not all are anti-Semitic.

How you define anti-Semitism ties in, of course, to how you believe the problem can be addressed.

Discussing the subject, Shore said he believes that “the Jewish community, as a whole, tends to minimize” or deny the problem when faced with it. He believes “it’s healthy that there are voices on all sides of the spectrum when it comes to this matter,” with some people “saying things in moderate tones,” while others, like Horowitz, acting “flamboyantly and putting it in people’s faces.”

Turbow, on the other hand, believes the community has to be extremely careful not to conflate anti-Israel activity with anti-Semitism, even in cases when the views being expressed sound outrageous.

Some elements of the BDS movement are certainly anti-Semitic, while others “say things that they don’t even realize are offensive,” Turbow continued. “I like to hope that there’s hope with these people.”

Staff Writer Steve Lipman contributed to this article.