A pushback against anti-Semitism is emerging on several American university campuses against some of the worst responses to Hamas’s 7 October atrocities.
The counter-measures are a response to legion reports of anti-Semitic incidents. Some of the worst have included demonstrations celebrating the mass slaughter of Jews.
There have also been allegations of Jewish students being scapegoated by university staff. For example, at Stanford University a non-faculty director stands accused of asking Jewish students to raise their hands to identify themselves. According to a report in The Hill, an American newspaper, he then moved them away from their belongings saying he “was demonstrating what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians”. He then asked Jewish students how many were killed in the Holocaust. When the answer came back six million, the teacher said that Israel was a colonialist state and that more had been killed by colonialism.
Asking students to identify themselves with a view to targeting them in this way is a breach of Stanford’s policy. The university is investigating the matter.
The pushback is developing on several fronts. The Financial Times has reported that donors are withholding funds and encouraging fellow alumni to do likewise. It will probably not be possible to assess the effect of this for a while. For example, much will depend on how many cancel donations or legacies in wills without announcing to the press that they are doing so. Some might be persuaded to recommence donations if they believe the university they attended is taking sufficiently strong action. Another relevant factor will be whether non-Jewish alumni follow their Jewish counterparts in cancelling donations.
The second aspect of the backlash seems to be action taken against Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) societies and other such groups by university authorities. The Times of Israel (ToI) reports that George Washington University suspended SJP for projecting anti-Semitic slogans on the wall of a library named after two prominent Jewish figures. Columbia University has also suspended SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace for what it described as “threatening rhetoric and behaviour”. Brandeis University has permanently banned SJP while Ron de Santis, Florida’s Republican governor, has ordered all public universities in Florida to “deactivate” their SJP chapters. His instruction has not yet been acted on.
Such moves have unsurprisingly led to anti-Israel activists accusing university authorities of suppressing their free speech. However, while banning an organisation might be excessive, such activists have slim grounds for complaint if they face consequences for discriminatory or threatening behaviour. The atmosphere in these universities has been described elsewhere on this site. As Toby Young, director of Britain’s Free Speech Union makes clear, the defence of free speech does not apply where people use their free speech to bully, intimidate and harass others.
A third aspect of the backlash is action being taken by Jewish students themselves. The most dramatic example of this is the commencement of legal action against New York University (NYU) by three Jewish students. Their complaint alleges that by being negligent on clamping down on anti-Semitic activity, NYU authorities have allowed hostility and intimidation towards Jewish students to proliferate. They also claim that NYU has been much more proactive tackling other forms of prejudice indicating a lack of real concern regarding anti-Semitism.
The final aspect of the backlash may yet turn out to be the most significant. David Bernstein, the chief executive of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, notes that some of Israel’s fiercest Jewish critics have come to see the connection between woke ideas and anti-Semitism. These include Paul Hackner, a South African activist, and Joshua Leifer, an American journalist.
Perhaps even more noteworthy is that some non-Jewish commentators on the political left such as Michael Shermer, the editor-in-chief of the Skeptic magazine , an American publication, have also spotted the connection. They have expressed disgust at those on the left who have blamed Israel for Hamas’s atrocities.
These four developments seem to suggest the problem of anti-Semitism on American campuses might be moving towards a new phase. One could be entirely cynical by just focusing on universities’ fears of losing the support of wealthy donors. It would be naïve to think that this is not at least in part what lies behind the expulsion/suspension of groups such as SJP. However, there are other factors at play. These include direct action against aggressive and intimidatory groups as well as legal action initiated by students. There is also a growing recognition on the political left of the link between woke ideas and anti-Semitism. The combination of these elements will hopefully begin to shift the dial in a positive direction.
Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.