Anti-Semitism on Campus?

We’re just beginning the college exploration process with our high-schooler. There are a staggering number of things to think about to help him figure out what might be a good fit for him, on a campus that will allow him to pursue his interests and develop into a full-fledged independent young adult. As we think about undergraduate size and history and geography and academic programs (all of which seem like quite worthy considerations), people keep mentioning something else that makes me feel a little more uneasy.

“Antisemitism on campus” somehow keeps coming up as a criterion for consideration. As in: some people have flagged campuses where (for the most part) anti-Israel sentiment runs high, and encourage students with engaged Jewish identities to steer clear of these toxic and misguided learning environments.

I want my kid to feel comfortable on campus, so it’s not like I shouldn’t pay attention to this sort of thing. But the most recent campus to get mentioned to me as “avoid” is a large public university with a huge and vibrant Hillel, in a city with an enormous Jewish population and extraordinary resources for Jewish identity and learning. Really?

I have two gut reactions. One is: how singular is our criteria for establishing a good place for Jews both in a secular capacity to learn and study in a university, and in a religious capacity to grow and develop in Jewish identity and learning. Are we going to collapse all of that complexity into sentiments around Israel? And specifically, if we insist that a campus sentiment that disapproves of the Israeli government makes it unsafe for Jewish identity, what exactly are we telling young Jews who also disapprove of the Israeli government? That they themselves are also a threat to Jewish identity? This seems an odd move at a time when Israeli scholars and academics themselves are asking for Jewish Americans to protest the current actions of their government. I think that if we are going to rank campuses on their Jewish-goodness, we should consider an awful lot more than whether or not small anti-Israel activist groups exist there. 

Secondly, I wonder what the end-game is here. Is the idea of keeping Jews off of anti-Semitic campuses that we should cede those spaces to anti-Israel sentiment? Are we really telling our young adults that when they see something that offends their moral sensibilities, their best bet is to let the bullies have their arena and we should find some safe spaces? I’m not suggesting that every Jew needs to go in to a harsh campus to protest and makes waves and commit to changing campus culture (goodness knows, I would have hated that), but isn’t this sort of just an extension of cancel culture and trigger warnings, writ-large? As in: you might, on campus, hear or see something that you don’t like, so in order to avoid that, stick with a campus where you will be comfortably ensconced with other people who share your opinions (and background, and religion).

I brought this up with Michael this morning, and his point was that, if we were talking about the sort of anti-Semitism that leads to pogroms, then of course, those would be worthy places to avoid. If there were colleges that refused to let Jews engage in certain academic programs, or who restricted the number of good grades Jews could earn, or who charged more tuition for Jewish students— by all means, let’s keep our young students away.

But a campus with outstanding learning opportunities, that also happens to have a core of students devoted to Palestinian freedom? Let’s please not code that as a place to avoid. Let’s not decide that Jews shouldn’t step onto campus lest they be inspired to wave an Israeli flag opposite a Palestinian one. Or better yet— to establish a campus Israeli-Palestinian dialogue like the one at the private university I attended. 

There is a lot to be said about the way that anti-Israel sentiment drives anti-Semitism, and the (not quite enough) space that there is to protest the actions of an independent nation without casting shade on an entire religious group without formal ties to that government. In an ideal world, all institutions of higher learning would be safe places for students of all religions to thrive. It seems doubtful that blacklisting some campuses for highly-publicized anti-Semitic incidents is going to help bring about that dream. 

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