The UnCivil University: Anti-Semitism in North American Higher Education

A defining characteristic of the global resurgence of anti-Semitism, beginning roughly with the launching of the second intifada, has been its prominence on college campuses in the West. American, Canadian and European universities have become central forums for the creation and dissemination of both traditional and newer forms of anti-Semitism, as well as the related prejudice of anti-Israelism.

The Vulnerable Campus
Anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism have proliferated on college campuses for a variety of reasons. First, anti-Israel groups have deliberately targeted campuses as an arena for promotion of the anti-Israel agenda. Those who are committed to anti-Israelism hope to capture the hearts and minds of young people in America’s educational systems and thereby influence the incoming generation of leaders.

Second, universities are complex bureaucracies. Anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism flourish on college campuses partially because of the paralysis of bureaucracy in dealing with student complaints, monitoring conferences and events, and so on. Everyone is in charge, so no one is in charge.

Third, many university stakeholders abdicate responsibility. Trustees do not want to interfere for fear of violating academic freedom. Faculty do not want to appear overzealous criticizing other faculty. Most university presidents, provosts, and deans look for stasis and avoid issues that rock the boat.

Fourth, activists with the most energy and loudest voices often capture organizational mechanisms. People in the middle tend to be disenfranchised by the activists who are most committed to a particular agenda. Research performed by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research revealed that, in fact, most professors do not hold negative views regarding Israel[2]. Anti-Semites and anti-Israelists triumph on campus not because of their large numbers, but because of the willingness of the few to pursue their agenda. Those who may disagree with them tend to be silent, busy, or indifferent.

Fifth, the ideology of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism is framed to fit within the larger campus themes that include anti-war, anti-West, and anti-American perspectives; white people are bad, all other people are good; power is bad, weakness is honorable. This framework appeals to the dominant leftist ideology on campus, particularly among faculty.

The Ideology of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism on Campus
The ideology of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on campus has four primary components. First, Jewish nationalism is characterized as racism. Because “Zionism=racism,” Jews do not deserve to have a nation-state in Israel. Second, the Holocaust is not a Jewish historical experience, but rather a Palestinian one. Third, violence against Israelis is justified, even terrorism, and Americans cannot judge such actions by Western moral standards. Fourth, Jews and Israel control America, the American government, and U.S. foreign policy.

Zionism=Racism: The Politics of Race on Campus
“Zionism is racism.” “Israel is a European colony.” “Israel is apartheid.” “Israel is fascist.” All of these canards are commonly promoted on campus today. Israel is whatever racial politics tend to despise. Israel is cast on campus as a country of European white men, or Jewish supremacists who suppress Palestinians because they are poor, brown, Muslim, indigenous, or all of these. Israel is whatever it needs to be to justify condemnation of its existence, a common trait of classical anti-Semitism.

Those who ascribe to a “progressive” ideology have readily adopted this framework. Leftist ideology dominates on campus[3] and by setting up Israel in opposition to progressive ideals, wellsprings of campus support can be tapped into and models of activism can be superimposed upon the Jewish state.

Demonizing Israel by playing on the politics of race can, ironically, include open bigotry against Jews. In 2001, at a Muslim Student Association conference at the University of California, Irvine, cleric Muhammad-al-Asi stated, “Israel is as racist as apartheid could ever be . . . you can take a Jew out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the Jew.” [4]

The double standards that plague Jews and Israelis in relation to Palestinians (and to most other peoples for that matter) are exemplified in the campus denial of Jewish nationalism. While one may debate the idea of a Kurdish state between Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, the discussion will tend to focus upon political considerations and feasibility. Those who reject the idea will not, however, do so because of a fundamental denial of Kurdish nationalism. The same could be said for most any people.

Israelis as Brutal Genocidal Murderers
If Jewish nationalism is rooted in racism, colonialism, fascism and exploitation, it follows, then, that Israel, its citizens and its supporters are brutal aggressors, actively committing crimes against humanity. This includes genocide, ethnic cleansing, and references to a new “holocaust,” among others. Christopher Neal wrote in the University of California, Los Angeles, Daily Bruin, “Israel is systematically killing and imprisoning a whole people.”[5] The reference to “systematic killing” is intentionally reminiscent of the Nazi extermination plan for Europe’s Jews. The abuse of Holocaust imagery is among the most disturbing aspects of the anti-Israel ideology on campus.

Evolving Anti-Semitism: Holocaust Denial
Part of the reversal of Israel’s fortune on campus has entailed the hijacking of some aspects of Jewish identity. In the same way Israeli history has been rewritten to delegitimize Israel, so has Jewish history been reworked so that the Holocaust becomes a Palestinian experience. Jews are not Jews, Palestinians are the real Jews. The Holocaust is, in fact, a Palestinian legacy.

This most bizarre and clever distortion attempts to turn sympathy for Jewish victims of genocide to hostility toward the Jewish state. Professor of Latino Studies at Columbia University Nicholas De Genova proclaimed at a rally, “the heritage of the Holocaust belongs to the Palestinian people. The State of Israel has no claim to the heritage of the Holocaust.”[6] Such a declaration would seem ridiculous, but is part of a comprehensive revision of Jewish history.

Palestinian villages and cities are likened to concentration camps, where Jews were forcibly transferred into slave labor, and murdered. Ghaith Mahmood wrote in the Daily Bruin, “[T]he mass graves being built in the West Bank . . . eerily parallel a scene out of the genocide in Bosnia. Witnessing the Israeli army rounding up all the men in Palestinian villages . . . and then branding them with identification numbers brings back horrific images of a concentration camp somewhere in Auschwitz.”[7] Such statements are coupled with the abuse of Holocaust imagery, equating the Star of David with the swastika, and framing Israeli soldiers as the Gestapo. If Palestinians are the new Jews, then Jews become the new Nazis.

Terrorism Against Israel is Legitimate
Even with all the efforts to demonize Israel and its supporters, one hurdle stands in the way of framing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in stark terms of good and evil: Palestinian terrorism. In order to garner campus support for Palestinians, it is necessary to provide a rationale for violence against civilians. This excuse comes in the form of a distorted cultural relativism, attempting to “contextualize” murder.

Students and professors alike go to great lengths to justify crimes committed by Palestinians, attempting to define a different moral baseline. In the wake of a bombing that killed scores at a Passover celebration, a Jewish holy day, University of Georgia history professor Eve Troutt Powell explained that suicide bombings are the “result of hopelessness . . . (and) anger at the current situation. There are many people who feel their lives don’t count as much to the world.”[8] Directly following what was one of the worst Palestinian terrorist attacks, Powell reminds her campus that Palestinians are unique and deserve special consideration due to their hardships.

Some even glorify suicide bombers. Kent State University, associate professor of history Julio Cesar Pino wrote a poem to a suicide bomber in the Kent Stater: “You are not a terrorist, Ayat. The real terrorists are those who some 100 years ago hijacked a beautiful religion.”[9] Expressing his support of Palestinian violence, University of California Irvine Muslim Student Union leader explained, “they’re handling business in their own way. May Allah give them strength.” [10]

Jews Control America
The idea that Israel or Jews are controlling governments is nothing new. Accusations of dual loyalty are part of anti-Semitic lore. One hopefully expects something different within academe. But some do not shy away from making accusations directly about Jews. The University of Illinois student paper, the Daily Illini, printed an opinion piece by Washington resident Ariel Sinovsky titled, “Jews Manipulate America.” Sinovsky writes:

The Jews, master salesmen that they are, have been able to persuade Americans that it is in American interests to support Israeli oppression of Palestinians . . . in reality it was done to satisfy the desires of Jewish oligarchs . . . The President should act immediately to deal with this threat . . . Jewish ability to promote their desires, disguised, as being in the interest of the American people, one day will evaporate. Then the Jews might face another Holocaust.[11]

This crude attack, the core of which is the charge of “dual loyalty,” is made in various forms. The Walt-Mearsheimer book The Israel Lobby is more of the same, only cloaked in academic language[12].

Moving From Ideology to Action
Anti-Semitism is often viewed in terms of belief and behavior – where rhetoric turns into action. Intimidation against Jewish or pro-Israel students, faculty and speakers, boycotts of Israeli academics and divestment are expressions of the ideology detailed above. It is evidence of the concrete consequences of allowing hateful ideologies free reign on campus.

Intimidation and Marginalization of Students
In the age of celebrating multiculturalism as a pillar of academic life, could there be anything more disappointing than Jewish students being made to feel uncomfortable, even ashamed about their religion, ethnicity, and culture? A sophomore at Northwestern University, Hillary Levun stated, “[a]s a Jewish girl, it made me feel unsafe and insecure about my place at Northwestern. I think it’s absolutely disgraceful that I have to worry about hatred for my culture being expressed in places of residence.” [13]

High levels of hostility can lead to violence as it did at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001. In December of that year, a member of Chabad, a Jewish religious group, was assaulted on campus on the way to the Chabad house[14]. Then during spring break of 2002, the Hillel window was smashed and graffiti stating, “F**k the Jews,” was painted on the building[15]. Later, during a Simchat Torah celebration, a Jewish participant was assaulted close to campus[16]. These incidents all happened on one campus, over the course of a short period of time, highlighting how quickly campuses transform from verbal to physical hostility.

Intimidation and Marginalization of Faculty
In order for the campus to be a haven for anti-Israel intellectuals, those who would either disagree with the political position or protest the ideological uniformity must be marginalized. This process occurs on a number of levels. The first is the most obvious: swell the ranks with like-minded professors and overwhelm the debate. But what of those that speak out anyway? In an environment where an active segment of the student and faculty ranks have unified against any and all support of Israel, an individual faculty member is vulnerable to attack if he or she chooses to speak out against the politically correct culture.

After attempting to shed light on disturbing events including an “out of control mob, literally chanting for our deaths”[17] at San Francisco State University, Professor Laurie Zoloth moved to Northwestern University[18]. As dissenting professors leave, universities lose some of the little intellectual diversity that they still have, and claim to cherish.

Intimidation of Pro-Israel Speakers
Protests and even small-scale riots have taken place in response to the arrival of pro-Israel speakers on campus. Both the speakers and the attendees have been demeaned, insulted, and even physically threatened. Speakers have had to cancel their appearances at a number of universities as a result of security concerns generated from the level of hostility from the protesters.

Natan Sharansky, who spent years fighting for human rights in the Soviet Union “was greeted with a bomb threat that nearly forced the cancellation of his lecture[19].” Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was vigorously protested and vilified as a war criminal at the University of California, Berkeley, despite the fact that he had centered his administration on peace making. Not only must those who are invited to speak contend with hatred, but also how many invitations have simply not been extended in order to avoid conflict? In Canada, Concordia University, “the site of violent clashes …that scuttled a speech by former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, has turned down a request by a Jewish student group to have Mr. Barak deliver a lecture,” thus, “igniting a storm over whether the institution is curbing free speech in the name of keeping peace on its politically fractious campus[20].”

The hypocrisy on campus regarding Israeli speakers is most obvious when comparing the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel speakers that have been invited to campus and how clearly they cross the boundaries of civil discourse. Poet Tom Paulin, invited on various occasions to speak at Harvard University, Columbia University, and others, has expressed a desire to have all West Bank settlers shot[21].

Boycotting of Israeli Scholars
The purge of those who would represent Israel in academia extends beyond individual campuses. Various boycotts of Israeli academics have popped up over the last decade. Israeli scholars from a wide number of disciplines have had their work rejected by dint of its Israeli origin, graduate students have been rejected for having served in the Israeli army (as all Israeli males over the age of eighteen do), and some Israeli scholars have even been removed from editorial boards for simply being Israeli[22]. As a movement, the boycott has failed up to now, bringing a storm of protest from many academics (bravely) for the attack on academic freedom the boycott represents. But like the divestment campaign, it is not dead and its continued existence is a minor victory for anti-Israelists.

Divestment and the apartheid accusation have become central aspects of the anti-Israel movement on campus. It is centered in the claim that Israel is currently and always has been an apartheid power over the Palestinian population. From this, one can then superimpose the model of protest used to topple apartheid South Africa upon the Israeli-Arab conflict. In doing so, “those who would hold the state of Israel to a standard different from any other sovereign state, create an environment that makes constructive dialogue almost impossible[23].”

The idea of divestment was first vocalized by law professor Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana[24] , who was also a legal advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization during its days as a recognized terrorist group. The divestment campaign, though unsuccessful financially, has played a significant role in normalizing anti-Israelism on campus. In the long run, this may prove just as damaging as any actual pulling of funds would have been. Moreover, it has spread far beyond the campus. The divestment campaign, legitimized on campus, even as it was defeated, has been picked up by the Presbyterian Church, considered by the Anglican Church, and a variety of organizations large and small. Higher education has served its purpose as an incubator of ideas for the general society. This ideal did not, however, include disseminating morally bankrupt ideas that even the university rejects.

Anti-Israelism and Anti-Semitism on campus are indicative of a deeper malaise. To be sure, it must be addressed for the sake of Jews and other targets of anti-Israelists. But it is the presence of such anti-intellectual and uncivil ideologies in our institutions dedicated to protecting against such corruption that should motivate change. University stakeholders should reference the stated missions of universities and demand that anti-Jewish sentiment be addressed forcefully under the same rubric that condemns sexism and racism. If universities cannot self-regulate, (unfortunately many have proven they cannot) then the enablers of higher education, including both private donors and public institutions, must prompt them by making clear the relationship between the university and the general public is reciprocal. Universities cannot simply go on demanding enormous sums of money while walling itself off and creating an alternate reality where “out groups” can be attacked with impunity. Reform in higher education is needed for many reasons, but none more compelling than the existence and acceptance of one of the world’s oldest bigotries on campus today.

[1] (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005)

[2] Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg, Profiles of the American University: Volume I: Political Beliefs & Behavior of College Faculty (San Francisco: Institute for Jewish & Community Research, 2006). Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg, Profiles of the American University: Volume II: Religious Beliefs & Behavior of College Faculty (San Francisco: Institute for Jewish & Community Research, 2007).

[3] Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg, Profiles of the American University: Volume I: Political Beliefs & Behavior of College Faculty (San Francisco: Institute for Jewish & Community Research, 2006).

[4] “The Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine,” Front Page Magazine, April 3, 2008, and “Transcript: Muhammad Al-Asi – Ghetto Jews,” The Investigative Project on Terrorism, February 21, 2001,

[5] Christopher Neal, “American Apathy toward Palestinian Plight Inhumane,” Daily Bruin, May 13, 2002,

[6] Xan Nowakowski, “Students Organize Sit-In to Support Palestinians,” Columbia Spectator, April 18, 2002,

[7] Ghaith Mahmood, “Israel’s Occupation, Siege Must End,” Daily Bruin, April 4, 2002, ?id=19042.

[8] Lona Panter, “Suicide Bomber Disrupts Passover Feast,” Red and Black, March 29, 2002,

[9] Julio Cesar Pino, “Singing Out Prayer for a Youth Martyr,” Daily Kent Stater, April 15, 2002,

[10] Aaron Hanscom, “UC-Intifada,” Front Page Magazine, February 20, 2007,

[11] Ariel Sinovsky, letter to the editor, Daily Illini, January 22, 2002,

[12] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007).

[13] “Hatred at NU,” Northwestern Chronicle, August 9, 2005,

[[14] Joe Eskenazi, “Berkeley Chabadnik Attacked in Alleged Hate Incident,” J. Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, December 21, 2001,

[15] Wendy Lee, “Incidents of Violence, Prejudice Followed Last Year’s Attacks,” Daily Californian, September 11, 2002,

[16] Randy Barnes, “Students Must Not Tolerate Anti-Semitism,” Daily Californian, October 11, 2002, =9390.

[17] Laurie Zoloth, “Activists at a Jewish Peace Rally Are Confronted by a Terrifying, Threatening Mob,” Aish, May 9, 2002,

[18] “Faculty,” Northwestern University Center for Genetic Medicine,

[19] Marc Ballon, “Jewish Students and Activists Call UC Irvine a Hotbed of Anti-Semitic Harassment,” Jewish Journal, March 11, 2005,

[20] 51. Ingrid Peritz, “Concordia Bans Talk By Ex-Israeli PM,” Toronto Globe and Mail, October 5, 2004, TPNational/Canada

[21] BBC arts panelist Tom Paulin’s statement in his interview with the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram is quoted in Tom Gass, “Welcome Voice? Harvard Invites Academic Who Wants Jews ‘Shot Dead,’” National Review Online, November 12, 2002,

[22] Stephen Howe, “More Splits over the Academic Boycott of Israel,” Guardian, July 17, 2002,,11056,756713,00.html and Hillary Rose and Stephen Rose, “The Choice Is to Do Nothing or Try to Bring about Change,”, July 15, 2002, and Sara Leibovich-Dar, “Scholars Under Siege,” Haaretz, November 21, 2003,

[23] Letter from Jewish defense groups and the three main Jewish religious streams to Protestant leaders, April 22, 2005, quoted in Rachel Pomerance, “As Protestant Divestment Drive Heats Up, Jews Express Their Ire,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 29, 2005, page_view_story.asp?intarticleid=15356&intcategoryid;=4.

[24] Francis A. Boyle, “Israeli Divestment/Disinvestment Campaign,” e-mail correspondence to AALS Section on Minority Groups mailing list, May 16, 2002,