Antisemitism Is Rising at Colleges, and Jewish Students Are Facing Growing Hostility

Some students report being spat upon and harassed, while some campus groups have forced out those who support Israel

By Douglas Belkin, WSJ,

Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., shown several years ago, denounced antisemitism while championing free speech.PHOTO: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS

Adina Pinsker commutes to Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., to study supply-chain management. She is also active in Hillel International, the nation’s largest collegiate Jewish organization.

When she arrives on campus, she takes an indirect route to class and tucks inside her shirt the silver Star of David she wears around her neck. These are precautions, she said, to avoid harassment from students who dislike Israel, the people who support it, or both.

“We have basically been shunned,” said Ms. Pinsker, who said she has been subject to derogatory remarks about her beliefs.

Ms. Pinsker’s actions are emblematic of rising fear among some Jewish college students around the country, who have begun shrouding their religious identity and political beliefs to avoid growing ostracism and harassment, according to interviews with dozens of students.

College campuses have long hosted heated debates about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But now, students say anti-Jewish antagonism is on the rise: Antisemitic incidents have increased, and a growing number of campus groups bar students who support Israel from speaking or joining.

Hostility, including vandalism, threats and slurs toward Jewish students on college campuses increased more than threefold to 155 incidents in 2021 from 47 in 2014, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based Jewish civil rights organization which has tracked reports of such behavior since 2014. The group counted 2,717 antisemitic incidents in the U.S. overall last year, up 34% from 2020 and the highest number in its records dating to 1979.

Students at schools including the University of Vermont, Wellesley College and DePaul University have ejected Jewish students who support Israel from clubs and study groups, according to interviews with affected students.

Students at Tufts University, University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles tried to prevent Jewish classmates from serving in student government or attempted to remove them from positions in student government because of their support of Israel, according to students, administrators and campus news reports.

The uptick in incidents and tension on some campuses comes amid a string of recent high-profile controversies that have drawn renewed attention to antisemitism. This month Twitter suspended the account of rapper and entrepreneur Kanye West—who now goes by the name Ye—after he tweeted to his 32 million followers an image of a swastika merged with the Star of David, weeks after he tweeted: “I’m going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”

On campus, students say that stereotypical antisemitic slurs are directed at Jews, but that much of the hostility derives from growing criticism of Israel’s handling of its political and military conflict with Palestinians over land rights. Jewish students say harassment often compounds when criticism of Israel increases.

Most American Jews feel an attachment to Israel, though many are critical of the Israeli government, according to a 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center.

Some of the conflict on campus stems from competing definitions of antisemitism and anti-Zionism and whether they overlap.

Anti-Zionism is a political position distinct from antisemitism, which is a prejudice, said Dylan Saba, an attorney with New York-based Palestine Legal, which works to support the civil and constitutional rights of people in the U.S. who advocate for Palestinians. The two are conflated by supporters of Israel to discredit critics, he said.

Condemning Israel may make some Jewish students feel uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it is antisemitic, he said. “All we are asking for is equal rights,” he said.

The U.S. State Department includes in its definition of antisemitism the view “that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” as well as the act of “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

In 2010, Hillel International began restricting partnerships with groups that are anti-Zionist—which the organization defines as those opposed to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. The policy has been criticized by some outside the organization.

Hillel’s mission is “to inspire every student to have an enduring connection to Jewish life, learning, and Israel,” according to its website. While the organization invites debate, it refuses to have partnerships with groups that “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.”

At the beginning of this school year, graffiti on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison listed five Jewish organizations and said that they all “have blood on their hands.”

“When people are listing every single Jewish organization on campus for being Zionist, they really are just attacking them for being Jewish,” said Ruth Tsesis, a junior at the university.

Julia Jassey, a University of Chicago senior, started an organization called Jewish on Campus.PHOTO: ZACHARY DJANOGLY GARAI

In a four-month span in the spring of 2021, 16 U.S. college students said they were spat on for being Jewish, according to a survey of 1,027 Jewish fraternity and sorority members with chapters on 160 campuses, sponsored by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which advocates for the civil rights of Jewish people.

Half of the respondents said they had been verbally denigrated and hid their religious identity for fear of being targeted.

Jewish students on campuses around the country said they are responding to incidents by avoiding parts of campus and hiding or removing personal items such as jewelry and water bottles with Hebrew script. Some said they keep any hint of their support of Israel off social media.

More than 1,000 Jewish students from 550 colleges and universities mostly in the U.S. and Canada have shared 2,208 experiences with bias over the past 2½ years with an organization called Jewish on Campus. Many include allegations of being expelled from study groups and academic clubs over public support for Israel. In response to incidents, hundreds of students expressed their reluctance to publicly acknowledge their Judaism or support for Israel.

“They are choosing to be quiet,” said Julia Jassey, the University of Chicago senior who started Jewish on Campus.

Nerdeen Kiswani, who graduated from the City University of New York Law School this year and has been advocating for Palestinians since she was an undergraduate at several CUNY schools, said antisemitism is harmful not only to Jews but to the Palestinian cause because it detracts from grievances about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“There’s nothing that undermines the Palestinians’ struggle more than antisemitism,” she said.

Nerdeen Kiswani, a recent graduate of the City University of New York School of Law, has been advocating for Palestinians since she was an undergraduate.PHOTO: SARAH BLESENER

In August, Berkeley Law School Students for Justice in Palestine passed a bylaw prohibiting Zionists from speaking at its events. Eight additional student affinity organizations at the law school adopted the bylaw. Student leaders didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“The narrative on campus is that if you are a Zionist, if you in any way shape or form think Israel has the right to exist, you are the same as those who support ethnic cleansing and genocide and you are so morally compromised that people shouldn’t even engage with you,” said Charlotte Aaron, a Jewish second-year law student who spoke out against the restriction.

The dean of the Berkeley Law School, Erwin Chemerinsky, characterized as antisemitic the rule to prohibit Zionists from speaking at student clubs, but he supported their right to make the rule. Overturning it would amount to compelled speech and violate students’ First Amendment right to reject views they oppose, he said.

School officials contacted by The Wall Street Journal at Tufts University, University of Vermont, DePaul University, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Southern California, Rutgers University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wellesley College said they denounce antisemitism while also championing free speech.

In the spring of 2021 Cassie Blotner, a senior at the State University of New York at New Paltz, helped to start a support group for victims of sexual violence with five other students. Then the other founders forced her out, she said, telling her that her support for Israel was incompatible with the mission of the organization.

Other founders of the organization didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A string of threatening anonymous antisemitic posts on social media followed, Ms. Blotner said, and by the end of fall semester last year, Ms. Blotner stopped attending class. The school now provides her with a plainclothes police escort on campus to walk her to class.

“We unequivocally condemn any attacks on SUNY students who are Jewish, and we will not tolerate antisemitic harassment and intimidation on campus,” said Chrissie Wilson, a school spokeswoman.

Ms. Blotner said walking to class with a police officer is awkward, but she isn’t ready to cancel the protection.

Earlier this fall, she said she was walking home from a restaurant near campus with two friends when someone screamed out of a passing car, “Jew!”

“I have no idea who it was,” she said. “But they knew me.”

Write to Douglas Belkin at Doug.Belkin@wsj.com

December 17, 2022 | 25 Comments »

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25 Comments / 25 Comments

  1. Hi, Tanna.

    I saw the info in 2009 that there are empty camps in the US capable of holding about 5 million people.

    most likely.

  2. Reader:

    “Not only it didn’t work but it ruined both him and his movement.” I guess you think the same for the life work of both Jesus of Nazareth and Martin Luther King? Just because the powers that be, have you taken out does not un-plant the seeds that have been sown.

    “It’s either major lawsuits or make aliyah”. Agreeed—- first and best option. If your Jewish and you know it — go HOME.

    “I saw the info in 2009 that there are empty camps in the US capable of holding about 5 million people.” These are for the Christians – Jews will be dealt with differently.

  3. @Tanna

    Thanks for the reference but what he did didn’t work.

    Not only it didn’t work but it ruined both him and his movement.

    It’s either major lawsuits or make aliyah.

    I saw the info in 2009 that there are empty camps in the US capable of holding about 5 million people.

  4. @Tanna

    I didn’t miss your point.

    Suing the colleges for legitimizing the abuse of their Jewish students and for taking the side of the abusers IS pushing back but this is the only option you detest, for some reason.

    Yes, the Jewish students should take their money and leave these colleges but only if they make aliyah, otherwise it amounts to handing victory to the abusers.

  5. reader,

    I THINK YOU MISSED MY POINT.

    Push back or shut up. Every other disenfranchised group does. Leave the college, leave the country or fight back.

    Or go like sheep to the slaughter.

  6. @Tanna

    Would you write what you just wrote if the abused students were Blacks, Hispanics, anyone but the Jews?

    In my opinion, the Diaspora Jews should leave for Israel before it’s too late BUT while they are still here, they should have the right to demand to be treated by law the same as all the other citizens.

    Obviously, everyone thinks that they are not the same and they should just shut up and take it or leave.

  7. Here’s something I don’t understand.

    The Jews experiencing Antisemitism on college campus could leave and take their money with them.

    They could ignore it…. sticks and stones break bones…… words can hurt you.

    They could take a page from the BLM and black community and PUSH back. Burn something down or something……………..

  8. Here is something I don’t understand.

    Universities are supposed to create a safe environment for every one of their students.

    Obviously, they fail to do so for the Jewish students to the extent that some of them have to attend classes with a bodyguard.

    This abuse goes on under the guise of the rights of the abusers for their freedom of speech even if it hurts other people who, on top of everything, happen to be their fellow students.

    There are many Saudi students at the American universities, and the policies of Saudi Arabia may objectively be called questionable, to put it mildly, however, nobody exercises their freedom of speech to abuse the Saudi students for the policies of their native land and nobody calls this abuse “legitimate criticism of Saudi Arabia” nor would anyone dare to do this.

    Then where are the lawsuits by the Jewish students, Jewish organizations, human rights organizations, complaints to the Justice department, etc., etc.?

    The way the Jews act is as though THEY are the guilty party!

    This is DISGUSTING!

  9. @Ted Belman

    …Israel promote Jews from around the world to come to Israel for their university education and that Israel make certain that lectures are in English

    I don’t think Israel has the capacity to teach large numbers of foreign students, much less train those students for work in foreign countries where those same students couldn’t get proper education because of antisemitism on the countries’ campuses.

    Another problem – until recently (I don’t know if this situation has improved yet) Israeli Jews had to go abroad to get their medical training/education (and they usually stayed abroad afterwards) mainly because Israel’s medical schools accepted foreign students and there were no places there for the native Israelis who were Jewish.

    Israel is a tiny country with a lot of problems that have to be solved ASAP, and it is not a free training field for the Jewish youth who want to exploit its opportunities without learning the language and without any sacrifice or contribution to the Jewish State while residing and making careers in their admittedly antisemitic countries of the Diaspora.

  10. Ted: of course Jews should be encouraged and supported in studying in Israel, but it shouldn’t be the only option. It only perpetuates the divide between committed Zionists and everyone else. A more gradual, permissive approach will appeal to more people. 18 year olds shouldn’t have to choose this or that path. Also, for those who don’t move to Israel, don’t we want American and other non Israeli Jews to be friendly to Israel? If they’re not included in a pro Israel plan in their own current country, the other side will be all too happy to include them in the anti Israel camp. Young people are herd animals, mostly, and if you don’t welcome them as they are, they will go where they’re wanted. I have fond memories of the Chabadniks who set up a giant menorah on campus or maybe just outside, I don’t remember, but it was for every Jew, you didn’t have to believe this or that, it was a big tent. We can all learn from their approach to marketing.

  11. @Peloni1986

    Thanks, great article, I don’t know how I missed it, too much to read lately. One suggestion: I was probably in the last class at Columbia U. General Studies that received a truly liberal education, almost devoid of open antisemitism and leftist indoctrination, although the usual suspects were present, they didn’t control everything. It was great, but there was one glaring problem. There was nothing practical offered there, it was expected that if you did well, you’d continue to grad school and learn an actual profession. So, if you’re already a working adult, you’re at a huge disadvantage if you’re not a rich kid with a family subsidy. If Bar-Ilan U. really wants to be a magnet, offer undergrad classes in accounting, nursing, etc. Shocking I know, but this is a class issue, and why should only rich kids get to learn a profession without years of privation? When I was an undergrad, I was only able to take one course in accounting, and it was attended by mostly grad business students and was not an introduction at all. At Columbia, no one cared, you were supposed to have your own money and not care about practical things until later. It’s not enough for a school to be affordable, it should offer real world skills even to freshmen, many of whom are not living in their own condo that they got from their parents.

  12. I prefer that Israel promote Jews from around the world to come to Israel for their university education and that Israel make certain that lectures are in English. Subsidies can be offered to make it financially attractive. Perhaps discounted flights can be part of the package.. Plus such students should be encouraged to learn Hebrew in the Ulpan so that when they get to post graduate studies they can take them in Hebrew if necessary.

  13. No one has to choose between going to school in an antisemitic environment and emigrating to Israel (which isn’t totally safe for Jews, either). Whatever happened to self-help? Are there enough Jewish students to start their own university? Enough teachers? It’s probably easier for Jews to start a college than for stoners to start a marijuana farm. Aren’t we the people of the book?

    Objection: but the legacy universities are the ticket to the good law schools and top law firms, you get a high profile internship if you have a degree from one of those famous places. True, but this is an opportunity for those Jews who aren’t destined for that. College material but not likely to be recruited by a top law firm. Those people are the silent majority of Jews and every other group, and we (I was one, smart enough but not a star), we are the people who actually keep society running. Your less memorable classmates aren’t living in tents on the street, they are the lawyers who will handle your real estate problems and doctors who will help you with routine health issues.

    Before unprepared young people run off to a foreign country without skills or money, and immediately get drafted into an army with self-destructive rules of engagement, maybe they should consider solving their own problems where they live. This wouldn’t prevent them from emigrating when they’re more prepared.

  14. There is no point in fighting it or discussing it, the game is rigged against the Jews.

    If only one Muslim student suffered anything REMOTELY similar to what these Jewish students are going through, the Justice Department would be all over these university administrations without even being asked.

    It’s not about Trump, Biden, Left, Right, or “bad leftist Jews”.

    It is the same as in Germany, haven’t we learned ANYTHING?!

  15. Why is there no mention of Islam or Moslems in this discussion of antisemitism on college campuses??? The main instigator of college campus antisemitism is Students for Justice in Palestine which is sponsored and trained by the Hamas-terrorist-affiliated American Muslims for Palestine, and supported by the Hamas-terrorist-affiliated Council on American Islamic Relations, and the Muslim Student Association which was the first Muslim Brotherhood front group in America. All of these are supported by the mosques. Every discussion of antisemitism on college campuses should mention this.

  16. The federal government must fully enforce our civil rights laws against the timid administrators at many colleges and universities who ignore antisemitic harassment and violence on their campuses. Failure of these administrators to fully address and resolve the problems should result in an immediate cut off of federal funds to the noncompliant colleges.
    Trump enabled federal action against antisemitism on college campuses, while Biden now ignores it. This is one more reason why the American Jewish community as a whole (about 70% of the Jewish electorate voted for Biden) failed miserably in protecting the younger generation from the harmful effects of antisemitism and from the ravages of the woke morality of the Left.

  17. It’s the same as last time.

    Get out of here before it’s too late.

    They wouldn’t do it to anybody else except for Jews
    because they know that Jews are free game.

    It is remarkable that Israel doesn’t notice any of it or pretends not to notice.