In June the Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses nearly doubled in 2015, accounting for 10 percent of the total anti-Semitic incidents in the United States. Some local leaders believe this increase is fueled by criticism of Israel and activism from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. They claim this is a quieter — but no less dangerous — form of anti-Semitism, and that it’s most prevalent in schools and on college campuses.
“It’s subtle comments being said to students on campus. It’s almost become more acceptable,” says Lila Cohen, regional director of AJC, the international Jewish advocacy organization. “People are saying, ‘You’re a Jew, so you are directly responsible for what is happening in Israel, so I’m going to take out all of my aggression on you.’”
Rob Jacobs, StandWithUs’s regional director for the Northwest, agrees that this sentiment has become commonplace. “To blame all Jews for the alleged issues in Israel is pure anti-Semitism. We’ve seen more and more of that in the last few years,” he says. “The thing we don’t realize is that these small changes can add up, unless we speak out and say that it’s wrong.”
Noah Genatossio, president of Washington Students for Israel at UW, says some campus groups exclude students who support Israel, and Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER) has a policy of no dialogue with detracting groups. “They believe this in some way empowers the oppressor,” Genatossio says. “That kind of cuts off any space for conversation or mutual understanding, unfortunately.” (BDS advocates at UW did not comment.)
Some students feel alienated on campus due to claims of “intersectionality,” the alliance of identities on issues of discrimination and disadvantage. “SUPER has been able to shut the pro-Israel community out of any progressive causes on campus. Not only do advocates for Israel feel uncomfortable, but any Jewish student who feels a connection to Israel feels uncomfortable,” Genatossio says. “It’s more anti-Israel than anti-Semitic. But to say there’s no overlap, I believe, would be a gross understatement.”
Could this tension be starting in high schools? Jacobs says he fields call from parents concerned about presentations and lessons. Bellevue residents Tzachi and Dr. Lara Litov pulled their 16-year-old son out of The Northwest School in part over what they viewed as a curriculum that created an “unconscious” anti-Semitic culture. “There was a lot of anti-Israel sentiment when I was there,” says the Litovs’ eldest son, Noah, who graduated from there two years ago. The Litovs felt that a unit called “The Middle East,” which in 2015 contained a subunit with a lecture called “Israel/Palestine: the Occupation,” presented biased information. Videos that referred to the Israeli government as oppressors and the Israeli government’s “institutional discrimination against non-Jews” made their son uncomfortable.
However, Daniel Sparler and Sarah Porter, who teach the unit, believe that questioning is essential for The Northwest School and speaks to its principle of “supporting the dignity of the individual human being.” The Humanities Program founder, the late Paul Raymond, who was Jewish, thought students should be uncomfortable. “He would say, ‘My job is to make you uncomfortable, so you will get out of your comfort zone and think about these things in a new way,’” Sparler says.
Sparler and Porter say that those videos are only one side of the curriculum, and other elements show Israel as a positive role model in the region. The school adamantly opposes anti-Semitism, they add, and the administration notes that it does a two-week series on the Holocaust along with art projects that have been featured at the Holocaust Center for Humanity. The classroom debate is a beginning, Porter says. “From there, students should go out and explore more and engage in the conversation, which is very much in the news and press.”
Some Jewish leaders agree. “I’m more interested in opening up conversation where it’s usually shut down,” says Rabbi David Basior of Seattle’s Kadima Reconstructionist Community, a progressive synagogue that “supports movements to end the Israeli occupation,” according to its mission. “We need to put a critical lens on it, so we don’t set our kids up to be uncomfortable when first faced with it at 21 or 22.” Basior believes Jewish students need to be supported in this process.
The freedom to question is one of the great things about being Jewish in the United States, says Jacobs, but there’s a balance. “We’ve had situations where Jewish students’ friends or acquaintances will say to them, ‘The Nazis did horrible things to the Jews, so why is it that you people are doing the same thing to the Palestinians?’ It’s putting a Jewish kid in a position — without knowing more — to disavow or agree with the others whether Israel’s a bad place.”
5 Tips for Handling Anti-Semitism on Campus
1. Separate legitimate criticism from delegitimization: Debating policies is different from denying the self-determination of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
2. Separate ignorance from bigotry: Identify whether someone is missing the facts versus expressing antipathy toward the country at large or the entire Jewish people.
3. Reach out: Connect with parents, counselors, and Jewish communal institutions for resources and help.
4. Enlist allies: Work with people who want to counter bias and intolerance inside and outside of school.
5. Document everything: Keep emails and social media posts and take notes in the event you need to present your case to school leadership.
— Nevet Basker, executive director of the Kadima Fund