Israel, antisemitism and higher ed. in America

By Bill Simons

Antisemitism in higher education is not new. Prior to the Cold War, many of America’s most prestigious universities employed student quotas, formal or de facto, and old-boy faculty hirings to limit the Jewish presence on campus. Although he failed to persuade the overseers to adopt direct quotas during the 1920s, Harvard University President A. Lawrence Lowell employed other strategies, including subjective character references, interviews and photographs to curtail Jewish enrollment, as well as that of other ethnic and racial minorities. Exclusionary higher ed. policies toward the outsider paralleled those of the immigration quota system adopted by Congress during the 1920s, which discriminated against Jews and other “new” immigrant groups.

The end of World War II ushered in a long golden age for Jews at elite universities and in higher education generally. There were several factors, amongst them: revelation and revulsion of intolerance’s end game with the defeat of Nazi Germany, the need to recruit and train the best and brightest students so that the U.S could maintain Cold War defense superiority, and a hiatus in mass immigration that promoted assimilation and conformity. Even the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy inquisitions – that destroyed the lives of many left-leaning faculty, Jewish and Gentile alike – could not derail the new trajectory. Numbers of Jewish intellectuals flourished as university superstars – Jonas Salk, Milton Friedman and Henry Kissinger, to cite a few. Jewish Americans founded Brandeis University in 1948, the same year as the rebirth of Israel. Unlike the yeshivas, Brandeis, despite its strong Jewish connections, was non-sectarian, a host to Jews and Gentiles, and committed to excellence. By the late 1960s, Jewish radicals, like Columbia’s Mark Rudd, felt secure enough to lead campus protests. 

Beyond the Ivy League, postwar American prosperity, dramatic expansion of state university systems and demographics jumpstarted by the GI Bill of Rights and then fueled by the coming of age of Baby Boomers grew campus populations. A college education became normative for Jews. When the brilliant, albeit quirky and controversial, Larry Summers, a Jew, was named president of Harvard in 2001, A. Lawrence Lowell must have been turning in his grave. That era of Jewish ascension in the most elite universities, however, may now face eclipse. 

In reaction to the Israel-Gaza War, antisemitism has ratcheted up on several of the most prestigious campuses in the Northeast. Even before the conflict, the BDS, Cancel Culture and Progressive movements stigmatized Israel, making the Jewish state and its proponents one of their targets for boycotts, silencing speakers and censuring professors. To a generation that knows little of the Holocaust or the founding of the modern Jewish state by refugees from genocide, the shibboleth of Israel as a wealthy, militaristic, colonizing power gained credence, even amongst some younger Jews, who mistook the authoritarian Benjamin Netanyahu for the face of Israel. With the advent of the Israel-Hamas War, distorted media coverage soon minimized focus on the murders, rapes, mutilations and abductions of Israelis by Hamas terrorists intent of the destructions of Israel and killing as many Jews as possible. The deaths of Palestinian civilians, augmented by Hamas employing them as shields, is horrible and tragic, but, despite the dominant media narrative, it is not the whole story. Canards, including misappropriation of the term genocide, find a constituency at several elite universities. 

At Cooper Union in Manhattan’s East Village, an October 25 “Free Palestine” rally turned volatile. A group of Jewish students previously in the library sheltered in place as protesters roamed the hallways shouting anti-Israel slogans, calling for the killing of Jews and banged upon metal doors. After protesters entered the library, staff locked the building doors. Tense, nervous and intimidated, Jewish students, some wearing kippot, remained barricaded in a secure space for approximately half an hour and made several 911 calls for assistance. A Jewish student asserted that the anti-Israel protesters were “very aggressive in those spaces where outwardly Jewish students were sitting.” There was no immediate response to the incident from the Cooper Union administration. 

Jonathan Frieden, a Harvard Law School student, recounted anti-Israel protesters disrupting classes and study sessions. According to Frieden, there were security concerns: “Jews took off their kippot ... [F]riends ran up to the dean of students and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) office, but they had locked their doors for their own safety.” Initially, the senior Harvard administration regarded the episode as an expression of free speech.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth is Jewish. Nonetheless, administrative response to campus antisemitism at MIT has been tepid. Jewish MIT student Tahlia Kahn claims that when she grieved to a DEI officer that a post-doctoral fellow admonished her that “Jewish Israelis want to enslave the world in a global apartheid system [and] falsely claimed that Israel harvests Palestinian organs,” the DEI official responded that those comments did not constitute hate speech and bore some truth, leaving Kahn feeling unsafe and insecure at MIT.  

When asked, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct,” University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill, who subsequently resigned under duress, responded, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.” One wonders how Magill would characterize the false cry of fire in a crowded theater. The line between lethal threats and action is thin. At Cornell University, an antisemitic post on a fraternity website threatened to shoot and rape Jewish students. And Jewish students at Columbia endured several antisemitic volleys – death threats, physical assault on an Israeli student, swastika graffiti, social media harassment, and professors circulating and signing a letter terming the October 7 Hamas terrorist murder mutilations in southern Israel a “military action.”

Despite the preceding litany, most students are not antisemitic, and the vitriol directed against Israel has disrupted only a minority of campuses. However, the growth of campus antisemitism is a reality with the potential to metastasize. According to some reports, certain institutions – sites of recent antisemitic episodes – face a decline in Jewish donors and applications. With the veiled threat of cutting federal appropriations, the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Workforce has grilled MIT, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania presidents as to why campuses sensitive to microaggressions respond ineffectually to blatant antisemitism. Congressional witch hunts, speech codes that abridge free speech and boycotts are not the answer. However, unless administrators, faculty, students, alumni and media summon the moral courage to call out antisemitism for what it is, our campuses face broadening turmoil.