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make college leaders wake up to anti-Semitism on their campuses

Countless Jewish families welcomed their children home from college this holiday season, giving tens of thousands a refuge from what has become horrifyingly normal behavior on their campuses: virulent anti-Semitism.

It’s no secret that Jew-hatred has exploded online and in our streets the last few years. But it has also embedded itself in our college campuses, leaving countless students feeling unwelcome and unsafe.

Among family and friends, Jewish students aren’t subjected to doorways with “Kill the Jews” scrawled on them. They aren’t forced to disguise their Star of David necklaces or take a circuitous route to class. They don’t have to question wearing a Hillel sweatshirt or hide that they studied in Israel.

Anti-Semitic incidents hit new highs in 2021, per the Anti-Defamation League. On college campuses in particular, the ADL tallied a record number of incidents against Jewish students, including epithets and spit hurled at them.

Much has been written about the rising wave of anti-Semitism, and at this point, barely days go by without some fresh incident or report. With each new episode, Jewish people have had to become ever more resilient, putting out of mind the latest off-color remark.

But the surge of anti-Semitism on campus demands a deeper level of concern. These incidents aren’t just one-off vulgarities — they are signs of institutional Jew-hatred.

Students at Tufts University, University of Southern California and UCLA have tried to prevent the election of or remove Jewish undergraduates serving in student government. At Wellesley, the student newspaper published an editorial supporting “The Mapping Project,” a database of Jewish organizations and figures. Nine Berkeley Law organizations have prohibited Zionists from speaking at their campus events. When those nine groups were outed for their anti-Semitic bylaw, five more adopted the same rule.

closeup of an old and rusty pendant in the shape of the star of david in the hand of a man on a black mottled background
College students shouldn’t fear being Jewish in their respective campuses.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

And on and on, on campus after campus. Administrators and faculty often subtly or vocally champion these actions, including with institutional support. At Yale Law School, a diversity trainer argued that anti-Semitic incidents reported to the FBI were inflated because of “an agenda.” At Stanford, a diversity and inclusion program tried to argue that anti-Semitism should be excluded from its agenda because Jewish power didn’t necessitate a campus-wide concern about Jewish people.

Even the City University of New York isn’t immune to horrific anti-Semitism scandals. At CUNY Law School, the student government recently passed a resolution banning Hillel and other mainstream Jewish clubs. The school chose a commencement speaker who called to eradicate the state of Israel. Elsewhere, a CUNY student group pledged to create programs to challenge and critique Jews.

This institutional anti-Semitism calls to mind the troubling early 1930s in German universities. In 1933, Nazi leadership passed a Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which removed from their posts Jewish civil servants who had not fought in World War I — including 1,200 university professors. 

That opened the floodgates for campus anti-Semitism, including student-led action. That same year, students led a mass boycott of Jewish faculty classes, stormed a Jewish fraternity house in Heidelberg and occupied university buildings in Frankfurt, denying entry to their Jewish colleagues. In Baden, students filed complaints with the local Ministry of Education, alleging Jewish students were taking the best classroom seats. Soon, Nazi officials issued a decree that only Gentiles could sit in a classroom’s first row.

We see the echoes of these actions on American college campuses today, which is why university leaders across the country must immediately take steps to ensure the horrors of the past do not repeat themselves.

Leadership can make a difference. Officials can strip funding, support and space from organizations that promote anti-Semitism, and they can direct resources to hate-crime tip lines, training and audits. In Austin, for instance, University of Texas administrators withdrew their support from the student government and prohibited the use of the university’s name and image. They were responding — with appropriate seriousness — to a resolution that ostracized and targeted Jewish students. 

Colorado State has made supporting Jewish students a presidential-level priority, with ex-head Joyce McConnell creating a Task Force on Jewish Inclusion and the Prevention of Antisemitism. The goal: to develop a concrete plan for making CSU a Jewish-friendly campus.

These individual examples of courageous and compassionate leadership illustrate a broader and more important point. Anti-Semitism need not be the sort of matter dealt with through after-the-fact regrets and pained press releases. Officials can take preventative action and do more to address Jew-hatred before it becomes institutionally acceptable. 

As students return to school in the coming weeks, my New Year’s resolution is to ensure our university leaders wake up to the fear and worry of their Jewish students — and commit to doing something about it.

Ronald S. Lauder is the president of the World Jewish Congress.

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