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‘Wild wild west atmosphere’: antisemitism on American campuses

The eruption of antisemitic intimidation since October 7 has made many current and prospective Jewish students fearful of traversing the once welcoming campuses.
Dan Coleman
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US campus life explodes with threats and resignations – and not just among students

US campus life explodes with threats and resignations – and not just among students (Image: Jeenah Moon/Reuters).

Published: 26 April 2024

Last updated: 29 April 2024

“That, to me, was repulsive. As a father, that really got to me, that there’s a student that thinks antisemitism is normalised and treated differently.”

This was the response of US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona when asked in January about the rise in antisemitism on American college campuses. Since October 7, the Department of Education (DOE) has opened scores of anti-discrimination cases, the vast majority in response to charges of antisemitism, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination at federally funded campuses and school districts.

These cases involve many of the elite universities to which high-achieving Jewish students have long aspired, including six of the eight Ivy League colleges (two of these also have cases involving Islamophobia), Stanford, and MIT.

Elite universities have also been the centre of recent mass arrests over out-of-control pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests.

There have also been a number of legal cases independent of the DOE. All of this has led Alyza Lewin, president of the legal activist group Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, to characterise the situation as having “a wild wild west atmosphere”.

Just how wild is it? At the University of California Santa Barbara, the student body president Tessa Veskler, a child of Jews who fled the Soviet Union, was targeted with campus signs saying “you can run but you can’t hide Tessa Veksler”, multiple signs saying “Tessa Veksler Supports Genocide”, as well as signs declaring “Get these Zionist[s] out of office,” with others accusing her of being “racist” and “Zionist”. 

The complaint against American University in Washington, DC, says dormitory doors and posters of Jewish and Israeli students were vandalised with swastikas and threats, and that anti-Israel protests disrupted classes and blocked Jewish students’ access to dining halls, classrooms, and student spaces. 

These cases involve many of the elite universities to which high-achieving Jewish students have long aspired.

In one case, an Israeli student was allegedly spat on by students and a flyer promoting his piano recital was vandalised with antisemitic graffiti, including swastikas and the words, “Death to the Zionists, Hitler was right.” Jewish students also say they faced taunts of “Zionist killer,” “Zionist pig” and “You have blood on your hands,” and were accused of being “responsible for genocide”.

In another case, a professor showed photos of pro-Palestinian protests that included a sign depicting a Star of David in a trash can and the words, “Keep the World Clean,” the same antisemitic image notoriously associated with Australian Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi.

Putting numbers to these cases, Anti-Defamation League and Jewish campus organisation Hillel International found that 73% of Jewish college students said they had experienced or witnessed antisemitism on campus last fall - up from 32% in 2021. It should not be overlooked that even 32% is a shockingly high number.

As a result, as reported in The Forward, many high school seniors are rethinking their college choices, “crossing dream schools off their lists and replacing them with colleges where they believe Jews are welcome”.

One high school senior had planned to apply to Middlebury College in Vermont but changed his mind because of pro-Palestinian activism there. His second choice was Cornell, which he dismissed after a student was arrested there for making death threats against Jews and a professor said he was “exhilarated” by the Hamas attacks.

Some Jewish high school students may be informed by the Anti-Defamation League’s “Campus Antisemitism Report Card”, which grades 85 colleges including those with the highest Jewish population and certain top universities. The ADL gave only two of them A grades: Elon University in North Carolina and Jewish-founded Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Thirteen universities, including Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton received a grade of F.

Some have taken issue with the report by the ADL, which has long been criticised as painting with too broad a brush, conflating legitimate advocacy for the Palestinian cause with antisemitism. However, the ADL’s identification of 3200 antisemitic incidents across the US in the three months following October 7, a whopping 336% increase over the year before, must be taken seriously.

The challenges on campus can cut both ways. Last week, the University of Southern California cancelled a valedictory speech by a Muslim student, citing security concerns. The student in question denounced the move as resulting from a “campaign of racial hatred”, with the Los Angeles Council on American-Islamic relations characterising it as “a cowardly decision [hidden] behind a disingenuous concern for ‘security’.” The university provost replied that tensions around the Gaza conflict had “escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at the commencement”.

The Students for Justice in Palestine organisation has faced bans and restrictions on a number of campuses. A struggle is underway to determine whether fliers that call the slaughter of October 7 “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance” are expressing protected political speech or endorsing genocidal attacks on the Jewish people.

Either way, Jewish students and prospective students at a wide range of universities are deeply concerned and, in many cases, traverse the once welcoming campuses in fear.

Efforts to improve the situation are underway but have so far have achieved little more than recommendations.

Secretary Cardona envisions “a place where conversations about religious identity or difference of opinions could be handled respectfully and civilly”. And, despite the Secretary’s hope that he “wouldn’t want Jewish students to not feel comfortable expressing who they are, their feelings, even if it’s in disagreement with some other students on campus,” such views can seem like an idealistic pipedream in the post-October 7 era.

Efforts to improve the situation are underway but have so far have achieved little more than recommendations. A taskforce at Columbia University, for example,  concluded that “rules to shield them from discrimination have gone part way in helping Jewish students feel protected but often go unenforced”. Its report includes a number of recommendations still under review and yet to be implemented.

President Biden has said “we can’t stand by and stand silent [in the wake of antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents]. We must, without equivocation, denounce antisemitism. We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia.” 

Unfortunately, denunciation is easy, certainly compared to delivering programs, actions, and resources of a proactive, preventative nature. Harder still will be restoring college campuses to the culture of inquiry, dialogue and respect that were their ideal and often their reality for many decades.

As University of Michigan student Lauren Haines, writing in The Forward, put it: “Doxxing, boycotting, and silencing our fellow students - whether pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, or both - erodes the fundamental nature of higher education… You don’t go to college to fight - you go to learn.”

Meanwhile, given the hostile atmosphere on so many campuses, Elon University, nestled in the beckoning pine forests of North Carolina, could be seeing a lot more applications from New York.


Opinion: Israel has lost America's universities. It may eventually lose the White House (Efrat Rayten, Ha'aretz)
Israel is now at a crossroads in its relations with the United States, while the past few months have demonstrated the degree of our dependency on U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military support.

Opinion: I’m a Jewish student at Yale. Here’s what everyone is getting wrong about the protests (Ian Berlin, CNN)
Last week, I sat in Yale University’s Beinecke Plaza leading around 50 classmates in nigunim — wordless melodies from the Jewish Hasidic tradition — and other Jewish songs and prayers. As is typical when I sing nigunim, I went home that day feeling spiritually rejuvenated, but, unlike usual, most of those singing with me that day were not Jewish.

Listen: Pro-Palestinian protest movement hits Australian campuses (ABC)
University campuses across the United States have hosted major protests from students demanding their college cut ties with Israel. In some instances the police have been called-in to arrest protesters who say they were acting peacefully. Australian students have joined the movement, setting up camp at Sydney University.

About the author

Dan Coleman

Dan Coleman is a former member of the Carrboro, North Carolina Town Council, and a former political columnist for the Durham (NC) Morning Herald. He is the author of Ecopolitics: Building A Green Society. He lives in Melbourne.


  • Avatar of Larry Stillman

    Larry Stillman30 April at 12:56 am

    Peter Beinart offers a much more informed and nuanced opinion on what is going on in US campuses at this time. Some quotes here, but read /watch the whole video. https://peterbeinart.substack.com/p/the-campus-protests-arent-perfect

    “It’s important not to get distracted by one particular video you might see and to focus attention on the core demands of this movement. And so, much of the journalism that I see, frankly, frustrates me because it doesn’t actually take seriously the core demands of this movement, and instead wants to focus on one particular slogan, or one particular speech, or one particular video. What’s important about the anti-war movement in Vietnam was that it wanted to end the war. What was important about the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was that wanted to end American complicity, complicity in South Africa. That was the core of the movement. The core of this movement is the demand to end university and American governmental complicity with Israel’s system of oppression, which is now culminated in this horrifying slaughter of people in Gaza….

    This complicity must end. It must end because, among other things, it puts Jews in danger. We must see the lie that you can construct a system of Jewish safety on the destruction and brutalization of another people.

    Jews have the right to speak up for ourselves if we see anything that we genuinely believe is hateful towards Jews per se. But we should also recognize that, like nothing we have seen before in my lifetime, that this movement holds the possibility for ending Israeli impunity, and potentially, therefore—potentially—creating a different kind of conversation in Israel about what keeps Jews safe. The recognition that white South Africans came to finally: that only equality truly keeps people safe.
    And that that could be, from this movement, could come not just Palestinian liberation, but Jewish liberation as well.”

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