Opinion | What Jewish Students Need From University Leaders Right Now

TEL AVIV — Variations of the phrase “Hitler was right,” appeared in more than 17,000 tweets from May 7 to May 14, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Jewish college students have been attacked and threatened on online forums for expressing their values. Student governments have posted one-sided statements placing full blame for the conflict in the Middle East on Israel and have shunned American Jews and Israelis on their campuses. Jewish students have been made to feel excluded in their own communities.

None of this is acceptable, though online hate — often protected by freedom of speech rules — may seem the least pernicious of these manifestations of anti-Semitism. It is not. College students learn, work and socialize online. With the physical isolation brought about by the pandemic, virtual life has become real life for many of them. In recent weeks, the spread of hate online has become an epidemic of its own that must be confronted immediately by university leaders.

The hatred being displayed online has been accompanied by hateful activity in the physical world. An identifiably Jewish student at Princeton was reportedly subject to verbal harassment over commencement weekend. A Jewish student at the University of New Mexico was beaten and subjected to anti-Semitic slurs while wearing a shirt that said “Just Jew It.”

At the University of Michigan, “[expletive] Israel” and red handprints were painted near the Hillel building. And 60 percent of Jews in America have witnessed, either online or off, behavior or comments they deem anti-Semitic since hostilities between Israel and Hamas reignited in May.

Over the past year, college students on many campuses have rallied to support different communities facing bias and discrimination, or to protest hate. But now as Jews — who have our own long history of discrimination, violence and oppression — face attacks, it is being met largely by silence.

Many universities include provisions in their codes of conduct outlawing bullying, harassment and discrimination, including in online forums. The question is whether administrators are prepared to enforce those rules with meaningful disciplinary action. Hillel has received reports from Jewish students across the country who have repeatedly filed bias incident reports that have received little or no response from their schools. These students need action from their schools when they articulate their mistreatment.

Educators have an obligation to protect academic freedom, but they also have a moral duty to call out hate speech wherever they see it, and to foster healthy, not inflammatory, discourse.

Academic freedom is restricted, not enhanced, when university departments formally endorse “solidarity statements” that use language that gives ammunition to anti-Semites, such as accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and “colonialism,” as about 130 gender studies departments have done. University leaders must summon the moral integrity to speak out against these assaults on the diversity of viewpoints and protect vulnerable students and junior faculty members in these departments who wish to express other perspectives.

In the last few weeks, some university leaders have started to speak out. Christopher Eisgruber, the president of Princeton, wrote on his blog that “harassment, heckling, stereotyping and intimidation” of Jewish students was not consistent with the type of expression he expects on campus. Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, shared a similar statement. This is a good start, but more universities need to follow suit. Anti-Semitism needs to be condemned as reprehensible hate that has no place in the academy.

Hillels across North America are working to educate university administrators and student leaders about the serious threat anti-Semitism poses. We are imploring schools to incorporate anti-Semitism into their diversity and bias training for new students and professionals in the fall. And we are providing space on campuses where students can connect with and feel pride in their Jewish identity, as we have done for nearly a century.

The Talmudic sage Hillel declared, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” University administrations need to internalize this and assure Jewish students that the hateful images, messages and threats they’re experiencing will not go unaddressed.

Jewish students will not hide, will not be scared into being anything other than proud of who they are. They have been there for the fight against bigotry of all kinds. But they need universities to acknowledge what is happening to them, and to have the courage to confront the perpetrators of anti-Semitism, of online hate speech, of physical harassment and intimidation.

Doing so is essential to ensure that Jewish students, and students with any identity, feel safe and welcome on campus.

Matthew Bronfman is the chairman of the board of governors of Hillel International.

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