The Issues Have Changed, the Problem Has Not
By Janet Lubman Rathner and Alison GoldsteinJewish students in the 21st century might well face cases of anti-Semitism on campus, but the causes are considerably different than those that plagued their parents and grandparents in decades past. While, in the last century, the main problem involved the imposition of “quotas”—and an illogical hate of Jews—now it often has to do with the Middle East conflict.
At a recent University of California, Irvine (UCI) rally organized by the Muslim Student Union, a member applauded the use of Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel while another showed off a swastika tattoo.
These actions—indicative of the years-long pattern of hostile behavior directed toward UCI‘s Jewish students—led the Orange County (Calif.) Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism on Campus to make a shocking recommendation in a report released in February: “Students with a strong Jewish identity should consider enrolling elsewhere unless, and until, tangible changes are made.”
According to the report, anti-Semitism on the UCI campus is thriving because “[t]he Chancellor has failed to exercise his moral authority as an educator and leader by abrogating his leadership responsibilities. The boundaries of rational and reasonable discourse by constituencies that have differing positions on emotional issues have not been established.”
UCI‘s extensive and ongoing xenophobic atmosphere is what led to the creation of the task force in 2006.
“We looked at [the task force] as a way to bring the community together,” says Ted Bleiweis, public relations chairman for the task force. Bleiweis says that, in this kind of environment, “the situation for Jewish students is untenable because of the hatred.”
U.S. Weighs in
UCI is not an anomaly. And the federal government has taken notice. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights conducted a study, released in 2006, documenting, lamenting, and calling for action to battle what it termed an alarming proliferation of anti-Semitism on college campuses.
The United States seems to be experiencing a disturbing number of campus anti-Semitic incidents “in a volume not seen 15 or 20 years ago,” according to Kenneth L. Marcus, former staff director of the commission.
“Whether this is a temporary aberration or an indication of halting progress can only be revealed with further study and action,” Marcus recently told B’nai B’rith Magazine. Concerns about hostilities at schools nationwide are why Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, director of the Tufts University Hillel, lobbied for funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2006.
The money is earmarked for programs that encourage interfaith understanding and interaction. Five East Coast colleges—Tufts, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wellesley, Brandeis, and the University of Maryland—are sharing the three-year, $1.6-million grant.
“For years, we had been involved in promoting Muslim/Jewish dialogue on campus, but it wasn’t enough to just talk about issues together. We wanted to develop curricula that would seriously address and educate students about cultural, religious, and political issues that were the basis for conflict on campus,” says Summit in explaining why he approached DHS.
“I went to the Academic Affairs Office of the Department of Homeland Security and said, ‘I know you are protecting bridges, but we’re building bridges.’ We needed to go deeper and have a greater impact on campus culture. We wanted to take students off-site [so] that they could develop personal connections and relationships that would build trust.”
Summit says he believes the programs have begun to make a difference. “While we are now assessing the data, our impression is that these dialogue projects are contributing to a distinct lowering in the level of campus conflict over political, cultural, and religious issues,” he says. “When you don’t know people from other cultures, it’s easy to vilify them. When you develop personal relationships and connections, [you feel] obligated to act in a more civil manner on campus and consider how programs, speakers, and articles in the newspaper will [affect] other students.
“It’s not that everyone agrees; far from it. But when the president of Hillel and the president of the Arab Student Association ended up living in the same [building], they were much more likely to talk through differences, and do joint programming to discuss difficult issues, than to fight propaganda battles in the campus media,” he continues. “When students feel that fellow students from other religious communities are willing to listen to them, even when they disagree, this lessens the level of tension on campus.”
A Historical Perspective
Anti-Semitism on college campuses is nothing new. Shelly Tenenbaum, a sociology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has written extensively about the subject. The players and circumstances might have changed, but not the issue.
When Wallace W. Atwood, formerly a professor of physiography at Harvard, arrived at Clark to become president in 1920, he brought along not only a desire to hire Harvard graduates, but also the Harvard model of keeping Jewish employees to a minimum. In a paper published in 2003, titled “The Vicissitudes of Tolerance: Jewish Faculty and Students at Clark University,” Tenenbaum writes:
“In 1925, Harvard University’s Appointment Office sent a typed memo to Clark with a list of five available candidates with master’s degrees in mathematics. The chairperson of Harvard’s mathematics department initialed the document, which he labeled ‘confidential,’ and wrote comments at the bottom of the page about two of the candidates. About one master’s student he wrote, ‘Jewish–not very clean cut personally,’ and about the other, ‘Lame–not very clean cut personally as I remember him.’ Only these two candidates had X marks written over their names. It is unclear whether the chair from Harvard or someone from Clark made these marks.”
Based on Tenenbaum’s research, Atwood also had anti-Semitic leanings. “When Atwood tried to convince the Board of Trustees to approve a two-year appointment for a refugee scholar in 1941, he pointed out that the applicant ‘is a Belgian, not Jewish,'” Tenenbaum writes. “One year earlier, a department chairperson believed that Atwood opposed his first choice for a one-year position because the candidate had ‘the misfortune to be an Armenian and to look like a Jew, which he is not.’ The department head thought it might help his candidate’s chances if the president knew that this Armenian scholar had a white Anglo-Saxon wife who was ‘an attractive, intelligent girl.’ In the end, Atwood agreed to this temporary appointment.”
In an interview with B’nai B’rith Magazine, Tenenbaum says this particular form of anti-Semitism persisted for years both on and off college campuses.
“Discriminatory practices against Jewish faculty and students reflected a xenophobia that plagued the United States during the post-WWI era,” Tenenbaum says. “Henry Ford’s publication of the anti-Semitic ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ a tract accusing Jews of waging an international conspiracy for world domination, contributed to a political climate that influenced Congress to pass its 1924 legislation curtailing immigration of ‘racially inferior’ people, including East European Jews.”
Tenenbaum writes that college employees were not the only ones affected by anti-Semitism. Efforts to exclude students who were Jewish were rampant among some of the country’s finest schools.
“Many East Coast college presidents implemented exclusionary measures out of fear that increasing numbers of Jewish students would overwhelm their schools and threaten an institution’s reputation. Pres. A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard advocated a quota system when the proportion of Jewish students at his school tripled from 7 percent in 1900 to 21.5 percent in 1922,” she writes. “Similarly, Yale’s Pres. James Rowland Angell supported his dean’s recommendation to limit the number of Jewish students when they grew from 2 percent in 1901–1902 to more than 13 percent of the class of 1925.
“Once one school introduced quotas, a chain reaction emerged since ‘none wanted to become a dumping ground for unwanted Jews.’ While Columbia and New York University, two of the first schools to implement quotas, used character tests, the Big Three—Harvard, Princeton, and Yale—developed exclusionary tactics such as requiring applicants to include photographs with their applications, provide information about religion and race, and complete personal interviews.
“As a result of these strategies, the proportion of Jewish students in Yale’s class of 1934 decreased to 8.2 percent while the proportion in Harvard’s class of 1930 fell to approximately 10–16 percent. Meanwhile Princeton cut its number of successful Jewish candidates by almost half, ensuring that the Jewish proportion of the student body would not exceed 3 percent, the percentage of Jews in the national population.”
Tenenbaum tells B’nai B’rith Magazine it wasn’t until after World War II, and the gradual and subsequent abolition of legal segregation laws, that caps on Jewish hires and students at Clark and other universities became a practice of the past.
“A strengthening of democratic values, the dismantling of the Jim Crow system of legal segregation, and an overall decline in anti-Semitic sentiment led to the decline of Jewish student quotas and to a dramatic increase in the number of Jewish faculty,” she explains.
“By the time of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—legislation that guaranteed that ‘all persons shall be entitled to the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation…without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin—anti-Semitic quotas had all but disappeared in the [academic world],” Tenenbaum says.
However, the disappearance of quotas has not totally quelled anti-Semitic acts. The 2006 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights study documents testimony from Susan B.Tuchman, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice, about assorted anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred on campuses around the country.
At Rutgers University in 2004, for example, the student newspaper published a cartoon with pictures of a man sitting on an oven while another man lobs balls at him. The caption? “Knock a Jew in the oven! Three throws for one dollar!”
While some campus anti-Semitism reflects the hostilities and misconceptions of an earlier era, most incidents today appear rooted in negative feelings toward Israel, although Summit says the situation is not as explosive as it once was.
“The situation is better now on campus than it used to be,” he says. “During the first and second intifada, the level of anti-Israel activity, such as movements for the university to divest from Israel, was more pronounced. We countered at that time with a major campaign, ‘Invest in Israel,’ to educate the campus.
“Recently, with programs like IACT [Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed], in conjunction with Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, we have doubled the number of students we have sent to Israel. Last year alone, we sent more than 200 students to Israel from Tufts and then did serious follow-up work with these students after they returned.”
Through all of this Summit cautions that it is important to differentiate between criticisms against Israel per se and criticism against Israel rooted in hate toward anything Jewish.
“One of the greatest strengths of Israel is that it is a vibrant democracy, the only vibrant democracy in the Middle East. As long as students support the right of Israel to exist, we have no problem with students who are critical of specific aspects of Israel policy,” Summit says. “The real challenge is to educate students to be passionate, knowledgeable advocates and supporters of Israel, even if they don’t accept every aspect of current policy. We do this through travel to Israel, first-rate lectures, and introductory programs like ‘Israel 101’ which is a peer-led student program on our campus.”
Marcus, who ended his tenure with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in January, was instrumental in its 2006 report chronicling campus anti-Semitism. “What the commission found,” says Marcus, “[was] that students don’t know their rights, so we began a nationwide public education campaign.”
Equipped with an Internet crusade, a website, flyers, posters, and speakers like Marcus, the commission is spreading the message of the ongoing campaign: “Silence is an ally of hate.”
The effort encourages students to gather information on what constitutes an anti-Semitic incident and how to seek help for a variety of situations. Marcus says, “A surprising aspect of campuses, as revealed in our work, is the variety of manifestations of anti-Semitism, such as intimidation from professors, or the cultivation of a hostile environment from outside speakers, or intimidation from other students. It is different at each institution.”
The commission’s campaign calls on administration, faculty, and on- and off-campus Jewish organizations, like Hillel, to publicize the campaign and act as watchdogs on individual campuses.
Mark Dollinger, who holds the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State, knows that institutions of higher learning can’t effectively combat anti-Semitism without this sort of team effort, and is proud of his institution’s approach.
“Anytime there is an episode of anti-Semitism, [San Francisco State University President Robert] Corrigan calls together Jewish faculty, community representatives, student representatives from Hillel [and] the [Anti-Defamation League], and others to coordinate a response,” he notes.
San Francisco State’s task force has been deemed a “best practice” by experts like Marcus, who say that the most effective efforts to combat anti-Semitism on campuses have “forceful, energetic administration [led by presidents] like Corrigan who are very forthright and firm in their indications.”
Dollinger agrees. “With an administration willing to speak publicly and honestly about the issues, there is no sweeping anything under the rug.”
What is always central to Corrigan’s responses, Dollinger says, is the overarching mission of the university—or any place of higher learning, for that matter. “This is always our most powerful argument,” notes Dollinger.
The standards of universities and faculties’ adherence to them are of paramount importance to Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).
The nonprofit group of academics was formed “to inform, motivate, and encourage faculty to use their academic skills and disciplines on campus, in classrooms, and in academic publications to develop effective responses to the ideological distortions, including anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slanders, that poison debate and work against peace,” according to its website.
SPME has chapters on 20 campuses in the United States and Europe, and more than 19,000 scholars and members receive the organization’s literature at 1,000 university and college campuses worldwide.
Ed Beck, SPME’s president, explains that the group intends to uphold scholars’ academic freedom while maintaining academic accountability. “Our target audience is our colleagues,” he says. “If we talk to our colleagues in understandable language, we reach them. We need to be more than an Israel advocacy group or a Jewish group.”
According to Beck, this means SPME does not always go public when it receives complaints about a fellow academic. These measured responses, Beck notes, “aren’t always the outcome the complainant wants. Just because we [organizationally] disagree with a professor does not mean [what he/she said] is actionable.”
B’nai B’rith EffortStudents on campuses nationwide are also working to institute “permanent institutional change” themselves. As part of a rekindled partnership with the national Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, B’nai B’rith International (BBI) and AEPi have teamed up with the historically black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi.
According to Renee Howard, BBI’s program manager and young leadership outreach coordinator, “the partnership, called Black–Jewish Relations: Honoring Our Past, Shaping Our Future, is based on the historical and systemic adversity both groups have faced.”
Joint BBI-fraternity programs were held this spring at the University of Florida and New York University.
By engaging in informal dialogue at information sessions about the human rights situation in Darfur and holding voter registration drives, the groups hope to collectively combat hate and bias.
Marcus says that such partnerships remain few and far between, but that reopening dialogue between underrepresented groups is key to raising awareness about campus anti-Semitism.
Howard says, “Together, we hope that we can serve as an example to other organizations, campus-wide, by demonstrating that race, sex, creed, and religion do not preclude organizations successfully working together.”
Below is a list of organizations and periodicals contacted for this article:
B’nai B’rith International
Young Leadership Outreach Coordinator
Orange County Taskforce homepage: http://www.octaskforce.wordpress.com
U.S. Commission on Civil Right’s Public Education Campaign to end Campus Antisemitism:
Shelly Tenenbaum, “The Vicissitudes of Tolerance: Jewish Faculty and Students at Clark University.” (pdf)
The Massachusetts Historical Review: http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/mhr/5/tenenbaum.html
Posted on August 29, 2008 by rabbiyonah