Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

The cry gevalt syndrome: are Jewish students really ‘terrified’ on campus?

University campuses are places where contending views meet and clash. Pro-Israel organizations would seem to want the opposite

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastHuman RightsEducationSocial Movements

Student protesters gather at York University to denounce an event that brought members of the Israel Defence Forces to campus, November 2019. Photo courtesy SAIA York/Twitter.

As recently as September 6, 2022, as students returned to campuses, long-time Israel defender Avi Benlolo (formerly of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and now of the so-called “Abraham Global Peace Initiative,” or AGPI) tweeted a photo of a table on a campus lawn bearing a Palestinian flag and some flyers. Benlolo added the breathless comment:

On campuses today, hatred against Israel is out in force. AGPI continues to monitor the situation and get reports from students. This picture is from Guelph University in Ontario taken moments ago. We need government to step in.

If you believe pro-Israel Jewish organizations and often the media, campuses in Canada, the US and the UK are places of seething hostility for Jewish students.

The Yiddish expression “shrei gevalt” (or “cry alarm”) may be particularly apt here. It denotes raising a warning about impending harm, but going over the top, exaggerating for effect.

It is likely that antisemitism is rising everywhere commensurate with other forms of white supremacism, like anti-Black racism and Islamophobia. While any hate activity on campus is disturbing, are Jews (and Jewish students) more subject to bigotry than those in other groups, like Blacks and Muslims? This is not an easy question to answer—unless self-reporting is the measure.

What the chorus is saying

For the past ten years at least, a chorus of disquieting articles, posts and websites have been roaring: “Jewish Students Targeted at York Meeting,” “Hatred towards Jews on full display at York University,” “Antisemitism on Campus: The Virus that Continues to Spread,” “It is starting to be unsafe to be a Canadian Jew,” “Are Jewish Students Feeling Forced To Hide Their Identity On Campus?” “Quarter of Jewish students in UK ‘fear anti-Semitic attacks on campus’,” “It’s a scary time for Jewish students on campus,” and “Jewish And Pro-IsraelStudents At McMaster Keep Their Heads Low In Fear Of Being Attacked.” A Jewish newspaper in the US published a guide entitled, “Preparing Students for Anti-Semitism in College.”

Some recent incidents illustrate that the moral panic continues.

Groups at Montréal’s Concordia University arranged for Ali Abunimah, publisher of Electronic Intifadah, to speak there on September 15, 2022 on “The Battle for Justice in Palestine: The Case for a Single Democratic State in Palestine.” Pro-Israel groups vigorously protested under the slogan “Jewish students have the right to feel safe at Concordia.” The meeting room reserved became mysteriously unavailable. When organizers found alternative space, university officials demanded they hire two security guards and establish a ‘security perimeter’ around the room. The Canadian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) lambasted the speaker and the organizers. CIJA insisted “Abunimah’s track record of antisemitic statements and his repeated calls for the erasure of the world’s only Jewish state should have been enough to disqualify him from receiving an invitation to speak.” CIJA’s attacks are merely the latest in a concerted campaign of attempts to de-platform views critical of Israel.

The Times of Israel reported on research conducted by the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, published in October 2021, “US study: 1/3 of Jewish college students experienced antisemitism last year.”

The Jerusalem Post publicized an August 2021 report by another US organization, Alums for Campus Fairness, “Guide to Protect Jewish Students.” A “2002 Report Card [on] Antisemitism on US College and University Campuses” claimed apocalyptically that the “DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] approach on university campuses has failed to combat bigotry against their Jewish communities.”

In a November 2021 letter to the York University administration, Hasbara Fellow and York student Taylor Levy claimed she is “terrified to walk on campus as a Jew.”

In September 2021, Hillel Ontario Communications Chief Jay Solomon said of Jewish students, “They have been threatened and bullied on social media, discriminated against by campus groups and unions, and made to feel unwelcome on campus.” He told The Algemeiner that “They have been labelled racists, colonialists, and murderers, and held collectively responsible for the decisions of a government thousands of kilometres away.”

A joint letter in September 2022 by Hasbara Fellowships Canada, Hillel, and Stand with Us admonished the University of Toronto to ensure that two courses on Palestine are conducted “without bias” (against Israel and Jews, presumably).

Somewhat farther back, in 2019, Herut Canada (which supports Israel’s far-right Likud Party) invited Israeli soldiers to speak at York University. When protesters showed up, videos later showed, they were beaten by pro-Israel thugs. Yet the incident was spun by Jewish institutional organizations as an antisemitic attack, and politicians, like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, were quick to condemn it as such. But they did not retract when the videos showed the opposite.

How accurate is all of this?

Beyond the headlines

Let’s look beyond the fevered headlines at the campus climate for Jewish students. While systematic studies have not been conducted in Canada, several have recently been done by Jewish groups in the US. Unfortunately most are uniquely flawed.

One, in October 2021, was done by the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel. The survey is strongly skewed toward Jewish students more sensitive to perceived slights than the norm. The sample included 756 self-identified Jewish undergrads recruited mostly through Jewish-centred sources at 220 different four-year post-secondary institutions. Note too that the subjects were surveyed immediately after the May 2021 events where almost 200 Palestinians (including 67 children) in the West Bank and Gaza were killed and 2,500 injured, which had aroused public anger internationally at Israel.

Some of the results of the ADL-Hillel survey:

  • 32 percent of respondents reported personally experiencing an antisemitic event (meaning 68 percent had not); about the same proportion had witnessed antisemitic activity on campus (69 percent had not).
  • Most of those experiences were offensive comments or slurs online (19 percent) or in person (13 percent) or in campus media (nine percent).
  • In terms of respondents’ perceptions, 26 percent felt that others assume they held particular views on Israel or Israeli policy simply because the respondents were Jewish; 15 percent felt the need to hide their Jewish identity; 12 percent felt they had been blamed for Israeli actions because they were Jewish.
  • Only one percent reported being a victim of violence or being threatened with violence.

Perhaps as interesting are the comments, of which here are a few:

The anti-Israel sentiment is very strong…and it often [not always] manifests as antisemitism. In the 2019/2020 school year, pre-COVID, our Hillel was repeatedly vandalized and even though the administration knew about it we had to fight with them for months before they took action. I’ve also seen and heard anti-Israel comments from my peers that were blatantly antisemitic both online and in person (more so online since COVID).
Sometimes when I say I’m Jewish in classes that becomes the centre of whatever I have to say for the rest of the semester and there is more to me than just being Jewish.
Expressing support for the Jewish community or Israel is immediately met with ostracizing and harassment to the point of not being able to talk about it in class.

Note that all of the comments referred to Israel and its activities. Not one suggests the targeting of Jews as Jews.

An update for the period 2021-22 indicates, of 359 incidents, one of assault and twenty of vandalism and harassment, but twenty involving BDS resolutions (which are not directed at Jews as Jews), 143 “events” (most of which would be meetings critical of Israel) and 163 “protest/actions” (most of which were undoubtedly rallies criticizing Israel).

What might account for the near-obsession of ADL with university campuses?

We know that antisemitic attacks committed by the white supremacist right don’t usually happen on campuses. Could it be that this survey and the entire concentration on campuses reflects the near-obsession of Jewish establishment institutions with perceived antisemitism not of the right where Jew hatred is mixed with love of Israel, but of the left, where little animus against Jews prevails but criticism of Israel abounds? And where else to find the left but on campuses?

The Alums for Campus Fairness report has similar methodological problems to the ADL-Hillel one. It surveyed 506 self-identified Jewish undergrads and recent graduates at US universities, recruited from Jewish-centred organizations and social media. As with the ADL-Hillel survey, this would skew toward those more likely to perceive antagonism to Jews. The majority of respondents reported experiencing or seeing antisemitic activity. However, the researchers admit not distinguishing, in their survey questions, between what they call “Israel-related antisemitism” (presumably criticism of Israel that made the respondents uncomfortable) and outright discrimination against Jews as Jews. Indeed, the authors admit using the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which has been widely criticized for conflating vigorous criticism of Israel with animus against Jewish people.

Eighty percent of the Alums survey respondents report that they “usually” or “always feel/felt safe identifying as a Jew at my school.”

Despite the huge methodological problems and the deliberately fuzzy definition of antisemitism, there are some disturbing reports in this and the ADL-Hillel documents. While we argue that criticizing Israel or anti-Zionism is not antisemitic, there is evidence that at least some Jewish students on these campuses seem regularly to be blamed for Israel’s activity simply because they are Jewish. This is wrong and unfair. It is as wrong as blaming Muslim or Arab students, simply because of their racial identity or religion, for the actions of a small number of people claiming to act on behalf of Muslims or Arabs.

While few, if any, Jewish students reported sanctions or physical harm in either survey, blaming Jewish students for Israel’s wrongs or demanding that Jewish students answer for them is a form of unfair negative stereotyping even if it doesn’t amount to outright antisemitism..

We know from a recent study of Canadian Muslim youth and a recent study of Canadian supporters of Palestinian rights, however, that those on the other side of the Israel-Palestine question have suffered enormously, not only from sanctions but also physical violence, career disruption and destruction and even death in the wake of the 9/11 events. This must put the mere discomfort of Jewish students in perspective.

The Stop Antisemitism Report Card on Antisemitism on US College and University Campuses is hard to even take seriously, except as an example of carefully curated moral panic. Like the others, it also suffers from sloppy methodology, most seriously by eliding attacks on Jews as Jews with criticism of Israel and by confusing feelings with experiences. Most importantly, the moniker “antisemitism” is used describe everything from a student motion supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and the use of the word “apartheid” to describe Israeli policies to (few) actual threats or attacks on Jews.

The Stop Antisemitism Report Card uses four criteria—which defy objective measurement—to rate, for example Harvard, with a “D” grade for the following reasons:

  • Protection: Students do not feel like the administration takes the safety of Jewish students seriously and say they have ignored antisemitic complaints.
  • Allyship: Does not include Jews in its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
  • Identity: Students report that theyʼve been victims of physical threats, verbal harassment, and fear of identifying as Jewish.
  • Policy: A BDS resolution was presented but did not pass.

Thus, the vague “feelings” of Jewish students, the non-inclusion of Jewish student organizations in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, the perceived presence of antisemitism (which could be interpreted according to the IHRA definition) and failure of the institution to adopt it, and the mere raising of a BDS motion by a student group (though it failed to pass) can relegate a university to the league of antisemites.

The only Canadian initiative with somewhat similar goals is the report by Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) in February 2020 at the same time as the University of Toronto Working Group on Antisemitism was conducting its investigation. Basically a list of incidents on Canadian campuses it claims are antisemitic, it suffers from problems similar to the US reports (i.e. elision between criticism of Israel and attacks on Jews, equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, guilt-by-association, and anecdotalism). In its attempt to appear comprehensive, it throws in a literal kitchen sink of irrelevant information with a few examples of gratuitous insults to Jewish students.

For example, one of the incidents cited is, “In November 2017, UN rapporteur Michael Lynk spoke at a fundraiser for Canadian Friends of Sabeel at University of Toronto.” Lynk, a widely-respected Western University law professor, was appointed in 2016 as by the UN Human Rights Council as Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territory Occupied Since 1967, and recently completed his term. His predecessors are the highly-regarded jurisits South African John Dugard and American Richard Falk.

Despite the urgings of FSWC and other institutional Jewish organizations that it endorse the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism, the University of Toronto Working Group demurred. The institution concurred with the working group.

Jewish-American commentator and antisemitism specialist Steven Beller describes the promiscuous use of the accusation of antisemitism thus:

This view of antisemitism is rhetorically very powerful because as soon as you label someone antisemitic you can dismiss them and their arguments as irrational, as insane, and hence they do not have to be taken seriously, or indeed have to be taken extremely seriously as a threat not only to Jews but to the whole of society and humanity. It can serve as a political “magic wand,” like calling someone a “racist,” “sexist,” “fascist,” etc., or a “socialist” in other quarters. Yet, antisemitism is more powerful than almost any of these because of its association with the Holocaust…
…If you call someone an antisemite you are in effect associating them with the Holocaust—that is the nuclear option of political rhetoric.

Digging deeper

A 2017 study by a research group of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University presents what may be a more complex result. Entitled “Safe and on the Sidelines: Jewish Students and the Israel-Palestine Conflict on Campus,” it surveyed Jewish students on five California campuses thought to harbour high levels of anti-Israel activity.

It concludes, “Contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist. In general, students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.

Interviewees reported low levels of antisemitism or discomfort. When they did encounter discomfort, they traced it either to the carelessness of student speech or to tensions within campus debates about the Israel-Palestine conflict, which they characterized as strident, inflammatory, and divisive. They held both supporters and critics of Israel responsible for creating this environment. The tone of student activism created a divided campus that left little room for reasoned, productive debate.

One of the researchers, Ari Kelman, is professor of education and Jewish studies at Stanford. In an interview with New Voices, which claims to be “the only Jewish and justice-focused magazine by and for college students,” he makes the following assertions:

I am not only a professor. I live on campus, too. I’m a resident fellow, which is like a dorm parent. I live with 100 first-year students. And what I was reading in the press did not at all resemble what I was experiencing. So, I thought, ‘Someone should really do a study of student impressions of these issues.’ And then I realized, ‘Oh. That someone is me.’

Kelman makes this astonishing conclusion: “I would like leaders of American Jewish communities to stop fanning the flames of divisiveness that the students in our study found so alienating.”

Another study, reported on in 2021 by four academic specialists in Jewish studies, throws considerable light on the campus situation for young American Jews. The sample of more than 3,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 27 consisted of applicants to the Birthright program, which offers free trips to Israel. One might reasonably expect that sample to skew strongly toward those with a hyper-acuity to issues of antisemitism. The subjects were asked two sets of questions: whether, in the past three months, they had been insulted or harassed in person, insulted or harassed on social media, or physically attacked because they were Jewish, and how concerned they were about antisemitism in the United States, and on college campuses.

According to the authors, the results show “there is no evidence of a major increase in experiences of antisemitic harassment among Jewish young adults—either on or off campus—between 2017 and 2019.”

At the same time, however, “data show a substantial increase in concerns among young Jews about antisemitism in the United States and on college campuses.”

The authors conclude: “These results suggest that Jewish concerns about antisemitism are linked to broader views about the climate for marginalized populations in the United States. They also point to growing Jewish anxieties over violence, safety, and acceptance in the United States.”

In other words, young American Jews are not necessarily experiencing antisemitism, but they feel that they are. The authors suggest several explanations:

One possibility is that, given the history of antisemitism and the alarming frequency of mass shootings in America during this period, Jews have been primed to see even rare events like the murders in Poway and Pittsburgh not as outliers or isolated incidents, but as harbingers of future violence…

And American Jewish youth are full of uncertainty. As the authors speculate:

Should they hide their Jewish identity in conversations with friends or classmates? Will they be attacked on social media for criticizing antisemitism? Will they be dragged into contentious debates about Israel simply because they are Jewish?

The stark contrast between the perception of antisemitism by Jewish students and their actual experience of it is underlined in a recent article by Sarah Freeman Aeder, an administrator at New York University, who interviewed Jewish students at several US campuses. She found that students feel they must hide their Jewish identity despite the absence of much overt Jew-hatred. She concludes:

When asked where they got their information about Jewish life on campus, many cited social media. The ubiquity of social media creates a sense that what is happening in one place is happening in all places…Students also freely shared that their fear of antisemitism was something they instinctually felt, as opposed to something concrete they could pin down.
This disconnect between lived experience and the perception of antisemitism is problematic.

Aeder suggests that Jewish campus organizations like Hillel would do well to:

…accurately represent the lived experience of the vast majority of students…Hillels should try to highlight for students the differences between the scary things they read online, and the situation on their own campuses. If those looking to gain followers and clicks continue to push the message that students should feel unsafe, students are likely to see antisemitism lurking around every corner.

The suggestion that the Hillels and their sister organizations might have an interest in advancing gevalt rather than assuaging it, is well worth considering.

In 2015, the American group Jewish Voice for Peace produced a report entitled Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Antisemitism to Limit the Debate over Israel on Campus. It accuses Jewish institutional organizations like Hilllel of bullying other Jews so that:

Being a full-fledged member of the organized Jewish community often now entails passing a political litmus test, due to the guidelines that Hillel imposes with regard to Israel engagement on campuses, as well as the threats and intimidation of Israel critics and Palestinian rights supporters.

It concludes:

…[when] students learn how to engage in political arguments and criticize government policy, discomfort can be a necessary part of the process. The issue of discomfort can never be solved by exchanging the emotional ‘safety’ of one group with another. Even or especially when students are uncomfortable, it is important to assert the value of critique under the principles of democracy and human rights, which require that dissent be freely articulated.

Adam Lehman, Hillel International president, speaks at the University Presidents Summit on Campus Antisemitism in New York City. Photo courtesy Hillel International.

Crying wolf

Back to Canada, Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay has never been one to ignore antisemitism. But he has opined:

…when you examine B’nai Brith’s catalogue of supposedly horrifying antisemitic episodes, what you find is a menagerie of demented Internet crackpots and teenage graffiti artists spray-painting backward swastikas on fences. There is no ‘rising tide of antisemitism’ in Canada.

He relates an incident some years ago where the parent of a Jewish York University student called to say his daughter heard a professor say “Jews need to be sterilized.” The student walked out of the class early and reported it to other Jewish students and Jewish media. It turns out the professor in question is Jewish and was throwing out examples of wild opinions to show that they are opinions and not fact.

Says Kay:

Sarah didn’t stick around for the punch-line. And even when the real story came out, she was too proud to admit her mistake. The words, ‘Jews should be sterilized’ still came out of his mouth, she told the media. So regardless of the context, I still think that’s pretty serious.

By this weird logic, the fact that Sarah herself repeated the words ‘Jews should be sterilized’ to a reporter means she’s just another presumed hater.

There are more indications that some of the Canadian reports are less than they appear to be. Some Jewish students active in mainstream Jewish organizations, have also dissented from the weaponization of accusations of antisemitism.

With regard to the article in TheJ mentioned above, in February 2021, McMaster student Ezra Nadler wrote a letter to the Hamilton Jewish News berating that journal.

The J refused my request to remove the article after I argued that it did not reflect my original work and that the headline was misleading. The article has caused many Hamilton Jewish community members to worry that Jewish students may be afraid of facing harassment at McMaster.

McMaster’s Jewish community is 500 students strong and students walk freely, wearing visibly Jewish and Israeli garb.

Ilana Lazar, formerly a Jewish student at York University and Vice President of Jewish Life of Hillel York’s student executive, criticizes the Canadian Jewish News in a 2019 piece in that publication entitled “Students know campus climate best.”

I am finishing up my time at York University in Toronto, notoriously known in our community as not the friendliest place for Jewish students. To this dominant narrative I whole-heartedly disagree. During every year of my degree, I have been actively involved in the Jewish community on campus and played large roles in secular spaces, cultivating close ties with various clubs (cultural, political and others), faculty, administrators, and other important stakeholders. All of my experiences at York puts me in a perfect position to comment on this topic from the ground level.

The many CJN pieces providing a bird’s-eye view about student life are informative, but don’t give the full story. Let’s begin by providing a realistic, fact-based campus picture: no, campus is not on fire, not even at York. There isn’t a campus that Jewish students should be afraid of attending, nor one that they should attend, solely because they are Jewish.

Part of a larger problem

The author has written in this magazine before about the myriad attempts by Canadian institutional Jewish organizations to use the accusation of antisemitism to shut down events they dislike or have speech with which they disagree banned on campuses, especially using the bogus IHRA definition of antisemitism. The moral panic about Jewish students being afraid is part of that syndrome.

To be sure, it is undoubtedly more difficult to be a pro-Israel Jewish student on campus now than decades ago. Back in the day, Jewish students loyal to Israel would be confronted with few, if any, challenges to their political allegiances. But today, groups and activities critical of Israel abound and those Jewish students might encounter an argument if they press their views strongly. And those pro-Israel arguments are getting more difficult as Israel engages in activities in violation of international law.

In classroom discussions and campus forums, the pro-Israel position is no longer given a free pass. While it is discriminatory and unfair to blame Jewish students for Israel’s activities merely because they are Jewish, it is not clear that doing so can automatically be labelled “antisemitic” any more than Ali Abunimah can be labeled thus for espousing a single bi-national state in Israel-Palestine. And it is neither unfair nor antisemitic for critics of Israel to argue strenuously with those defending Israeli policy and practices, nor does it make campuses “unsafe” for Jewish students.

Other groups, especially racialized students, whose characteristics are visible, suffer regularly from discrimination, harassment, and violence on campus in Canada and the US. When Jewish advocates go over the top insisting that there is a pogrom-level of antisemitism at universities, they effectively act to demean and dismiss those other forms of bigotry. This divides victimized groups, instead of uniting them to fight this hatred. Moreover, Jewish students (mostly white) have the ill-advised but clear option of hiding or downplaying their identity. Racialized students do not have that luxury.

In fact, what really may bother the pro-Israel organizations more than victimization of Jewish students is the prospect of the opposite: that many of those students might agree with, rather than feel threatened by, expressions of antipathy toward Israel. In a June 2021 poll of US Jews commissioned by the Jewish Electorate Institute, 34 percent of all respondents agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States,” while 25 percent agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state.” A further 22 percent agreed that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” Younger Jews felt even more strongly, a third of them agreeing with the label “apartheid state” and the accusation of genocide.

It seems a distinct danger of Jewish students encountering views critical of Israel on campus is that they might come, not to fear them, but to embrace them.

At the very least, university campuses, it should go without saying, are supposed to be precisely the places where contending views, especially political views (and Zionism, like anti-Zionism, is a political view) can meet and even clash.

Pro-Israel Jewish organizations would seem to want the opposite. Avi Benlolo sees a table with a Palestinian flag and some reading material on the lawn at the University of Guelph and demands “we need government to step in.” What precisely would he have the government do? Ban Palestinian flags on campus? Arrest those sitting at these tables? Perhaps look the other way as those opposed overturn the tables and rip up the flyers? We have seen that kind of thing before in history. And it’s not pretty.

Larry Haiven is Professor Emeritus at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.


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