Confronting Troubling Trends on Campus

  • by:
    • Robert Trestan and Stacy Davison, The writers are respectively the Anti-Defamation League's New England Regional Director and Assistant Regional Director
  • May 1, 2015

We cannot ignore that anti-Semitism on college campuses is a growing concern and a real challenge for students who encounter it. Locally, recent incidents of anti-Semitism on campus have been widely reported in the media, including swastikas drawn at Tufts University, Northeastern University and Framingham State University. Nationally, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 2014 Audit of Anti- Semitic Incidents reported a 27 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents on campus from 2013, or nearly one incident per week. Underlying these numbers is the fact that these incidents have a real effect on the wider Jewish communities at these colleges.

Another troubling trend is that well-organized anti-Israel groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) are becoming more active locally and nationally and are increasingly using confrontational tactics that intimidate students. American college campuses continue to be a proving ground for various anti-Israel campaigns, tactics and messages. This spring, a divestment resolution was introduced at Northeastern University as part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign on campus, a clear effort to demonize Israel and place the entire onus of the conflict on the Jewish state. We joined with Northeastern’s Hillel and other organizations to denounce the resolution, which was rejected by the university’s Student Government Association.

While it may be tempting, we mustn’t impulsively conflate anti-Israel activism with anti-Semitism. ADL has worked with student groups and administrators on several local campuses to guide them in distinguishing between legitimate expressions of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. At the same time, administrators need to recognize that the impact of anti- Semitism and anti-Israel activism can often be very similar. Some students on campuses with significant anti-Israel activity report that they feel increasingly marginalized, isolated or compelled to hide their Jewish identity. As one student impacted by anti- Israel bias on campus told us, “We shouldn’t have to defend our identity. The fact that I am Jewish is getting in the way of my studies.”

The good news is that people are beginning to take notice and take action to support Jewish students. University administrators generally recognize the importance of issuing swift, strong statements condemning anti-Semitism and are taking steps to proactively ensure inclusive campus climates free from any harassment or intimidation. Campus life professionals are developing creative responses, such as Northeastern University Hillel’s campaign to distribute mezuzot for students to proudly display after the desecration of a mezuzah occurred at an off-campus apartment.

It is also critical that students learn proactive and reactive ways to engage with roommates, classmates or professors who may not understand their perspective as a Jewish student on campus. ADL is partnering with local synagogues to prepare college-bound seniors for potential experiences on campus with a new training program, Words to Action. It equips Jewish young adults with an understanding of how anti-Semitism manifests itself on campus, how it differs from anti-Israel bias, and strategies for responding effectively when faced with such incidents. Unlike more traditional Israel advocacy programs, Words to Action offers students a nuanced approach to addressing a range of issues they may face, from insensitive remarks to more blatant anti-Semitic incidents.

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