An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor
In recent years, antisemitic beliefs and incidents have risen sharply at American institutions of higher learning, creating a hostile environment for many Jewish students and faculty members. Some of the increase in antisemitism stems from actions by anti-Zionist, anti-Israel activists who display swastikas and other Jew-hatred symbols, as well as give voice to tropes calling for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews. Pro-Palestinian activists regularly intimidate and harass Jewish students on the subject of Israel, stifling any opposing views. However, a majority of the incidents reportedly reflect classic antisemitism and are not exclusively related to Israel.
In last month’s edition of AntisemitismExposed.org, we interviewed Dr. Amy Elman, the Weber Professor of Social Science at Kalamazoo College, about the subject of antisemitism on U.S. college and university campuses. This month, we drill down further into the topic by interviewing Dr. Andrew Pessin, Professor of Philosophy at Connecticut College.
In addition to authoring several philosophy books and two novels, Dr. Pessin co-edited Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS, published in 2018 by Indiana University Press. He is also the Campus Bureau Editor of The Algemeiner, a New York City-based publication that covers American and international Jewish- and Israel-related news. In that position, he scours the Internet daily to monitor what is happening on campuses with respect to Jews and Israel.
Dr. Pessin, given the book you co-edited and your role at The Algemeiner, you’re in an excellent position to evaluate Jew-hate on today’s American college and university campuses. How do you perceive the problem?
First, let me address the impact of BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, a Palestinian-led movement] on campuses. Institutions of higher learning are supposed to be places where you explore a lot of different points of view. People are free to be highly critical of Israel, and that’s fine.
But BDS organizations go way beyond that. Typically, they try to get the student government to approve a resolution calling for divestment from Israeli universities, companies, products, American companies that work with Israel, and so forth.
I believe student governments have no business adopting their own foreign policy positions. The point of student government is to look out for the welfare and interests of the students on campus. The BDS movement abuses the true purpose of student government.
Truth is, the resolutions do not harm Israel. As far as I know, no college or university administration has ever officially agreed to follow a student government’s resolution on Israel. They tend simply to ignore them, often issuing a statement explicitly disavowing them.
Although these resolutions really do not injure Israel, they do jeopardize Jewish students on campus. Who are the main supporters of Israel? They’re Jewish students. The anti-Israel BDS campaigns put them in a very uncomfortable position. They feel targeted by the resolutions, and either feel obligated to do battle even though they came to college to study, or they lay their heads down and hide.
What’s especially disturbing is that a large majority of the students on these campuses know almost nothing about the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, I prefer to refer to it as the Israeli-Palestinian-Jewish-Arab-Muslim Conflict, or IPJAMC, which even only scratches the surface of how complicated it is. But because of the relentless propaganda that groups such as SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] spread, many students wind up walking away thinking Israel is evil and anyone who supports Israel is evil — which means that a lot of Jewish students on campus are evil.
Are we talking only about propaganda?
Absolutely not. There is a great deal of harassment and intimidation. That can be verbal — antisemitic name-calling, shouting at Jewish students that they are genocidal ethnic cleansers, baby-killers. It also can include ostracizing and excluding Jewish students — for instance, not allowing them to participate in campus activism for various causes, even not inviting them to campus parties and other events. That might sound trivial, but it isn’t trivial to college-age young people, where social life is a key part of the college experience. It’s hurtful and a burden that Jewish students have to deal with.
I’m not a lawyer, but to me that’s discrimination, plain and simple. It’s going beyond free speech, which is protected under the law, to discriminatory behavior, which is not.
Has the behavior ever included violence?
There is plenty of physical violence toward property: graffiti at dozens and dozens of universities (swastikas, antisemitic slogans) and other vandalism. Most recently, a large menorah at Dartmouth had its lights shot out by a BB gun, and another at a University of Kentucky Chabad House was destroyed. Plus, sukkahs on campuses have been destroyed and several campus Chabad Houses have been targeted by arson.
In a few scattered cases there has been actual violence toward people. At Towson University in Maryland a couple years back, two members of a Jewish fraternity were walking home when they were accosted. They were cursed at (“F**k you, Jews!”) and physically attacked. The Towson administration investigated whether this was a hate crime — which was ridiculous in and of itself — but the findings were never released as far as I know.
At New York University a student wearing an Israeli flag celebrating Israel’s Independence Day was also assaulted.
Furthermore, in the past few years there have been serious mob scenes with pushing and shoving at a number of universities, particularly in the United Kingdom.
The violence toward people is very scary, but so far still rare. The violence toward property is almost as scary, and much less rare. But perhaps the biggest issue is the ostracization and exclusion I mentioned. What you’re seeing on a bunch of campuses is what’s known as the “anti-normalization movement.” The SJP and BDS folks enlist many other organizations into a coalition. Sometimes there are 20, 30, 40 student groups piling on, not just in support of BDS resolutions but openly in support of excluding Zionist students from campus activities.
What kind of groups?
Typically, these are liberal-progressive organizations — such as African American groups, Arab American groups, Latino groups, LGBTQ groups, women’s issues groups, climate change, environment, and so forth. Jewish students tend to be liberal, they typically want to be involved in these groups, so when these groups join coalitions against Israel, the Jewish students who are supportive of Israel, which is the majority, are precluded from working for causes they may believe in.
Again, if you want to boycott Israel for what you consider to be violations of Palestinian human rights, I accept that. But to boycott people on your campus who advocate for Israel, your fellow students, is a whole other thing. It’s taking the Middle East conflict and bringing it to your school. The campus becomes a proxy for a conflict half a world away. You’re effectively preventing a lot of Jewish students from participating fully in campus life. As I’ve said, that’s discrimination in my book.
Indeed, I see trying to get the university or student government to adopt a political position as antithetical to the whole mission of liberal arts education. And when it manifests itself as targeting Jewish students on campus with harassment and exclusion it is utterly unacceptable and probably actionable legally.
Can you give some other examples?
One that comes to mind is the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. This was just a few months ago. They got groups to pledge they would have nothing to do with student organizations that support Israel.
Another example is New York University. This was a couple of years ago. Over 50 student groups signed a pledge that they would not cosponsor with, cooperate with, or even speak with the two student groups on campus that supported Israel.
At Brown University several years ago, the campus SJP petitioned for a leading advocate for transgender issues, who had been invited to campus by a coalition of student groups, to openly disavow the co-sponsorship of the campus Hillel group because the students in that group were supportive of Israel. In response to this outrageous demand — that Jewish students who support Israel should not be allowed to participate in progressive causes — not only did the speaker capitulate by deciding not to come, but there was literally no campus opposition — neither from the administration nor from students — to the demand.
Another smaller example is discussed in my book Anti-Zionism on Campus. Back around 2016 an Oberlin student who was Jewish and supported Israel was excluded from joining the Black Lives Matter group on campus because it had included an anti-Israel tenet in its platform. The student vividly described the pain she felt in being forced to choose between her support for Israel and her support for this other cause she firmly believed in.
The issues you’re raising are not new — right?
Right. In terms of the more general free speech issues, it goes back decades. In the 1960s, the Kalven Report was put out by the University of Chicago in response to that era’s widespread student unrest, laying out some principles governing campus speech. It’s still relevant today. In fact, about two years ago it was invoked at a really significant case at McGill University. As part of the decision in that case. it stated that the BDS movement was “unconstitutional,” and that the effort to have the student government adopt foreign policy positions violated its rules on equity.
The Kalven report posits that in order to advance their mission of advancing knowledge, academic institutions — including component bodies such as student governments — should remain neutral. They should provide forums where people with different points of view can come to argue and debate, and hopefully reason wins out in the end.
The report says institutions of higher learning can only fulfill that function if they’re neutral, because as soon as a college or university takes a position, it becomes a participant, a combatant, and the forum is no longer fair and unbiased. Quite obviously, the BDS effort to get student governments, and universities in general, to adopt their political positions violates that.
To play a bit of Devil’s advocate, what is the difference between what’s going on now and, say, what took place on campuses regarding the apartheid regime in South Africa?
You know, the Kalven Report principles presumably dictate that campuses should have stayed out of the boycotting game even against South Africa. And that would probably be my position, too. That said, the campus boycott of South Africa seems less heinous a violation of Kalven than the BDS effort against Israel for at least a couple of reasons.
One big difference is, I believe, that there was overwhelming consensus on campuses against South Africa. That is not the case on North American campuses with regard to Israel. The reigning orthodoxy is largely anti-Israel, but it still is a divisive and contentious issue. For the university or student government to adopt a position is therefore to disenfranchise a large number of community members.
Here’s another big difference I see. When the situation in South Africa was a major issue, there weren’t a lot of South Africans on U.S. campuses as far as I know — students who might feel attacked in a very personal way. Although apartheid was denounced, I assume there wasn’t a concerted effort to attack, harass, and vilify the South African students who were attending.
Today there are lots and lots of Jewish students — the large majority of whom are at least supportive of the idea of Israel, even if they’re critical of some of its policies. Also, there are quite a few Israelis on American campuses these days. So campus anti-Israelism ends up being about much more than Israel — it ends up targeting specific individuals on campus.
How do you respond to those who characterize Israel as an apartheid state?
A last significant point: That South Africa was an apartheid state was not contested. But the very question of whether Israel is an apartheid state is one of the things that is in dispute. Personally, I find the charge not just absurd but offensive, and a clear expression not of some legitimate critique of Israel policies but of hate.
It’s well known that Arab-Israelis have full civil and political rights in Israel. They vote, have representation in the Knesset (the Joint List is the third largest party), can pursue all occupations, go to the same universities and restaurants and beaches as Jewish Israelis, and so on.
The situation in the territories is immensely more complicated because there it involves not distinctions among citizens but distinctions between citizens and non-citizens. There isn’t a government in the world — including Hamas and the Palestinian Authority — that does not discriminate between citizens and non-citizens. Somehow only Israel is accused of apartheid.
There is, of course, problematic racism and discrimination in Israel as well, as there is in any country. No one says, for example, the United States is an apartheid country because of the racism problem here. And, of course, there is plenty of racism and discrimination against Jews and other minorities in all the Arab countries surrounding Israel, but the BDS people seem concerned about that.
That concludes Part One of our interview with Professor Pessin. Look for the continuation in next month’s edition of AmazingJews.org.
An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor