An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor
Note: This is an encore presentation of the interview we first published in 2021. Given developments since then, it is more relevant than ever.
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.
Dr. Andrew Pessin is Professor of Philosophy at Connecticut College. In addition to authoring several philosophy books and three novels, Dr. Pessin co-edited Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS, published in 2018 by Indiana University Press.
He also is 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.
Follow Dr. Andrew Pessin on Twitter: @AndrewPessin
To read Part One of the interview, click here.
Dr. Pessin, what do colleges and universities say when they’re confronted about virulent anti-Israel, anti-Zionist rhetoric on campus?
They say they’re simply supporting freedom of speech. Unfortunately, what that often means in practice is that the anti-Israel crowd can say the most hateful, most defamatory, most heinous things about the Jewish state —- and say them 24/7. They can blanket the campuses with anti-Israel posters. They can invite hate-filled anti-Zionist speakers to address the students.
But if one person says something that’s even vaguely racist, the entire campus and administration get up in arms to condemn it, stamp it out. Suddenly “freedom of speech” doesn’t seem so important. So there definitely is an unsettling double standard at play when it comes to attitudes about Israel and Zionism: Jews are the only minority or ethnic group it is acceptable to criticize and offend. And those attitudes often spill over into outright antisemitism. In such cases, administrations have been very slow to act, if they’ve acted at all.
Perhaps more to the point, if Jewish students want to speak out in favor of Israel, they’re often intimidated and even threatened. To put it another way, there seems to be freedom of speech for everyone except for pro-Israel Jewish students.
How do parents of Jewish students react to these things?
A couple of years back I received a letter from a woman whom I had known for a very long time; her daughter was a student at the University of Chicago. She wrote to tell me there was an extremely nasty letter in the student newspaper objecting to the fact that an Israeli was coming to teach a class at the university.
The piece in the newspaper was filled with the usual lies and rants about how evil Israel is, and about how no Israeli should be invited to campus. By the way, I don’t remember if the Israeli in question was, in fact, going to teach anything having to do with the Middle East. Of course, it didn’t matter. Simply being Israeli was toxic enough that his or her presence was to be protested.
I get that kind of feedback fairly often. I hear from parents who are very concerned about sending their kids to particular schools where anti-Israelism is rampant. They also take it upon themselves to write letters to the universities to express their displeasure, but typically individual parents do not have much clout in this regard. So there is a lot of expression of concern, quite a bit expression of outrage, but ultimately very little action from the parents.
I can’t blame anyone — parents or students — who prefer avoiding schools that are hotbeds of anti-Israel activity. A few examples: Columbia University, University of California Irvine, San Francisco State. It’s understandable if you don’t want to be on the frontline, or even in the vicinity, of that hatred.
As a community, however, I urge people not to withdraw their kids from such schools. If all the pro-Israel Jewish students stopped going to Columbia University, for instance, we essentially cede that campus to the haters. What we need instead is for more Jewish pro-Israel students to go there, and to go there fully prepared — knowledgeable about the history of the Jews and of Israel, and proud of their identity.
What about groups tackling this issue?
I haven’t heard about any groups made up of parents of Jewish students. However, about 10 years ago a group did form that was composed of Jewish alumni of a couple of schools. The name of the group was Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), and now there are a number of similar chapters at universities around the country. I understand that in the last couple of years, ACF has become part of the larger group called StandWithUs, which is a prominent pro-Israel information organization on campuses and elsewhere.
The alumni who formed ACF were upset about how the subject of Israel and Jewish students themselves were being treated on their campuses. They organized to be a coherent voice of opposition to the “madness,” which is how they described it. I cannot disagree with that characterization.
In truth, individual parents don’t have much power. A huge number of parents would have to get together and create a massive boycott of a school before they could hope to have influence. But if the alumni of various schools come together and coordinate their efforts, they can have the power of the purse. Colleges and universities are very much driven by the wallet, and that includes the funding they receive from alumni.
If schools fear they could lose substantial alumni financial support, they might be motivated to be more aggressive in defending their Jewish students from what I’ve described. They’re also fearful of potential legal action, by the way.
It seems that administrators are in a no-win position.
Yes, and I have to admit I have some sympathy for them. They want things to be peaceful on campus. They want financial donations to keep coming in. They don’t want to get anyone upset. If their campus is a place where there are very polarized opinions, it’s tough. And the Israeli — Palestinian issue tends to produce extremely polarized communities.
From the perspective of administrations, there is no totally happy outcome. Someone is going to be angry, no matter what. One hopes that administrations maximize freedom of speech, but at the same time are sensitive to when speech becomes hateful, and particularly when speech becomes conduct. At a certain point, it’s very easy for speech to move into harassment or threat. That infringes on the free speech of the people being harassed or threatened, so administrators have to figure out where the line is. Generally speaking, it’s not easy.
There are some easy cases, though. For example, when anti-Israelists disrupt talks by Israeli or pro-Israeli speakers, they are openly infringing upon the freedom of speech of the pro-Israel community. That should be a no-brainer — not allowed, and with penalties for those who commit it.
I don’t know the answer more generally. On the one hand, administrations ought to stay out of the fray. They should have no opinions whatsoever about any of their students’ and faculty members’ positions on controversial subjects. Their job is to provide a neutral arena in which advocates of different positions can make their case, rationally and one hopes civilly.
But on the other hand, administrators need to call out antisemitism when the speech is antisemitic. At the very least, as I’ve said, if they are going to call out racism they need to equally call out antisemitism. If the presence of racial hatred harms students, or if such hateful speech and conduct impedes their ability to get an education, then antisemitism ought to be dealt with the same way.
Again, it’s a no-brainer that antisemitism should be treated like any other form of bigotry. No one ever says, we can’t suppress racism on our campus because of free speech concerns. No one says that free people need to have free speech so they can be openly racist. If you are not allowed to speak freely on campus as a racist, you shouldn’t be allowed to speak freely as an antisemite.
Many people claim, “We’re not antisemitic; we’re just against Zionism and Israel.”
They have a great misunderstanding about Judaism and the history of the Jewish people. The Jewish national connection to the land of Israel goes back thousands of years. The religious connection goes back thousands of years. The connection is alive and well for both religious Jews and a great many secular Jews. Jewish identity and the land of Israel — and therefore the State of Israel — are intimately intertwined and cannot be separated.
In general, I would argue that It’s impossible to be “against Zionism” and not against the dreams and identity of the Jewish people. That doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of particular Israeli actions and policies. Of course you can. But to oppose Zionism in general, carte blanche, to be against the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland in their ancestral land, is to be antisemitic.
An important point here: It is a widely accepted principle that the victims of oppression get the primary voice in defining what constitutes the oppression against them. Apparently, that is, except for Jews! There you get loads of non-Jews who say “I will tell you what antisemitism is and is not.” Then whatever antisemitic thing they believe or say, they will define antisemitism so it doesn’t include that thing. It’s as if they say to themselves, “I am not an antisemite, therefore if I say or believe something, it isn’t antisemitic. So when I say ‘Destroy the only Jewish state in the world!’ it is not antisemitic.”
You read every day about a professor getting in trouble because certain students found what they said to be racist or politically incorrect. Does the same thing happen to professors who are antisemitic or defame Israel?
Occasionally there are episodes — although nowhere nearly as many — when anti-Israel teachers get in trouble. Recently, a chemistry T.A. at one university — a Palestinian graduate student, I believe — posted on her Twitter feed something along these lines: “I have a big ethical dilemma. I have Zionists in my class. Should I give them lower grades because of that?” She also conducted a poll, and most of the people who responded said she should mark them down.
To state the obvious, being a Zionist doesn’t have anything to do with chemistry. After being called out on it, she said she was just joking. You can imagine what the reaction would have been if the targeted group had been some other racial, ethnic, or religious minority.
Currently, there is a big stir going on at Bristol University in the UK. A professor who says the most hateful things about Israel, and who claims his own Jewish students are actually agents of Israel with a dual loyalty, is under fire for his antisemitism.
Note that in both of the above cases, which seems to be the general rule: They get in trouble not for advocating for Palestinians, but actually for advocating against Jewish and pro-Israel students — threatening to fail them, accusing them of treason, etc.
How widespread are these problems today, in your view?
Thankfully, cases where Israelis are outright prohibited from speaking on campus have been rare. What has been much more common is pro-Israel speakers or pro-Israel events being disrupted. When members of Students for Justice in Palestine have heard about pro-Israel speakers, for example, many have attended and interrupted the proceedings.
That was extremely prominent a few years back, but I’m hearing less about it now. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic, given that a lot of campus events are no longer held in person. Over the years, however, there have been dozens of such instances.
It’s also very rare that any of the disruptors have been disciplined for what they did — even though universities typically have honor codes or student conduct codes precluding that kind of behavior. As I say, those codes are almost never enforced. And no one comes to the aid of Jewish students who are harassed or suppressed on campus.
Bottom line, how dire is the current situation?
A lot of parents say to me ”Where should I send my kid to school? It all seems so awful right now!” It’s important to put what I’ve been talking about in context and in perspective.
Something like 4,000 institutions of higher education are registered in North America. The overwhelming majority of them are quite removed from these issues. In other words, there are few or no difficulties on most campuses. Of the 4,000, you might have serious problems on, say, 100 of them. Of course, that’s 100 too many.
Even at a place like Columbia University in New York, traditionally a hotbed of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activity, you might be able to go to class on campus [pre-pandemic] and not notice a lot of the nastiness, if only because Columbia is such a huge campus.
On the other hand, I don’t want to give the impression that everything is fine, because that is not the case. Especially at some of the bigger and more prestigious schools, there even have been Jewish students who’ve felt compelled to leave because of the treatment they had to endure.
For those and many other young Jews, the situation is serious indeed.
This concludes our in-depth discussion with Professor Andrew Pessin. We thank him for his participation.
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