Are College Campuses Becoming Inhospitable to Jewish Students?

Scott M. Feltman, What is happening to Jewish students and Jewish institutions on college campuses throughout the United States is truly alarming. America in 2020 is not the same place I grew up in and as an American Jew, it is sadly becoming one for which I fear for my children and future grandchildren.

A friend recently told me something very disturbing. After her 20-year-old daughter was reading Instagram posts on @jewishoncampus, this young woman wondered whether it would be safe for Jews to live in the U.S. in the near future. Before the pandemic hit, her daughter had plans to partake in an internship in Jerusalem. While she had once thought living in Israel was merely an enjoyable opportunity to learn more about Israeli culture, she now wondered if the United States, where she was born and has been a proud citizen for her entire life, would be a safe place to raise Jewish children in the future. She now pondered whether Israel will be the safer alternative.

On @jewishoncampus, Jewish college students from all over the country are posting personal accounts of anti-Semitism on college campuses. The things they are reporting are shocking and many are coming from mainstream schools with large Jewish populations including Rutgers University, Northwestern University, Tufts University, and countless other well-regarded institutions of higher learning.

A student from Columbia University wrote, “I had a professor tell the class, (in Israeli Sociology), that anti-Semitism didn’t exist anymore in America…one week later, a temple shooting happened.” The student proceeded, “Students who believe in the Israeli state’s existence are spat on at my university. Literally and figuratively. I’ve been called a murderer publicly when walking to class for being a supporter of Israel…the girl yelled so loudly that everyone stopped to look at me. We are humiliated like that on a daily basis.”

Unfortunately, for many years, American Jews have been naïve about or taken for granted their safety and security in the United States. Since being expelled from Israel 2,000 years ago, Jews have, at first, been welcomed into countless countries where they have settled and excelled, only to be murdered or expelled. This happened throughout history and across the globe including such enlightened lands such as England, Spain, Portugal, Poland, France, Germany, in addition to those who settled in Arab lands.

In recent years it has become much more obvious how critical a Jewish homeland is for our people. Unfortunately, not only is this concept being lost on many Jewish youth in America and Europe today, but they are also failing to appreciate that Israel must continually be strengthened to ensure that it remains a safe haven for Jewish people now and for the future when our host nations become inhospitable for Jews.

Part of the issue is that many young Jews and non-Jewish Americans think of anti-Semitism as a historical issue that faded following the Holocaust or think of anti-Semitism as a threat in other countries. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Despite comprising less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, nearly 60 percent of hate crimes were targeted against Jews in 2018 according to the FBI’s hate crime statistics. Online platforms have made it easy for anti-Semites to organize and radicalize, as was most glaringly seen by white supremacists’ chants in Charlottesville in 2017 or in the current protests under Antifa and Black Lives Matter. Back in early 2017, the Women’s March on Washington brought together millions of women across the globe, yet blatantly ostracized and attacked Jewish women, regardless of their political affiliations. In fact, in 2019, three of the four founders of the organization ultimately stepped down, in large part due to their anti-Semitic history.

Jews are being attacked both physically and verbally from all sides. Of course, in many ways, we’ve always been our own worst enemies and today is no exception. As examples, Jeremy Ben-Ami, Peter Beinart and Ariel Gold have become darlings of the anti-Israel left for their nearly universal condemnation of Israel and especially anything pertaining to the democratically elected government of Israel led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And since they are all Jewish, they are feeding a narrative that if Jews show that they care less about the importance of there being a homeland for the Jewish people and more about other groups, especially the Palestinians, they will be more accepted by others. This is far from the truth.

There have been remarkable movements with broad public support over the past few years, and especially right now, for all Americans to stand up and speak out against racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia in our society. However, anti-Semitism, the leading driver of religious hate crimes in America, is purposely overlooked.

Anti-Semitism is often referred to as the world’s oldest prejudice, and yet it is alive and well in our society, especially on college campuses, which often preview where the general society is headed. A student from Ithaca College posted on @jewishoncampus, “I was hanging with a few people in a dorm room one night and one of the guys in the room mentioned how his sports team should throw a ‘Holocaust theme party’ and use the showers as gas chambers. He wanted people to dress up as SS guards. I had never felt more uncomfortable than in that moment, but I had to remain silent because I knew Ithaca College wouldn’t care.” Holocaust-themed parties? Showers doubling as gas chambers? Proudly dressing up as murderer-SS guards? Is this 1940 Nazi Germany or 2020 America?

Was this student wrong to assume that Ithaca College wouldn’t care? That I cannot say. However, I do know that these posts should serve as a wake-up call for why there must always be a refuge for the Jewish people in the State of Israel. We also must begin speaking up about what is being taught in our schools and, by extension, the homes which are raising the next generation. Creating Holocaust-themed parties can only be linked to the feeble education, if any, that our youth are receiving in school. If we don’t stand up and demand change, it will only get worse and then, and I write these words with great trepidation, we Jews in America may need Israel more than we ever thought possible.

I contemplated writing about this topic for many weeks. Frighteningly, as I sat down to begin writing, reports of another unprovoked, confirmed arson attack at the Chabad House on the campus of the University of Delaware is just coming to light. I pray these attacks cease but I’m not the one who is naïve to history.

When so many choose to focus their ire on Zionism instead of anti-Semitism, it becomes clear that their discomfort with the former is bred by the comfort with the latter.

Scott M. Feltman is the executive vice president of One Israel Fund.