Report finds that harassment of Jewish students tied to discrediting of global anti-Semitism definition

Schools with one or more incidents involving expression challenging the definition of anti-Semitism were more than twice as likely to host acts of Israel-related behavior targeting students for harm and the more such expression, the more Israel-related acts of harassment.
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A Students for Justice in Palestine march in New York Credit: JCPA.

A report published on Tuesday by the nonprofit watchdog AMCHA Initiative documented a more than 300 percent increase in campus activity in 2019 intended to undermine and discredit the global acceptance of anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism.

This was accompanied by an increase in anti-Semitism on college campuses, according to the report.

Out of the 126 incidents, 119 of them—or 94 percent—were expressed by students affiliated with anti-Zionist student organizations or faculty who support an academic boycott of Israel, occurred as part of activities or events organized or sponsored by anti-Zionist student groups and academic departments with academic BDS-supporting faculty, according to the AMCHA report.

Schools with one or more incidents involving expression challenging the definition of anti-Semitism were more than twice as likely to host acts of Israel-related behavior targeting students for harm and the more such expression, the more Israel-related acts of harassment, according to the report.

Out of those incidents, 56—or 44 percent—were objections made by self-identified anti-Zionist Jews or at events sponsored or co-sponsored by a Jewish anti-Zionist group, usually Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which was more active in 2019 than ever before, according to the AMCHA report.

“Overall, JVP campus activity, such as events or activities organized or co-sponsored by JVP or that included participation by JVP members, statements issued by JVP or articles written by JVP members, increased by 45 percent from 118 occurrences in 2018 to 171 occurrences in 2019, and was strongly linked to increases in expression challenging the IHRA definition: Schools with an active JVP student group were three times more likely to have occurrences of expression challenging the definition,” stated the report.

Nonetheless, for the second consecutive year, there was a significant decrease in the number of incidents of anti-Jewish harassment identified as expressing classic anti-Semitism—down 49 percent from 203 incidents in 2018 to 104 in 2019. There was a significant increase in the number of Israel-related incidents, 192 in 2019—up 60 percent from 121 incidents during the previous year.

The report’s researchers also found that Israel-related anti-Semitism is easily adaptable to the distance-learning platforms that will likely play a large role in the college experience during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and they unveiled a new approach to protecting Jewish students on physical or virtual campuses.

In 2019, there was 72 percent of Israel-related instances of anti-Semitic harassment occurred via online transmission, including, but not limited to, emails, social-media postings, organizational websites, and online newspaper articles and webinars. Such behavior also occurred in campus forums, such as classes and student government and faculty meetings that since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic are routinely held via online platforms including Zoom, according to the report.

During the same time, only 12 percent of classical anti-Semitic harassment occurred online or were easily adaptable to online transmission.

‘Comprehensive approach to combating all forms of intolerant behavior’

Then, of course, is the acceptance of how anti-Semitism is defined. Jewish leaders say an understanding of the concept is crucial, particularly when it comes to students.

The definition by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) says: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

It is this language that is not only being adopted by universities around the world, but by organizations and governments.

“In response to Jewish communal efforts to get universities and government agencies to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism when enforcing university harassment policies and state and federal anti-discrimination law, disputes surrounding the IHRA definition’s identification of anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism and related issues dramatically increased in 2019,” according to the report, which stated that sentiment against the IHRA definition increased 3.7 times—from 34 incidents in 2018 to 126 incidents in 2019.

The researchers suggested that the dramatic and alarming uptick in challenges to the definition of anti-Semitism is likely a response to recent federal, state and student efforts, along with the Trump administration’s executive order in December to get government agencies and universities to use the IHRA definition to ensure that Jewish students are adequately protected from anti-Semitic harassment under anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and university harassment policies based on them.

Although Jewish students have been considered a protected minority under Title VI for several years, their complaints of Israel-related harassment have regularly been dismissed by the Department of Education and ignored by university administrators.  It was therefore hoped that use of the IHRA definition would allow government officials and university administrators to recognize and adequately address Israel-related harassment as anti-Semitism.

“Given the extent of such pushback and its linkage to acts of anti-Zionist motivated harassment, it remains unclear how effective efforts to address Israel-related anti-Semitism using the IHRA definition and civil rights law will ultimately be,” cautioned the researchers.

Instead, they offered “an alternative approach to protecting Jewish students that does not depend on how one defines anti-Semitism or understands Jewish identity. As a result, it effectively neutralizes challenges to the IHRA definition from anti-Zionist individuals and groups that have impeded fair and adequate administrative responses to anti-Jewish harassment. Instead of seeking protection for individual Jewish students from their membership in a federally-protected identity group, our approach seeks protection for Jewish students as individuals, with the same rights as all other individuals, to be free from behaviors that seek to suppress or deny their self-expression, including expressions of belief and group identity.”

Finally, in calling for action, the AMCHA report states that it’s “more important than ever that universities consider a new, comprehensive approach to combating all forms of intolerant behavior, including both classical and Israel-related anti-Semitism, and begin taking the necessary steps to ensure that all students are equally protected from action and speech that suppress their self-expression ad deny their full participation in campus life.”

“We believe an approach that holds all students to the same behavioral expectations, and addresses all intolerant action and speech equally, is the best way to protect Jewish students from all forms of campus anti-Semitism,” said the researchers.

Report finds that harassment of Jewish students tied to discrediting of global anti-Semitism definition

Schools with one or more incidents involving expression challenging the definition of anti-Semitism were more than twice as likely to host acts of Israel-related behavior targeting students for harm and the more such expression, the more Israel-related acts of harassment.
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