Universities shrug off antisemitic incidents as ‘free speech,’ claim efforts to ‘educate’ BDS supporters. Media downplays ‘Squad’ antisemitism even after progressive Democratic condemnation.

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The fall semester has begun with university administrations displaying mixed responses to BDS inspired antisemitism. At CUNY the administration appointed a former CAIR lawyer to investigate antisemitic incidents while other university presidents condemned vandalism but defended antisemitic expressions as ‘free speech.’ These episodes, which contrast with the usual concern voiced by administrations over antisemitic incidents, may be harbingers of change. Whereas previously universities at least paid lip service to Jewish concerns, this is gradually evaporating. Whether, as so often has been the case, universities portend changes in broader culture remains to be seen. Progressive Democratic condemnation of ‘Squad’ antisemitism provides a hopeful countersign.


The BDS movement began the academic year with vandalism and harassment aimed at Jewish and pro-Israel students.

At Cornell University graffiti of a Star of David equaling a swastika and the slogan “Burn prisons, free them all, Attica to Palestine” was found near the Hillel office, while a banner with the same slogan was hung from the law school opposite the Hillel. In response the university president issued a statement denouncing in the “strongest possible terms all forms of hatred and bigotry.” A rally was also held in protest and the student government passed a resolution condemning antisemitism.

At the University of Wisconsin the first day of classes was marred by chalkings around campus that stated “Zionism is racism,” “Zionism is genocide,” and “There are Zionist orgs @UW They Have Blood on Their Hands.” In response the university vice chancellor stated the school was “disappointed” that the day was “marred” by the chalkings.

The statement went on to note “These labels are antisemitic: they attribute broad actions or beliefs to Jewish student groups.” But it added “Our job as leaders is not to respond every time a controversial or offensive incident happens on our campus,” noting “we believe in sifting and winnowing and a robust commitment to free speech. That can be difficult and uncomfortable at times. While we do not know who created these chalkings, and acknowledge the impact they had, nonetheless we also acknowledge they represent free speech which is a core value at UW.” The statement concluded with a call for “for civility and kindness while at the same time, embracing vigorous, honest debate.”

The local SJP chapter defended the graffiti in a series of long social media postings that attacked Israel and the United States as “illegitimate settler-colonies,” condemned the university and its “entire racist, colonizing ass,” and alleged that its members had been harassed by Jewish students. In a later response, Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin then added that “Our Student Affairs leadership has reached out to SJP’s leadership and will be speaking to them to emphasize the impact of their actions and the harm caused by these chalkings.”

Observers noted that the university’s free speech defense and call for Jewish students to “embrace vigorous, honest debate” with antisemites would be inconceivable had other minority groups been targeted, as would efforts to ‘educate’ racists. A series of antisemitic incidents had occurred at the Madison campus during the spring semester including direct harassment of Jewish students.

Similar vandalism was noted at San Francisco State University and Sacramento State University. The chancellor of the University of California system issued a statement condemning these and other antisemitic incidents but noted that “we seek to nurture an environment where all members of our University community are safe and welcomed, with the space to speak, be heard and be engaged on challenging issues and topics.”

In response to complaints filed last year, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education announced it was opening an investigation of the University of Vermont regarding the treatment of Jewish students. The complaints recounted a number of incidents of intimidation and harassment that created a hostile environment for Jewish student on campus.

Specific incidents included where Jewish students had been denied membership in a campus sexual assault awareness group and a ‘socialist revolutionary group’ because they were ‘Zionists,’ and a teaching assistant who had posted on social media that she would give ‘Zionist’ students lower grades. Rocks had also been thrown through the windows of the campus Jewish center. Meetings with the university’s ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ (DEI) personnel resulted in no action. In one case the DEI director allegedly mocked Jewish students’ complaints.

In response, the university president, Suresh Garimella, called the allegations “false claims” and “uninformed narratives” He added that “Exploitation of fear and divisiveness by advancing false claims that UVM failed to respond to complaints of antisemitic behavior creates confusion and a sense of insecurity for the entire community.” With regard to specifics Garimella stated that the university was powerless to act against the student groups, that the rocks had been thrown to wake a sleeping student, and that no student had lodged complaints against the teaching assistant. Jewish groups denounced the president’s statement.

The response of University of California Law School officials to the decision by several student groups to exclude ‘Zionist’ speakers and to demand that all students groups do so similarly downplayed BDS related antisemitism. Dismissing the extent of pressure on student groups to conform, Erwin Chemerinsky, the law school dean, expressed surprise that the issue had even been noted off campus and concern that “media is using this minor incident to paint a misleading picture about the nature of my law school, my campus and higher education.”

Chemerinsky went on to state “that students have the right to take a position on this, like all issues, even if I disagree with them or find their views offensive,” and that “it also is important that I express support for the Jewish students who are understandably upset by the message.” The remainder of his message tacked incoherently between expressions of support for free speech (in the form of institutionalized discrimination), support for Jewish students (many of whom, although pointedly not all in his account, ‘consider questioning the existence of Israel as a form of antisemitism’), and bland calls for civility.

The seriousness with which universities treat antisemitic incidents directed at students and faculty was also called into question at the City University of New York. The administration initially announced that ‘chief diversity officer’ Saly Abd Ala, a former lawyer with CAIR-Minnesota, would investigate longstanding complaints regarding antisemitic discrimination at Kingsborough Community College. The assignment was quietly withdrawn after protests from Jewish groups. The central role of the faculty union in facilitating antisemitic abuse of Jewish faculty has also brought into focus legal challenges to laws that give public worker unions an organizing monopoly and which prohibit individuals from resigning from the union.

The CUNY chancellor, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, had previously refused to attend a New York City Council meeting on antisemitism at his institution. But Rodríguez did announce a partnership with to expand Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative at CUNY, “which works to end antisemitism and build safe learning environments in which all students can thrive, regardless of race or religion.” Reports also indicate that antisemitism would be incorporated into CUNY’s DEI training and that funds would be allocated for programming to oppose ‘bigotry.’ Sixteen other universities will participate in the Hillel International Program.

The CUNY situation and the deteriorating security situation for Jews in New York City have become campaign issues for Republican candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin. His opponent, incumbent Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul, has also decried rising antisemitic attacks in New York City but has not addressed the CUNY situation.

The extent to which Israel are campus obsessions was demonstrated by a study that noted almost 1500 articles on these topics were published in 75 college newspapers during the last five years. Approximately 30% of the articles presented Israel in a negative light, as did over half of the opinion pieces. This obsession has helped deform campus environments particularly at smaller liberal arts colleges and major public institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley, where the student newspaper ran 91 pieces during the time period examined. Conversely, a report from Princeton notes that university administrators threatened a student journalist with a Title IX violation, usually reserved for sexual harassment, for reporting on a campus BDS leader.

September culminated with vandalism over Rosh Hashanah, as swastikas were found carved into the door of a Jewish student at Trinity College as well as in a bathroom at American University, antisemitic flyers were distributed at the University of Michigan, and eggs were thrown at a Jewish fraternity at Rutgers University. A seemingly coordinated series of BDS rallies and events were also held at eight different universities over a four-day period during the week prior to the holiday.

The normalization of BDS and antisemitism, along with angry assertions that opposition to these social pathologies is bizarre or unfair, was also displayed outside of academia. Most notable was a story in the New York Times that claimed that Russian trolls were behind the negative Internet publicity that undermined the ‘Women’s March’ and specifically Linda Sarsour rather than her long history of antisemitism. Another New York Times story focused on Palestinian anger over Marvel’s announcement that an Israeli superhero would be featured in an upcoming movie.

In the political sphere, the appearance of Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate State Senator Darren Bailey, at a Palestinian-American association in Bridgeview raised concern at several levels. Bailey spoke before a map in which Israel was erased and the entire region labeled ‘Palestine.’ In an interview Bailey was then asked about Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker who has strongly supported anti-BDS legislation. Bailey stated

I’ll always stand on the constitution and it sounds like some of those values are being stepped on right now…And that makes sense, that’s what’s taking place in every aspect of government with this governor of ours. He doesn’t follow the law, he doesn’t follow the constitution. So the constitution will always be front and center. The Muslim community, the Arab community will always have a seat with me as we learn together, work together, and live together.

Bridgeview is the center of a large Palestinian-American community. The Bridgeview mosque is well-known for its radicalism and for having been used by to raise funds for Hamas. Although Bailey had previously alienated the Illinois Jewish community with remarks comparing abortion with the Holocaust, the fact that a Republican candidate was willing to speak against anti-BDS laws reflects to the power of Palestinian-Americans in Illinois politics.

Bailey’s willingness to attack anti-BDS laws is highly unusual for a Republican. In contrast, Democrats remain torn over Israel. This was demonstrated again in September by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who in a speech to Americans for Justice in Palestine Action and leading BDS group American Muslims for Palestine stated “among progressives, it has become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government” and that “we will… not accept this idea that you are progressive, except for Palestine any longer.”

Tlaib was immediately accused of antisemitism by a number of House Democrats including Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) who stated “There’s nothing progressive about advocating for the end of Israel as a Jewish State,” and Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) who said, “people can absolutely hold progressive values and support Israel’s right to exist.”

Tlaib’s speech and the reactions were most notable in that they once again put Israel at the center of Democratic politics and demonstrated that party centrists wish to reclaim the concept of ‘progressive’ from self-described socialists such as Tlaib and the ‘Squad.’ Observers have noted that Tlaib’s formula explicitly threatens to purge Jews from progressivism. The lack of response from feminist members of the ‘Squad’ regarding the oppression of women in Iran during the current uprising also highlights their singular focus on Israel.

The centrality of ‘Palestine’ to the progressive agenda and the presumption of control by BDS advocates was also demonstrated in Florida where Maxwell Alejandro Frost won the Democratic primary in the 10th District. Though applauded by Democratic notables such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the 25 year old Frost was excoriated by the ‘Florida Palestine Network’ for allegedly reversing his views on Israel. Frost was accused of having privately supported BDS and ending military aid to Israel and publically expressing opposition several months later. The BDS group also alleged that Frost had promised not to distribute a Middle East position paper without “the approval of FPN.”

Universities shrug off antisemitic incidents as ‘free speech,’ claim efforts to ‘educate’ BDS supporters. Media downplays ‘Squad’ antisemitism even after progressive Democratic condemnation.

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Alex Joffe

Editor SPME / BDS Monitor

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He received a B.A. in History from Cornell University in 1981 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States. Joffe taught at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, and has been Director of Research for Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., and The David Project, Center for Jewish Leadership.

Joffe's work is uniquely broad. Since 1991 he has published dozens of studies on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and is a leading figure in contentious debates over the relationship between archaeology and politics in the Middle East. He has also authored numerous works on contemporary issues, including Middle Eastern environmental security threats from pollution and weapons of mass destruction. His work on the problem of dismantling intelligence agencies is widely cited by experts and democratic reformers alike.

In the past decade Joffe has written and spoken on topics as varied as the future of American Jews, the Palestinian refugee problem, and nationalism. During that time as well he has been deeply involved with combating the problems of campus antisemitism, the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions' movement against Israel, and in educating Jews and others about threats to Israel and the West. His current projects include a biography of a British World War II general and several novels. He and his family reside near New York City.

Read all stories by Alex Joffe