Ever since I co-founded the social-media-based organization Jewish on Campus, I have been constantly asked why the stories of anti-Semitism we post are done so anonymously. While I would love to be leading a movement with the names and images of those whose stories I tell at the forefront, we face an unfair reality where I must ask myself: “If this platform were not anonymous, would anyone come forward?”
With a scroll of our Instagram page, the answer is clear. At Columbia University, Jewish students were spat on and called murderers on their way to class, and professors have told their students anti-Semitism is no longer an issue. At Cornell, a student assembly member was threatened to be outed to his family if he did not vote for BDS (boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel). At USC, the student body vice president resigned from her position after being the victim of bullying and harassment for her identity as a Zionist. At Tufts, a student judiciary member was silenced when discussing an unquestionably anti-Semitic referendum because his Jewish identity allegedly made him biased.
There is no question about what will happen if a student is open about supporting Israel’s right to exist, or even open about their Jewish identity; the precedent has been set. Those who choose to remain silent out of fear and pressure are constantly reminded that their views are not welcome. When we try to protect our communities from this blatant discrimination, our efforts are smeared as attempts at censorship, and infringements on academic freedom and freedom of speech. Faculty biases and student body bigotry are not addressed. At the end of February, hundreds of scholars defended David Miller, a lecturer at University of Bristol, on that premise after he called Jewish students “pawns” of the Israeli government.
If academic freedom is suppressing the opinions of Jewish students like myself, in seminars, lecture rooms, and extracurricular clubs, wouldn’t that be antithetical to the concept of academic freedom in and of itself? See, the truth is that academic freedom is not for me. It is not for conservatives, it’s not even for liberals, and quite definitely not for Zionists. Academic freedom is the freedom to have the correct opinions. Right and wrong, good and bad, and no in-between — these have already been decided for us. Our job is to accept them without question. This “academic freedom” is not freedom at all.
We are witnessing a modern-day inquisition and inevitably, Jews are the archetypal heretics. In the college campus model, professors have become the preachers, and students have become an active mob seeking apostates. Those who dare to speak out are not subject to a mass burning or torture, but certainly to the wrath of the crowd. The offenders face “cancellation,” social ostracization and public “dragging” on social media with the potential of ruining lives and careers. Their ironic calls for “academic freedom” are a mutation of what has become, in this case, the unquestionable left. It behaves like a cult or a medieval religion, in which morality and universal truth are defined. To be a good person, one must accept a number of divine tenets, anti-Zionism being one of them.
Beyond college campuses, the exponential expansion of this toxic ideology has arrived at our government and public education, as demonstrated by the newest edits of California’s ethnic studies model curriculum, which was unanimously passed by the state Board of Education. The lesson plans aim to teach children a racial hierarchy, in which Jews are the only group described with the word “privilege.” In previous edits, Jews were not even mentioned. Capitalism was cited as a form of oppression along with racism and Islamophobia; anti-Semitism was not. Students who have been exposed and conditioned within these illiberal tenets in college are entering the workforce and coming full circle to reach the vulnerable minds of young kids to create a tightly-knit cycle of indoctrination.
An Instagram post by the U.S. Palestinian Community Network commenting on the lukewarm changes made in the curriculum by Jewish advocacy groups reads, “Zionists have no place in the classroom!” Jewish college students are aware of this. We are no longer facing gaslighting and dog whistles, but outright threats to our liberties. The anonymity of Jewish on Campus is simply a harsh consequence of a harsher reality in which our discrimination is a symptom of a much larger problem.
This week is Passover and as Jews celebrate our freedom, we must liberate ourselves once again. Ultimately, we have two choices. Jewish students can try to force our identities into the hostile ideologies that become ingrained in our society, perhaps even shed them, but this formula fails, as history attests. Conversely, we can turn this into an opportunity, embrace Judaism and Zionism, and be key to a resistance. The singularity of our preemptive cultural suppression is also the gift of clarity in discerning the hypocrisy of these ideologies. Courage is needed, but the choice is a given.
De Castro is a student at Cornell University who runs the group Jewish On Campus.