Battling Antisemitism on Campus
When Max Price entered Tufts University in 2018, excited to study international relations and economics, he did not expect that his college experience would include being intimidated, harassed and marginalized on the Medford, Mass., campus. In his years at the university, he has been slandered in the school newspaper, muted on a Zoom student government meeting and labeled “a white supremacist upholding settler colonialism” on social media—all on the basis of his Jewish identity and outspoken support of the State of Israel. Last winter, the campaign against him initiated by Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) escalated into an attempt to impeach and remove him from the student government.
Price filed repeated complaints to the university administration with over 100 examples of documented evidence, but his efforts fell on deaf ears. Ultimately, he found a champion in attorney Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a 10-year-old Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that today primarily works to combat the surge of antisemitism on college campuses.
“Tufts University is legally obligated to protect Mr. Price from antisemitic harassment that targets him because of his Zionist identity and seeks to silence him,” stated a letter to the university administration demanding the impeachment process be stopped. Submitted by Lewin on February 3, 2021, on Price’s behalf, the letter, totaling 110 pages, with exhibits, invoked violations of the university’s own policy regarding freedom of speech as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which precludes discrimination on the grounds of race, color or national origin. In recent years, Title VI has been interpreted to include discrimination against religion on the basis of shared ethnicity and ancestry.
Tufts SJP dropped the impeachment effort three weeks after the letter was sent, claiming that once the situation became public, its members no longer felt safe.
“I decided with the Brandeis Center that the best way to stop the harassment was to put a spotlight to it,” said Price, now 22, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Boston and has visited Israel twice. “I never thought of hiding my Jewish identity. I’m proud I fought and stood by my convictions.”
He doesn’t fault his peers who are more reluctant to speak up. “It’s not an expectation we as a society can place on every Jewish student to be a warrior, nor should it be incumbent on American Jewry to push universities to protect our civil rights,” he said. “We need universities to stand up for Jewish students.”
Price’s experience is one example of the antisemitism pervading universities across the country. The legal strategy employed by the Brandeis Center is relatively new in the evolving toolkit of fighting campus antisemitism, alongside several proactive initiatives begun in the past year and a half.
At the heart of the disturbing climate on campus is the very definition of antisemitism and how it intersects with anti-Zionism, fueled by the hate that spreads rapidly on social media as well as in-person incidents. The overlapping intersectionality, diversity and inclusion movements are also sweeping anti-Israel sentiment into their causes.
Though antisemitism on campuses continues to come from right-wing groups in the form of swastikas and defacing of Jewish spaces, said Lewin, much of it emerges as a form of left-wing progressive activism.
Julia Jassey, 20, a University of Chicago student who has become a leading national figure in the fight against anti-Jewish activity on campus, put it this way: “Antisemitism is, by nature, a nebulous form of hate which is able to continue over time because it shifts in presentation.
“Today’s rhetoric around Israel and accusations of ‘Jewish greed’ have been reimagined within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that transcend politics and are, undeniably, antisemitic,” continued Jassey, the CEO and co-founder of Jewish on Campus, a nonprofit started by six students last year as an Instagram page that has collected more than 1,000 anonymous stories of antisemitism and now has over 34,000 followers.
“These tropes have existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” she added, “but these permutations are markedly modern.”
Jassey, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Dix Hills, N.Y., noted that one of the biggest challenges for the Jewish community is rethinking how it reacts to this type of antisemitism. “What has worked for the last 20 years is not working now,” she said. “It needs to be re-envisioned because antisemitism looks different now.” In her view, the change needs to include strong student voices fighting antisemitism on campuses and in social media spaces, backed by established organizations.
Recent numbers reveal the scope of the problem. Last April, a Brandeis Center-commissioned poll of 1,000 members of the predominantly Jewish fraternity and sorority Alpha Epsilon Pi and Phi reported that two-thirds of respondents experienced or were familiar with an antisemitic attack—either verbal or physical threats and assaults, on campus or in virtual settings—over the previous four months. More than 65 percent of those surveyed in that poll by the Cohen Research Group said they felt unsafe on campus due to physical or verbal attacks, and half felt the need to hide their Jewish identities.
In a recent attack, for example, vandals broke into Tau Kappa Epsilon, a largely Jewish fraternity, at George Washington University on November 1, tore apart its Torah scroll and covered it in laundry detergent. The rest of the house was doused with hot sauce.
Jewish students who are not actively engaged in Jewish and pro-Israel groups may never experience antisemitism, Lewin pointed out. But even those less active have told Lewin they will no longer hang a mezuzah or wear jewelry with Jewish symbols or T-shirts with Hebrew words because they are targeted when they do. “This is the kind of pressure students are feeling,” she said.
Hillel International, which has chapters on 500 campuses globally, counted 244 incidents in the United States, including attacks on social media, during the 2020-2021 academic year, even though many campuses were physically closed due to the pandemic for most of that time. This marked a 34 percent increase from the year before. In 2013, only 30 incidents were reported. Its new collaborative initiative with the Anti-Defamation League to address this rise in antisemitism included a survey of students on 220 campuses last summer: A third said they had experienced anti-Jewish hate in the past year, but most did not report it. The 40 percent who did report it said they were not taken seriously by their school administrations.
“Not every campus is burning, but it’s very challenging to imagine that students don’t encounter some form of hatred during their university life—whether in person, in the classroom, on the campus quad or on social media platforms,” said Rachel Fish, an historian of Israel, Zionism and Middle Eastern studies based in Waltham, Mass.
The majority decide not to engage or report their experiences because they came to school to study and have fun, said Fish, whose new think tank, Boundless Israel, partners with community leaders to revitalize Israel education and combat Jew hatred. They don’t want to lose friends, alienate professors or be “canceled” for taking an unpopular stance.
Meanwhile, the complex interface between antisemitism and anti-Zionism has not been adequately recognized by both the Jewish and university communities, said Lewin. “Anti-Zionism is not about criticizing Israel’s policies. It denies Israel’s right to exist—and that’s antisemitism,” she said.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, has a slightly different take. He said that while not all anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitism, anti-Zionism is antisemitic when either in intent or effect “it invokes anti-Jewish tropes; when it is used to disenfranchise, demonize, disparage or punish all Jews and/or those who feel a connection to Israel; when it equates Zionism with Nazism and other genocidal regimes; or when it renders Jews less worthy of sovereignty and nationhood than other peoples and states.”
Antisemitism from the right continues to pose a “serious and dangerous threat,” Greenblatt said, referring to both college campuses and American society in general, likening it to “the lethal category-5 hurricane threatening to bring immediate catastrophe. Antisemitism on the left, however, is more insidious, akin to climate change. Slowly but surely, the temperature is increasing. Often people don’t perceive the shift, or they choose to ignore it even in the face of once uncommon storms. But the metaphorical temperature is rising, and the conditions threaten to upend life as we know it.”
Being pro-Israel is seen as being outside the realm of intersectionality, which merges progressive causes such as anti-racism, LGBTQ+ advocacy, climate change and Indigenous, labor and reproductive rights. “There are those who have highjacked the effort to fight racism and adopted a vision of the world as one of two categories—good and evil, oppressed or oppressor,” said Lewin.
“In the progressive spaces on campus, the litmus test for how progressive one is begins with the question, ‘Does Israel have a right to exist?’ And the answer is no!” agreed Fish. “Israel is perceived as being born in sin, and to be on the ‘correct’ side of history, one must denounce those who engage and support Israel as they are deemed to be racist.”
This dynamic freezes out Jewish students inclined toward progressive values.
“Intersectionality ignores the Jewish voice for progressive causes,” said Blake Flayton, 21, a Manhattan-based columnist for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, who graduated last August from George Washington University. Anti-Israel activists reach out to Black student unions and other progressive organizations, intertwining their problems and oppressions. They assert that their strength will grow if they join forces, he explained.
Flayton, who was raised in a Reform Jewish home in Phoenix, Ariz., speaks from personal experience. For his first three semesters at the university, until the pandemic shut down the campus in early 2020, Flayton spent every weekend at rallies for progressive causes—Planned Parenthood, criminal justice reform, a $15 minimum wage. He said he found “overwhelming hostility” to Israel in these spaces both on campus and off.
Then he saw a video posted to a student’s Snapchat story showing another student advocating the bombing of Israel and then proceeding to spew blatantly antisemitic profanities about Jews. When a close friend at the time posted on his Instagram that Jewish students don’t stand up for anybody else on campus, Flayton had had enough. He described his campus experience in an opinion piece published in The New York Times on November 4, 2019.
“This is our new normal,” he wrote. “On college campuses and in progressive circles across the country, it does not matter if you strongly oppose the right-wing leadership in Israel; if you are a Zionist, you are seen as the enemy…. If you call yourself a Zionist because your family fled to Israel from a Middle Eastern country as a means of survival, you are complicit in ethnic cleansing. If you call yourself a Zionist because your family fled Germany to escape a concentration camp, you are a colonialist. If you call yourself a Zionist because your family made aliyah to Israel because of their religious or spiritual beliefs, you are complicit in apartheid.”
Flayton says that his Zionist identity was dormant until it was threatened. “I had heard that people complained about antisemitism on college campuses, but I never gave it a shred of thought,” he said. “And when I did, I thought those were right-wing Jews who can’t bear criticism of Israel.”
His experience spurred him to co-found the New Zionist Congress, an educational and cultural organization whose name riffs off Theodor Herzl’s 1897 First Zionist Congress. The group, which has a thousand subscribers to its weekly newsletter and 5,000 followers on Instagram, has been providing virtual programming to strengthen the Jewish identity as a defense against antisemitism. It hopes to open in-person chapters soon.
That strategy, he said, “is more effective than any BDS debate on campus, which is just a lot of screaming and calling people names.”
What complicates the issue is that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Zionism, and some Jewish students who support Israel feel that not all anti-Zionism on campus is antisemitic. “Zionism is defined both by the establishment of a Jewish homeland as well as by the displacement of Palestinians from their homes in 1948,” asserted Eliza Schloss, 21, a journalism major at American University in Washington, D.C., who is co-chair of J Street U on her campus and also serves on its regional board. “I wouldn’t be so quick to label those who call Israel a settler colonial state antisemitic.”
Schloss said that “when we loop criticism of Israel into the definition of antisemitism it becomes problematic.” However, she added, “when political criticism morphs into personal attacks labeling Jewish students as guilty for the actions of the Israeli government or military, that’s getting into what I believe is antisemitism.”
Both Flayton and Jassey say their public fight against antisemitism has strengthened their Jewish identities. “Growing up, being Jewish was like playing soccer. I didn’t realize that in college I would be questioned about where my family is from,” said Jassey, whose maternal family fled Iraq and Yemen to find refuge in Israel, where her grandparents were born. Her father is of Russian and Polish heritage. When she faced an antisemitic comment at a campus French club and felt so insecure that she laughed along with it, she began to delve into her family history, which reaches back to Spain.
“I’m alive because of Israel,” said Jassey, adding that she has faced “intense and frighteningly violent threats,” mostly on social media.
“My ancestors fought through so much antisemitism, and I can’t turn my back on that,” said Jassey, a double major in political science and Jewish studies who also hosts the podcast Nice Jewish Girls, in which she interviews Jewish women who are breaking new ground in various fields.
“I realized that I could run away from antisemitism because it’s too complicated to contend with—or that fighting it could be a source of strength.”
The organization she co-founded, Jewish on Campus, announced a collaboration with the World Jewish Congress in October, focusing on education, grassroots activism, social media engagement and advocating for student protection. The partnership is one of several in which mainstream Jewish organizations are teaming up with burgeoning student-run groups and universities to help address the increasingly volatile climate.
Creating a distinction between discrimination and free speech is a vital shift in the way students and campus organizations are now articulating their response to antisemitism. “Discriminating against religious expressions of identity like wearing a kippah or putting up a mezuzah is clearly recognized as unlawful,” said Lewin. Universities are usually quicker to respond with statements of condemnation in such instances, as George Washington officials did in the case of the desecrated Torah scroll in November.
But, according to Lewin, “Discrimination based on a student’s support of Israel is more difficult to uncloak.
“University administrators felt they were under no obligation to intervene in what they perceived as a political debate: one side supports the Palestinians; the other supports Israel,” Lewin continued. The “political debate” masquerades as free speech but in reality is a cover to “spread falsehoods and dispute Israel’s right to exist without any interest in discussion or dialogue,” Lewin said. It seeks to “marginalize, ostracize and ultimately exclude Jewish students who support Israel as a key component of their ethnic pride and identity.”
Lewin’s goal is a sweeping one: Use the law to improve the climate on campuses and allow Jewish students to fully engage in campus life without hiding a part of who they are. “The law is a powerful motivator,” she said. “When you use the language of harassment and discrimination, universities pay attention. If they don’t comply, they have legal liability, and they don’t want to lose their funding.”
No comprehensive list of legal letters or complaints exists, said Lewin. Complaints are only publicized if the complainant chooses to go public, and individuals and other organizations like the Lawfare Project, StandWithUs, the Zionist Organization of America and CAMERA have also filed complaints separately or jointly with the Brandeis Center.
One case that garnered widespread attention involved Rose Ritch, a student at the University of Southern California who was elected vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government in February 2020. She was demonized publicly and privately on social media, including for her affiliation with the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. One post accused her of alienating Palestinian students on campus simply because she is a Zionist and urged: “Get rid of her.” A fellow USC student launched an impeachment campaign against her.
The Brandeis Center sent a letter to the USC administration on July 7, 2020, invoking Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the university’s own bylaws, asking the university to protect Ritch from antisemitic harassment and immediately halt impeachment proceedings that are “unquestionably and deeply rooted in Jew hatred and unlawfully deny her an equal opportunity to participate in USC campus life.”
Although the university suspended the impeachment proceedings, Ritch still resigned from the student body on August 5, 2020. It was “the only sustainable choice I could make to protect both my physical safety and mental health,” she wrote in a Newsweek opinion piece. The next day, USC President Carol Folt sent a message to the USC community citing Ritch’s “heartbreaking resignation letter” and stating that “anti-Semitism in all of its forms is a profound betrayal of our principles and has no place at the university.”
The majority of the complaints to universities about antisemitism take the form of letters sent to school administrations charging that the university has not taken steps to protect students. Some complaints are filed with the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education. In 2004, following anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of 9/11, the Department of Education extended protection to “Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and other religious groups” based on their shared ethnicity and ancestry. President Barak Obama’s administration adopted the stance in 2010, and in 2019, President Donald Trump issued an executive order expanding Title VI to all government agencies that disburse funds.
There has been no actual lawsuit since Lawfare settled a case in March 2019 on behalf of students at San Francisco State University and California State University after Hillel was barred from a “Know Your Rights” campus fair in 2017.
Brandeis Center’s letters, Lewin explained, seek not only to redress discrimination against individual students but also to educate administrations and to urge them to take proactive steps: issuing public statements recognizing that Zionism is an integral part of Jewish identity for many; revising their non-discrimination policies to include a prohibition on discrimination based on shared ancestry and ethnic characteristics, including antisemitism; conducting trainings for their university communities about the many manifestations of antisemitism; and adopting the non-legally binding International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, which is used by the United States State Department (and has been strongly backed by Hadassah and other Jewish organizations). Contemporary examples that accompany the IHRA definition include “animus toward the Jewish State of Israel that may at times cross the line into antisemitism.”
According to Marc Rotenberg, vice president of University Initiatives and Legal Affairs for Hillel, only a handful of university administrations have formally adopted the IHRA definition, including New York University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Florida State University; 26 student government groups have adopted it.
Meanwhile, Lewin pointed out that all universities that receive public funds are subject to the IHRA definition irrespective of formal adoption.
Shine a Light, a new national initiative to raise awareness of antisemitism that is made up of partner organizations, including Hadassah, launched its first campaign during Hanukkah 2021. About a dozen college and university administrations signed on, with many more continuing to join, according to Kate Blumm, a spokeswoman for the initiative. As part of the effort, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine requested that all university and college leadership in Ohio work with local public safety and law enforcement entities to ensure Hanukkah celebrations proceeded safely; find opportunities to speak out against antisemitism; and reach out directly to campus Jewish communities to create a safe environment for students, faculty and staff.
For Max Price, the legal strategy ended a months-long campaign to remove him from the student government. His case dates back to fall 2020, when he was elected to the Tufts Community Union Judiciary, part of the student government that oversees campus groups, Tufts SJP and Tufts for a Racially Equitable Endowment began negotiating on the wording of a referendum they wanted to place on a ballot in support of the Deadly Exchange Campaign.
Deadly Exchange, launched nationally by the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace in 2017, blames Israel for white supremacy, racism and police brutality in the United States based on an exchange program between American and Israeli law enforcement. A Tufts police chief had participated in the exchange program before he retired.
After Price took a stand against the campaign in his capacity as a member of the Tufts Community Union Judiciary and as president of Tufts Friends of Israel, Tufts SJP initiated an intense months-long harassment campaign claiming Price was “inherently biased.” The judiciary chair muted Price on a Zoom meeting, which included the third vote on the resolution in October 2020 (it had been voted down twice), but the harassment did not end: Tufts SJP called for a formal disciplinary hearing.
That is when the Brandeis Center stepped in, sending the letter on Price’s behalf. It also condemned Deadly Exchange, saying that it “promotes a modern blood libel—the demonstrably baseless claim that Jews and Israel are somehow responsible for the tragic deaths of unarmed people of color by American police officers.”
The Tufts administration did not respond directly to the Brandeis letter or intervene in stopping the impeachment trial. “We respect the TCU Senate’s independence regarding the conduct of its business according to its policies and procedures,” Patrick Collins, Tufts’ executive director of media relations, wrote in a statement to Hadassah Magazine, referring to the Tufts Community Union. As to Price’s contention that his initial complaints got no response from university officials, Collins wrote: “We are not at liberty to discuss individual student cases or allegations. However, we take very seriously any concerns raised by students—regardless of their backgrounds and perspectives—of bias, safety, privacy and intimidation, whether by organizations affiliated or unaffiliated with Tufts.”
This past fall, Tufts joined Hillel’s new Campus Climate Initiative, which is currently working with a cohort of 27 university administrations in a yearlong program to better understand the threats of antisemitism, take proactive steps to minimize them and directly counter them when they occur. As part of that effort, Tufts’ administration and trustees convened an Ad Hoc Committee on Antisemitism as well as focus groups. According to Collins, these steps were unrelated to the Brandeis Center letter or Price’s case.
Although the resolution to support Deadly Exchange ultimately passed the student body in December 2020, Price, who is graduating in February, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the steps Tufts is currently taking to address antisemitism.
“I’m rooting for the administration to do better but I have good reason to be skeptical,” he said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to hard reforms on campus.”
Rahel Musleah leads virtual tours of Jewish India and other cultural events and hopes to lead her first post-Covid in-person tour in November 2022 (explorejewishindia.com).