For Jewish college students like me who were sent home from our colleges and universities last March, the effect was at first chaotic. We were, like everyone else in the nation, afraid for the health and safety of our families and of our communities. Add to this that we were about to process all of the madness away from our campus Jewish communities—the social gatherings, Shabbat services, and holiday meals that anchor our lives.
But for some of us, I confess, there was a bit of relief. As outspoken opponents of anti-Semitic activity on campus, we suspected we were in for at least a little reprieve. We wouldn’t have to worry about divestment debates, or student organizations targeting Jewish students and professors. We wouldn’t have to stay up until the wee hours, comforting a distraught student at Hillel because of a strangely personal anti-Israel comment made in her political science course. Most importantly, we wouldn’t have to worry about hiding our Jewishness or love of Israel.
We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The animosity against “Israel” on campus, used to mask animosity against Jewishness, did not cease, even as the classroom was replaced with the Zoom call. The controversies and scandals kept coming, from California to Massachusetts. Designated terrorists were invited to virtual lectures. Zionism was denounced as racism in official organization statements. And the harassment campaign against Jewish students persisted—only now, the harassers were behind screens.
“Anti-Zionism” on college campuses is not a political disagreement confined to the boundaries of academic discussion in the classroom. It is an obsession. It is an insistence on making Jews feel uncomfortable—or worse—wherever, whenever, under whatever conditions. And this hatred does not disappear when you walk off campus and into the real world. It is finding its way into American political discourse and our most cherished democratic institutions.
There is a common narrative that circulates in the liberal Jewish community when it comes to anti-Semitism on campus. It goes like this: Jewish students who complain are fragile. They hear the slightest criticism to the pro-Israel orthodoxy they grew up with, the slightest contradiction to all the wonderful things they learned about Israel at summer camp or on Birthright, and their emotions get the better of them and they cry “anti-Semitism!” when none is present at all.
Those who broadcast the stories of troubled Jewish college students? They are right-wing political operatives. They are engaging in smear campaigns against Palestinian liberation movements, blowing up what amount to silly tempests in teapots in order to sell the false and dangerous reality that leftist anti-Semitism is just as big of an issue as right-wing anti-Semitism.
This is what I myself used to say. It’s certainly what I assumed when I arrived at school in the fall of 2018.
I landed on campus identified as a progressive activist, ready to spend my weekends marching the streets of D.C. against the Trump administration, against Brett Kavanaugh, against the evils of capitalism and corruption. Of course I had heard rumors of anti-Israel activism that occasionally “crossed a line,” but these stories came from them. You know ... The AIPAC Jews, the Trump Jews, the right-wingers.
That was then. Two years later, I am sitting in my childhood bedroom comforting dozens of Jewish students scattered across the country on social media.
On this particular October night, the flashpoint is Northwestern University. There, a student organization called Northwestern University Community Not Cops was ostensibly undertaking an effort to protest the presence of police on campus. Somehow, part of their work involved branding Morty Shapiro, the school’s religiously observant Jewish president, “piggy Morton” and burning a school banner in front of his home. Shapiro accused the organization of anti-Semitism.
In response, Northwestern University Community Not Cops published a statement condemning Zionism as racism and Zionists for silencing Palestinian voices. They wrote: “False claims of anti-Semitism have been used throughout Northwestern’s history to shut down student activists, especially Palestinian activists, and to divide coalitions by falsely claiming that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. Because of the pervasive myths of colonialism and white supremacy, we find ourselves having to repeat: Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.”
Neither Israel nor Palestine were, until this point, pieces in this unfolding drama, yet this student organization decided to frame Shapiro’s reactions to them as a Zionist conspiracy.
“I don’t even identify as a Zionist,” one Northwestern student wrote me on Instagram, “but Jewish students like me are being completely gaslit by an organization we overwhelmingly supported. Another noted: “I’m a little worried for myself and fellow Jewish students right now.”
I have sat in front of my computer fielding these sorts of missives almost every night since last November, when The New York Times published my own story about the kind of bigotry I faced as a young Jewish student at George Washington. After a year of this, I want to put it to you as plainly as possible: What we are seeing on our college campuses is not criticism of Israel. It is not even hatred of Israel or Zionism. It is unmitigated, often unprovoked rage at Jewishness.
But don’t take my word for it. Let me give you a window into the stories you don’t hear, the ones too inconvenient for anyone to report on. Many of these stories are published on the Instagram account JewishOnCampus, a platform where Jewish students can submit their experiences on campus under the protection of anonymity.
At Arizona State last year, a young woman was called a Nazi by a fellow student for carrying a water bottle with a Hebrew sticker.
At DePaul University, a Jewish student posted a picture of Jerusalem on her Instagram with the caption, “I am glad to have a safe place for Jews on earth.” In response, a fellow student involved in Students for Justice in Palestine posted videos about how she wanted to “beat the shit out of” a Jewish student, and “drag her Israeli ass into the ground.”
At the University of Pennsylvania, a student rejected his Jewish roommate’s offer of leftover challah from last night’s Hillel Shabbat dinner. His reason? “I’m Pro-Palestinian.”
Also at Penn, students in a mandatory class on racism were given a “privilege quiz” by the professor. Next to each identity, the quiz listed a positive or negative value. The higher the value of the identity, the more the students needed to “check their privilege” according to the professor. Under the religion category, Judaism was ranked as the most privileged of all, with 25 points assigned.
At UC Berkeley, a student enrolled in a course on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict posted that he felt the course was opening his eyes. He claimed that the “Jewish owned media” had kept the truth “hidden.”
At George Mason University, a student writes that her Middle Eastern studies professor would point to her in class every time she said “Zionist.” Later, this professor was invited to speak on a panel about anti-Semitism.
At Cornell, a member of the Student Assembly who had just voted yes on the BDS resolution said in her defense that there were “way worse genocides than the Holocaust.”
At Harvard Law School, after the Tree of Life massacre, the dean of students sent students a one-paragraph email offering an “interfaith candling” on campus to mourn for the victims. Anti-Semitism was not mentioned once, nor was the word “Jews.” Instead, it nodded to “many in the Harvard Law School community who felt the impact of the shooting.” Ninety minutes later, a five-page email followed, from the same dean, about Harvard’s commitment to fighting discrimination of students based on their gender identity, calling out the various LGBTQ groups by name and including a long list of resources as well as a mental health hotline.
At McGill University, in a classroom conversation about equality for minorities, a student felt the need to emphasize that Jews “aren’t a minority, they have all the wealth and power in society.”
At Rutgers University, a Jewish boy wearing a kippah walking home from Hillel was cornered by a few men shouting “Palestine” in Arabic.
At University of Oklahoma, a student with an “I Stand With Israel” sticker on her laptop found that “someone had put a piece of paper with ‘burn dirty Jew’ written on it and a swastika” in her backpack.
At Tufts, a student confidently stated to her Jewish friend that Hillel “used their money and influence to shut down Palestinian activists at school.” The Jewish student writes, “when I told her that what she said had anti-Semitic undertones, she responded that she didn’t hate Jews, just Zionists. She told me she learned all of this from her Middle Eastern studies classes.”
At Tulane, a Jewish student said to a non-Jewish student that she felt uncomfortable when he called her a “Jewess.” He responded: “Well, you haven’t really suffered like other minorities, so you shouldn’t have a say in who gets to call you whatever.” The student then “proceeded to talk about how Jews oppress Palestinians.”
At Michigan State, Jewish students attended a vigil for the 11 Jews murdered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. A man stood up during the vigil and said, “What about the suffering of the Palestinians?”
At Harvard, a Jewish student wrote to me that after she told her friends she supported a two-state solution, one responded: “you obviously haven’t seen enough Farrakhan speeches.”
At New York University, the Hillel was temporarily closed down due to death threats against Zionist students, the burning of an Israeli flag on campus, and for the assault on a student who was singing “Hatikvah.” Later that year, the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at NYU won an award for having the most positive impact on campus.
At Barnard College, a Jewish student writes: “I was told that, because I support Israel, I can’t be an ally to LGTBQ friends, Black people, or any other minority group on campus. I was told it was impossible. I am continuously excluded from progressive or social justice circles again and again.”
A Georgetown student wrote: “A roommate who I didn’t know well randomly told me that she wouldn’t be friends with me if I was a Zionist. We hadn’t talked about Zionism or Israel before, she just knew I was Jewish.”
At American University, a Jewish student running for student government was called “a Zionist Nazi” in a meme page run by the local Democratic Socialist Alliance chapter. Also at American, a student writes that her “classmate announced to the class that the world only cared about the Holocaust because it was a genocide of white people.”
At USC, a student was subjected to an online campaign to remove her from her student government position after her pro-Israel views were discovered. The students called for the “impeachment of her Zionist ass.”
All of polite society seems to be in agreement that victim blaming is bad—except for when the victims are Jewish students. Why? Because in the view of the new left, everyone in the world can be separated into one of two camps: Victims, and victimizers. And in this zero-sum worldview, Jews do not fall on the good side of the ledger. Jews are seen as white, privileged, and protected. They are high on the pyramid of power—and therefore incapable of ever truly being victims.
It is therefore completely unproblematic to demonize them, and certainly not to protect them. That’s why, at Sacramento City College, after swastikas were found on campus on two separate occasions, I received the following note: “The Black Student Union organized a demonstration against and about keeping the Black and brown students safe, but there was no mention about keeping Jewish students safe,” the student wrote. “After speaking about the omission to fellow students, I was told that people like me could not be victims of a hate crime.”
And that’s what I get from the people willing to speak up. A student wrote to me recently from an Ivy League university, desperate to keep his identity hidden out of fear that the university might retaliate. “Most of the pressure comes from the student body,” he wrote. “It is targeted at anyone who thinks differently from the mob, and Jewish philosophy and Jewish individuals tend not to fit into the mob. Even for the good-hearted professors, I try to write exam answers that mirror their worldview rather than presenting the best arguments I see.”
It’s been ever thus. As Dr. Einat Wilf reminds us: “For Medieval Christianity, we stood between a brutish and nasty world and salvation. For Germany, for Europe, we stood between them and glory. For Stalin, we stood in the way of communist utopia.” Today, we stand in the world of nuance and gray area, in the way of a world free of particularism and individuality, the very things the Jewish people have always embodied. The Jewish people challenge dogma, we reject censorship, we embrace difference of opinion. And these values are being used as grounds to marginalize us.
This is how unsuspecting young Jews get branded with the most detestable traits imaginable on earth. If Hillel is hosting a Shabbat dinner with an Israeli speaker, Hillel is the ultimate betrayer of human rights. Hillel is demonic. Hillel is evil. Hillel is irredeemable. If Jewish students are eating hummus and pita before class, they are appropriating Arab food and by extension colonizing Arab culture and murdering indigenous people. If a Chabad is set on fire in the dead of night, and Jews post about it on their social media accounts, they must delete their posts because talking about Jewish issues is racism against Black people facing legitimately important matters. If the Panera Bread at school is out of fresh cookies, it is christened “The Zionist Panera.” (That one’s mine, from a student in my Comparative Politics class.)
Anyone who objects risks being pushed out of what British scholar David Hirsh in characterizing the same breed of anti-Semitism running rampant in the British Labour Party called “the community of the good,” and banished forever to the community of the bad: the conservatives, the Republicans, the Trump supporters. And so the things that used to be staples of Jewish communal life on campus—Hillels, Shabbat dinners, promotion of Birthright trips, and so on—are forced outside the realm of righteousness and exhaustively politicized to the point where most Jewish students won’t even bother raising an eyebrow even if they know it to be wrong.
Of course, as in all waves of anti-Semitism, there is always room for the Jews willing to work with our enemies: The Jews who will remain quiet when the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at the University of Florida posts a Der Stürmer cartoon; the Jews who will stand by the Palestine Solidarity Committee at Harvard when they broadcast an image also featured on David Duke’s official website; the Jews who will stand by as a speaker who called Jews “Sleazy Thieves” is invited to offer an expert opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These Jews will take center stage at rallies, events, and Zoom calls with convicted terrorists. These Jews are always a sterling defense against accusations of anti-Semitism—until, of course, their services are no longer needed.
When adults tell me that we should just be more open-minded, that it’s really just a difference of a political opinion, I want to scream. The people marinating in this ideology are changing the country, not just the campus. It is why The New York Times sees no problem in publishing a flattering piece on Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March. It is why leftist organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow host a panel on “Dismantling anti-Semitism” with four vocally anti-Israel panelists. And it is why when the organization “Muslims for Abolition” organized a Juneteenth “day of action” to protest bigotry and discrimination in law enforcement, the flyer read “open to all, minus cops and Zionists.”
Throughout Jewish history, our community’s leaders have had a terrible habit of ignoring threats to Jewish safety in exchange for promises of acceptance—until it becomes too late. I fear that what we are seeing now is no exception.
What will finally be the wake-up call? “Palestine” was spray-painted onto the UMass Hillel building on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and that didn’t do it. The Chabad building at University of Delaware was set on fire in a confirmed arson attack and that didn’t do it. Student demonstrators at Cornell spit on Jewish students and shouted “f*ck you Zionist scum” and that didn’t do it, either. When will be the moment when Jewish voices are taken seriously, not smears as agents of pro-Israel propaganda but understood as Jews who are being marginalized because of who they are? The failure to recognize this threat is the failure to recognize the new, rigid ideology that is now permeating American culture—and it is one that boasts a dark and uncomfortably familiar forecast for the Jewish community.
Blake Flayton is a senior at George Washington University and the co-founder of New Zionist Congress, @newzionists on Twitter and @newzionistcongress on Instagram.