Navigate to News section

Jew Hatred Is Not the Problem at Penn (or Other Universities). Radicalism Is.

Understanding the true problem is the only way to land on an effective solution

Tony Fels
April 01, 2024

Original photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

Original photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

Late last year Pennsylvania’s Gov. Josh Shapiro interjected himself forcefully into the uproar over former University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill’s congressional testimony (in which she failed to say that calling for “the genocide of Jews” would necessarily violate the school’s code of conduct) and the events on the Penn campus that would soon culminate in her resignation. The governor came out strongly against antisemitism in all its forms—never bad in itself. But Shapiro’s widely reported speech on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023, at Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom synagogue, in which he proclaimed, “hate has no place here,” misnamed the chief problem that had plagued Penn and a number of other universities this past fall. That problem was not the expression of group hatred toward Jews, of which only a handful of examples have existed on most American campuses for many years now, but rather the radical politicization of higher education to the detriment of the free expression of ideas, which constitutes the lifeblood of any college. Threatening in this way to undermine the very idea of a university, political extremism may also predictably endanger the safety and well-being of individuals—Jews among them—who live, study, or work at one.

In the flood of commentary that followed President Magill’s ouster, right-leaning columnists justly pilloried elite institutions like Penn for their hypocrisy in scrupulously defending the legal principles of free speech on campus concerning criticism of Israel while ignoring years of restrictions on faculty and outside speakers whose views challenged “social justice” norms on race, gender, religion, and other topics. Meanwhile, left-leaning columnists properly warned of dangers to academic freedom if wealthy donors, politicians, or other self-interested parties can bypass normal university procedures to influence educational content—in this case, in the name of opposition to antisemitism. Neither side in this clash has been keen to acknowledge its own contributions toward undermining academic freedom and diversity of thought at universities, turning the conversation into yet another skirmish in the “culture wars.” A focus on what has provided the stimulus for so many recent campus controversies, the perception of speech and actions that are considered hateful, may offer some clarity toward useful university reforms and an assessment of the current moment’s dangers for Jews.

Incidents of reported antisemitism at Penn this past fall received a boost from two singular events—a high-profile conference showcasing Palestinian literature and political activism, which took place on the campus in late September, and the savage assault by Hamas on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, precipitating the ongoing war between Israel and the terrorist organization in Gaza. As a result, the record of these incidents (detailed in the next three paragraphs), while at first glance startling in number, on further examination of what’s known about their circumstances suggests somewhat less cause for alarm. Overall, this record comports with the general findings of the Anti-Defamation League for two recent years, which downplay the significance of universities as settings for antisemitic attacks. For both calendar years 2021 and 2022, the ADL found that just under 6% of the total number of antisemitic incidents occurring throughout the United States (which rose to its highest number on record in 2022 at 3,697 incidents; no doubt that number will be far higher for 2023) took place on college campuses. And most of the recent ones at Penn, as we will see, are best classified as political in nature.

In terms of its content, despite the presence of occasional generic symbols of antisemitism, this record of attacks on Jewish targets is best described as an extremist outgrowth of political radicalism stemming from the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The record for Penn this past fall is as follows: On Sept. 13 students discovered a swastika painted on an inside surface of Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design, with no apparent leads turning up as to the identity of the perpetrator or the significance of the precise target. On Sept. 21 Penn’s Division of Public Safety apprehended a man for entering the campus’s Hillel building, overturning some furniture, and shouting, “F—k the Jews. They killed JC.” The man, who the Penn police said was “experiencing a crisis,” had been spotted earlier overturning trash cans on a nearby city street. His relationship to the Penn community has never been clarified. (The Washington Free Beacon, citing an unnamed Hillel spokesperson, reports that the intruder was a Penn student, but all other sources refer only to “an individual.”) As part of the three-day “Palestine Writes” conference, held on the campus Sept. 22-24, speakers excoriated Israel from multiple angles, including as a nation of “settlers from Europe” who became “occupants of our country.”

On Sept. 27 the display of a foliage-covered booth for the Jewish holiday Sukkot, erected by Penn’s Chabad organization, was desecrated with unreadable graffiti, but Penn’s police did not consider the incident antisemitic. On Oct. 16 a pro-Palestinian demonstrator, not affiliated with Penn, told students in a pro-Israel counterdemonstration that they should “leave us in peace or go back to Moscow or Brooklyn.” He later pushed a bystander and ripped down pictures of Israelis held hostage by Hamas, for which he was apprehended by Penn’s police. Two days later a Penn library staffer also tore down pictures of the people assaulted and taken captive by Hamas. When confronted by a Jewish student over what he was doing, words were exchanged and the staffer swore at the student. On Oct. 20 students at the off-campus Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi found the phrase, “The Jews R Nazis,” written on the door of an adjoining empty building (owned by a Jewish landlord). There are no leads as to the perpetrator(s).

On Oct. 28 an Israeli flag was ripped down and taken from an off-campus residence hall for Orthodox Jewish students. The perpetrator was found to be a Penn student involved in the campus’s anti-Israel group Penn Against the Occupation. On the night of Nov. 8 Penn Against the Occupation projected pro-Palestinian slogans, including “Let Gaza live,” “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” “Zionism is racism,” and “Penn funds Palestinian genocide,” onto the faces of a number of campus buildings, messages which President Magill denounced the next day as “vile” and “antisemitic,” promising a full investigation by the Penn police. Throughout this period (with dates unspecified), according to Penn Hillel’s rabbi, “a small number of Penn staff members” received hateful, antisemitic messages and violent threats that targeted the recipients’ personal identities. And on Dec. 3 in a citywide protest, some 500 pro-Palestinian demonstrators ended a march by spray-painting graffiti on several Penn properties and stores that line the campus.

Even a single one of these reprehensible incidents is one too many. But overall, how should we understand this record? Among these roughly 10 incidents (leaving aside the “Palestine Writes” conference), two of the perpetrators were identified as Penn students (or a student group), a third as a Penn employee, and a fourth as holding an unspecified relationship to the campus community. A fifth perpetrator was an off-campus community radical. The perpetrators of four more of these incidents remain unknown, and one incident may not have been antisemitic at all.

In terms of its content, despite the presence of occasional generic symbols of antisemitism, this record of attacks on Jewish targets is best described as an extremist outgrowth of political radicalism stemming from the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The political character of most of these attacks is underscored by the fact that the Jewish population at Penn, by no means weak at 16% of the undergraduate student body, sponsored a variety of its own public, political stands, most supportive but some critical of Israel, during this same period. None of this interpretation goes to minimize the potential for violence against Jews embodied in the anti-Israeli radicalism at Penn. Rather, it serves to name the threat in a manner that connects it to the dominance at so many American colleges today of radical left-wing ideology on behalf of causes said to represent such “oppressed groups” as African Americans, other people of color, and a variety of sexual minorities. At Penn, as at other college campuses, Palestinians, not Israelis or Jews, are considered an oppressed group.

For universities, the fact that these incidents derive more from radical political sentiments than from traditional Jew-hatred points the way toward how these institutions should handle the problem. It is lucky that ethnic hatred per se does not lie at the root of today’s campus woes, because colleges are not—or should not be—in the business of inculcating moral values or teaching civics. Those responsibilities are best left to families, lower-level schooling, religious bodies, and voluntary organizations. Universities exist for the purpose of furthering higher education and fostering the pursuit of truth through advanced research, both of which goals demand wide open forums for the presentation and discussion of ideas. At the same time, universities must proceed with internal rules that enable their mission to go forward and not be impeded by illiberal elements (whether arising from among faculty, students, administrators, or outside parties) who would disrupt their educational and research functions.

For many years now, universities have been doing exactly the opposite of what is required to support these goals. They have restricted the free flow of ideas by “canceling” presentations they think might offend an “oppressed group,” while allowing protesters presumed to represent “oppressed groups” to take over campus buildings, block pathways, or interfere with quiet learning environments. Examples abound, from left-wing students at Middlebury College in 2017 shouting down sociologist Charles Murray’s guest lecture on cultural and genetic differences among social groups, to Penn’s own ongoing disciplinary investigation of law professor Amy Wax for, among other things, inviting a white supremacist to make a presentation to one of her classes. If anyone believes that radicals on the political right might not act similarly to restrict the speech they dislike, were they to be in control of these same universities, one need only glance at the attempt to institute more conservative tenets of orthodoxy in the teaching of American history at colleges in Florida.

As it happens, the threat to university life posed by political radicalism can best be mitigated by colleges adhering to these twin principles of encouraging wide-open speech—excluding foul language or any true threat of violence or intimidation directed at an individual or group (which would include, for example, any “call for the genocide of Jews”)—and placing strict physical limits on campus protests. There is no reason why, for example, the claim that Israel has committed “genocide” against the Palestinian people, or even that the nation of Israel should not exist as a refuge for Jewish people, abhorrent as these ideas are to me and many others, should be ruled out of order at a university. The best way to discredit such radical misconceptions and convictions is precisely by airing them to reasoned criticism and debate, including by experts in related fields of study, through lectures, classes, teach-ins, and written work. That’s what universities are for. The problem with the “Palestine Writes” conference was not that it was allowed to take place but rather that the faculty who set it up made no effort to seek balance or diversity in the perspectives and expertise that were represented on its panels. Meanwhile, plenty of college rules and criminal laws already exist for prosecuting anyone committing acts of disruption, vandalism, harassment, or personal assault on a college campus. They need to be enforced.

In responding to the recent increase in reported incidents of antisemitism, universities should resist the temptation simply to add “antisemitism awareness” to the list of topics already covered in the mandatory DEI (“diversity, equity, inclusion”) orientation sessions that have become commonplace on campuses. There is little evidence that such efforts at overt moralizing accomplish their stated aims, while they more reliably inhibit the expression of unpopular views. Given that the greatest threat to the universities today stems from political radicalism, a far more effective counter to the ugly manifestations of campus protests lies in demonstrating the shallowness and dangers of the radicals’ ideas and rhetoric.

Political radicalism on campus can best be mitigated by colleges adhering to twin principles: encouraging wide-open speech and placing strict physical limits on campus protests.

For Jews, the fact that recent campus actions perceived as antisemitic proceed from left-wing political beliefs as opposed to ages-old myths about the Jewish people, or, for that matter, as opposed to newer, right-wing political ideas like the “great replacement” theory, which holds Jews responsible for encouraging illegal immigrants to come to the United States, may offer little comfort. After all, acts of vandalism, shoving and swearing at individuals, or leaving anonymous, threatening messages are frightening and intimidating regardless of their perpetrators’ motives. Radical beliefs, which so often arise from misplaced anger and poorly understood historical relationships, also have a way of migrating from one side of the political spectrum to the other. Marx, for example, contributed an early, derisive text on Jewish commercialism (On the Jewish Question) that figured in the later evolution of European fascist thought. Additionally, at any point along the way a mentally ill individual might act on these radical ideas to produce terrible violence, or mob psychology might take hold of a portion of a radically engaged crowd, resulting in similar consequences. The latter development never happened at Penn this fall, but it almost did at New York City’s Cooper Union College, where pro-Palestinian demonstrators banged on the glass windows of the campus library, frightening some of the Jewish students inside, as a security guard kept the door closed.

Moreover, in the current era of collegiate-based pro-Palestinian radicalism, which appears to have arrived at Penn as early as 2015 with the rise of groups pushing the goals of the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” campaign, there really is an element of hatred involved. This is the hatred of Israel. One has only to witness the fury expressed by so many of the speakers at pro-Palestinian campus rallies to recognize that for most of the leaders, if not the followers, at these rallies, Israel is perceived as an illegitimate nation, whose majority Jewish population is living on stolen land that rightfully belongs to Palestinian refugees. This anger toward Israel not infrequently spills over into attacks on Jews who have no immediate connection to Israel. “[B]ecause you have never known the sanctuary of a home,” one presenter at Penn’s “Palestine Writes” conference put it, “… it’s no wonder you want our land for your own.” Who is the “you” in this sentence if not worldwide Jewry? And how else to explain the Penn rally speaker’s retort, noted above, to American Jews in the crowd to “go back to Moscow or Brooklyn,” or the target of one of the threatening messages, also noted above, in this instance conveying a bomb threat aimed at the Lauder College House, Penn’s newest, large dormitory, which was named for its biggest donors, Jewish family members of the Estée Lauder estate? One cannot read the 84-page civil complaint, filed in December by two Jewish students at Penn, alleging that Penn has allowed a hostile environment for its Jewish students to be created on its campus, without acknowledging the genuine sense of fear that evidently gripped many of these students (over 200 placed their names on one petition), as they watched and heard boisterous displays of anti-Israel sentiment and received occasional antisemitic slurs week after week throughout the fall.

And yet, it would be a mistake to think the recent events at Penn and other American college campuses signify a true resurgence of virulent antisemitism akin to the widespread abuse Jews suffered during the 1930s in the United States, let alone in the cities of Europe. A number of factors serve to limit the current wave of anti-Jewish sentiment, but perhaps the main one is that the hostility at present really is focused on Israel, not on Jewish people as such. (See Eitan Hersh’s valuable observations about this distinction, as revealed in attitudes held by far left-wing as opposed to far right-wing college students.)

It is probably not an accident that the lead student plaintiff in the civil lawsuit against Penn is a dual Israeli American citizen, for he has reason to feel particularly vulnerable to attack under these circumstances. And while this young man succeeded in obtaining the signatures of roughly 200 Penn students on a petition to prod the university to curtail pro-Palestinian activism, that number is still a relatively small fraction (about 12%) of Penn’s overall Jewish student population. It is likely that a majority of Jews at Penn did not feel personally threatened by the events of last fall. (Two post-Oct. 7 surveys that purport to show widespread fear and anxiety among Jewish college students have drawn their respondents from those students with particularly strong attachments to Israel, in one case from a pool of young adult Jews who had applied to Birthright Israel, in the other case from students who appear to have been selected with the help of Hillel campus organizations. A more relevant recent survey, one specifically designed not to exclude students with more minimal Jewish identities, found that roughly one-third of all Jewish students expressed anxieties about being visibly Jewish on campus, about the same proportion who said they had been personally targeted by antisemitic comments, slurs, or threats. That proportion rose to somewhat less than two-thirds when respondents were asked if they believed Jewish students “pay a social penalty” for supporting Israel as a Jewish state.)

Indeed, some of Penn’s Jewish students conspicuously joined in many of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations, either in formal groups or as individuals. One Jewish student group found itself in a confrontation with the university administration, when it insisted on going ahead with showing a documentary film critical of Israel’s West Bank policies despite the university’s decision to delay the showing until passions on the campus had cooled. We should not be surprised by this split among Penn’s Jewish students, because American Jews under the age of 40 hold considerably more critical opinions about Israel’s general policies toward Palestinians than do those older than 40.

The demographic characteristics of the campus protesters, so far as can be determined by second-hand observation, also fit with the demonstrators’ focus on Israel. Palestinian Americans appear to have dominated the protests at Penn, both as the leading speakers at rallies and in the makeup of the supporting crowds. Some are even Palestinians attending American colleges as foreign students—the Penn student who ripped down the Israeli flag from above the Orthodox Jewish student residence hall appears to belong to this category. Many are likely to be in contact with relatives and friends living in the West Bank or Gaza.

To some extent, the radicalism of these ethnic Americans, focused on harsh legacies from “the old country” and fueled by the desire for upward mobility in the face of perceived prejudices in their new country, resembles past waves of second-generation immigrant radicalism (among, for example, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Mexican Americans) common throughout our country’s history. Knowing this history, however, doesn’t make anger-driven radical actions any the less worrisome for institutions, such as universities, that require openness and reasonability to operate, or for individuals, who may easily be demonized as “enemies of the people.”

Radical movements tend to suffer from an unwillingness to look inward and to recognize the failings of their own group’s past leadership, choosing instead to place all blame on their historical antagonists and the latter’s perceived representatives in the present. The pro-Palestinian campus radicals clearly suffer from this flaw, as they have uncritically carried forward the tragic failings of past Palestinian leaders to seize numerous opportunities since 1947 to build a Palestinian nation alongside Israel. As today’s pro-Palestinian radicals have attracted support from among young black, feminist, and other radicals, they have allowed themselves to demonize Israel, just as the Black Lives Matter movement and certain gender radicals have demonized white people as “privileged racists” or men as “cis-gendered patriarchs.”

As a species of scapegoating, antisemitism is inherently unpredictable in its trajectory. It is well to be on guard to see if in the future today’s political antisemitism may burst out of its current anti-Israeli boundaries or spread beyond college campuses, their adjacent youthful urban enclaves, and Arab American ethnic communities. For now, this worry remains muted by the firewall of sorts that exists in the overwhelming support for Israel shown by most Americans after the attack of Oct. 7. However, the threat posed by left-wing political radicalism itself, particularly to college campuses, is real enough and must be countered by reasoned argument and the enforcement of lawful behavior.

Tony Fels is professor emeritus of history at the University of San Francisco. He currently lives in Media, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.