We Must Change the Narrative to Protect Jewish Students

College students are heading home for summer, and we must use this break to prepare and support Jewish students and faculty and regain control of the narrative.
May 23, 2024
Columbia students participate in a rally and vigil in support of Israel in response to a neighboring student rally in support of Palestine at the university on October 12, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It is both dangerous and misguided to think that the hate toward Jews on our nation’s college and university campuses will dissipate now that students are going home for the summer break. It is equally dangerous to think there will be substantial changes on campus after the rollback of the regressive diversity, equity, and inclusion offices (DEI) in numerous states around the country. The principles of DEI, which often hold that Jews are oppressors and must be held accountable for society’s ills, are deeply entrenched and are practiced in numerous student-facing administrative departments. 

Unfortunately, antisemitism remains structurally ingrained in the pillars of higher education; there is rampant hate among countless professors, and academic departments within universities and schools have made appropriate disciplinary threats to students who are violating rules regarding conduct only to later rescind them and acquiesce to unreasonable demands often made by threats. 

With the summer recess upon us, it is important that the entire Jewish community — from foundations to religious leaders of all denominations — truly understands what Jewish students and faculty have faced throughout this academic year. The events that unfolded after the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel, from the pain felt by so many Jews to the horrific harassment and hate that emerged, were so chaotic and fast-moving that understanding the scale, scope and true impact on Jewish students was unclear until now. 

A new Hillel International survey of college and university students nationwide reveals just how devastating the antisemitism has been on collegiate campuses and how students are responding to and managing this dangerous environment. The survey found that a majority of Jewish college students, 67%, have witnessed pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel protests at their respective schools. Sixty-one percent report that these protests have included behaviors and language that they found “antisemitic, threatening or derogatory toward Jewish people.” About 42% of Jewish students report that their school has been the site of an encampment. 

Significant numbers of Jewish students report knowing anti-Israel protesters who used anti-Jewish and often threatening rhetoric, which is vastly different from peaceful and acceptable political speech. Jewish students are not unaware that their classmates may appear friendly but are fomenting hatred; they know their peers’ politics and true feelings and witness them regularly. We now have data confirming that over half of the Jews in the survey know someone (54%) who participated in the “pro-Palestine” or anti-Israel protests. About a third (36%) know someone who was part of the encampments where protesters called for the murder of classmates and their communities. At least their hatred is out in the open. 

The implications for Jewish students’ safety are profound. Nearly 63% of Jewish students report feeling less safe at their schools as a result of the protests, and 58% of Jewish students at schools with “Gaza Solidarity Encampments” report feeling less safe because of the encampments. Moreover, 40% of Jewish students felt the need to hide their Jewish identity while on campus this year, and more than a quarter (27%) have felt unwelcome in a campus space (for example, in class or a campus organization), because of their Jewish faith or their views on Israel. A third (32%) of Jewish students report that they have been too scared to attend Jewish-related events (including Shabbat dinner, Jewish programs, etc.). Almost a fifth (17%) disturbingly state that they believe professors have treated them differently because of their Jewish faith or their views on Israel. 

Beyond feelings of safety and security, the past academic year has been very difficult for Jewish students and they are struggling scholastically. About 58% reported that since the encampments began, it has been more difficult for them to learn, study, or concentrate. The protests have been problematic too, with 44% of students stating that they have a hard time concentrating on or completing schoolwork and that almost a third (30%) have both felt scared to attend their classes and be on campus generally (31%). A quarter (25%) report difficulty sleeping and 42% no longer have the same level of trust in their faculty. The impact of this antisemitism on learning and gaining an equitable educational experience cannot be dismissed or ignored.  

The impact of this antisemitism on learning and gaining an equitable educational experience cannot be dismissed or ignored.

The data is shocking, unacceptable, and actionable. If students of any other minority group were dealing with anything even close to what Jewish students have been managing, there would be riots in the streets, schools would be shut down, federal funding pulled, and schools would be making correctives as fast as possible. But none of that is happening as DEI logic rules the higher education space. Significant danger exists on campus for Jewish students both inside and outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, this includes clear cases of overt segregation and harassment such as were found at Stanford or more subtle examples of real harm such as grade discrimination, which has been documented at Harvard. Outside of the classroom, there are far too many clear cut cases of demonstrated violence against Jews such as the mobs at Berkeley and smaller incidents of assaults against Jews such as at Reed College or more insidious examples such as at my own Sarah Lawrence with faculty behaving in antisemitic ways, peddling anti-Jewish conspiracies, and encouraging actions against Jews, but being very careful in the direct public-facing language that they use.  

The larger Jewish community must use this brief break to prepare and support students and faculty and regain control of the narrative and the facts. The Hillel data provides a powerful story that the Jewish community would be wise to harness via social media along with legal, political, and public-facing channels to fight this hate and misinformation. We must also push back against the countless erroneous and threatening messages being sent by antisemitic groups, including claims that the protests are not antisemitic but pro-Palestinian. It is imperative that the Jewish community moves beyond calls anchored in simple morality to compel action along with statements of disgust and worry from varied leaders and groups; the Jewish community must start leading and persuading the nation and those in power. We have the stories now to showcase how higher education needs to do better.  

This fight will be long and slow, but the future of the Jewish community is on the line.

This fight will be long and slow, but the future of the Jewish community is on the line. We all share a linked fate and while some argue that Jews should abandon particular institutions, that is impractical in the short run. The Jewish community must stop standing on the sidelines of this crisis; it must lean in and take control and stop the erasure and manipulation of our history, our contributions to society, our presence as citizens and scholars, our purpose as community builders, and our values. 

The Hillel data tell a story of destruction. We must accept and confront this reality and we have the tools to take action; there is no ambiguity now about what has happened over the past academic year. On the macro level, we must change the national narrative and engage in real political action and coalition building. On the micro level, we must support our students therapeutically and legally, letting them know they have a community off campus and that they are welcome and safe.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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