What’s really going on with college campuses when it comes to Israel? Are universities a nest of anti-Zionism and outright antisemitism where a BDS-shaped narrative rules the debate? Do students beyond the activist groups know anything about the region? These questions, already the focus of heated passions by many beyond the walls of academe, exploded in visibility and intensity this week as the horrific Hamas attacks and Israel’s response in Gaza supercharged student emotion, and anti-Zionist groups on a dozen campuses issued immediate statements in full-throated support of Hamas. Columbia’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, for example, said it “stands in full solidarity with Palestinian resistance against over 75 years of Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid.” Law Students for Justice in Palestine at Georgetown University, noting that the university president had referred to the Hamas massacre as “an unprecedented terrorist act,” wrote, “We condemn this inflammatory and anti-Palestinian statement.” In the week since, blizzards of statements have been exchanged, while donors unhappy with those statements have resigned from university boards, and pro-Israel alumni have vowed not to hire students affiliated with groups supporting Hamas—in some cases have widely publicizing their names.
Though the debate has become more complicated as more details of atrocities emerge and as Israel pushes into Gaza, the exchanges stoked many observers’ worst fears about the overall climate on campuses. One group that’s long been active in the tussle to influence campus climate is the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), an independent nonprofit that seeks to combat antisemitism and anti-Israel narratives on campuses by promoting what it considers a more informed debate. The group provides resources and advice to a network of faculty and administrators, including pro-Israel narratives and context.
As AEN’s executive director, Miriam Elman works directly with everyone from college deans and presidents to diversity, equity and inclusion officers, so she’s been well placed this week to observe the levels of vitriol and confusion—and the ways campuses are seeking to weather the storm. She spoke with Moment opinion editor Amy E. Schwartz.
How do you think the events of this week are being received and processed on campuses?
We were struck, at our organization, by how quickly and vehemently anti-Israel student groups mobilized on this, almost as if they had a template waiting for just such a time that they could roll out. Despite the three-day weekend, they—mostly the National Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—were able to quickly send around possible statements that their chapters could issue. And by Tuesday, 180 chapters of National Students for Justice in Palestine around the country had issued statements that were supportive of Hamas. The chapters also immediately called for a National Day of Resistance on Thursday, October 12 with campaign materials and vigils for “martyrs” on dozens and dozens of campuses.
Some of the statements from these groups have been hateful and hurtful at this very difficult time for Jewish, Zionist and Israeli communities on campus. Some have brought in multiple student organizations. At Harvard, 34 student organizations signed a statement released last Monday [October 9] saying in part, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” [Ed: Nine groups subsequently retracted their names from the statement.] Physical rallies and vigils in situations like this also sometimes feature rhetoric that crosses a line into hate speech or is experienced that way by the Jewish community.
As of Wednesday, there had been very few statements from university presidents or chancellors about events in Israel. In particular on campuses where university leaders have addressed Ukraine, put up a flag of Ukraine in front of the university president’s office and released statements, or of course released statements on George Floyd or other incidents. As more atrocities came to light, I think, universities began to roll into motion.
For universities to shutter registered student organizations on the basis of heinous speech sets a bad precedent, because tomorrow somebody’s going to say the Zionist student organizations have heinous speech.
We did initially see some statements that I thought read as if they’d been pulled off the shelf from previous incidents, anodyne and not really addressing the current situation, just saying, “Here are resources for people who need them.” Faculty members we’ve talked to were more disappointed with those statements than they would have been with no statement. If you’re going to release something, don’t add insult to injury. Many of these faculty members have been writing to their administrations to get a new statement or new engagement with Jewish students and faculty, and some of that is happening.
The big example has been at Harvard, where the university’s former president Lawrence Summers, who is a member of our advisory board, was apoplectic that there was no response coming from Claudine Gay, the new president. Summers did a tweet storm saying, “In nearly 50 years of Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today. The silence from Harvard’s leadership so far. . .has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral on acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.” A bit later, the leadership released a statement saying “We write to you today heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend, and by the war in Israel and Gaza now under way.” But this wasn’t seen as adequate, and there was a big outcry from alumni and also from faculty, including an open letter that [Canadian-American cognitive psychologist and author] Steven Pinker—also on our advisory board—circulated, and hundreds of faculty signed, saying in part, “Sometimes there is such a thing as evil, and it is incumbent upon educators and leaders to call it out, as they have with school shootings and terrorist attacks. It is imperative that our academic leadership, whose good faith we do not doubt, state this clearly and unequivocally. Further, while individuals’ free speech should be protected, our leaders should make it clear that our community rejects any statements that excuse terrorist acts.”
I was pleased that as a result, President Gay and the Harvard leadership finally did release a much better statement saying in part, “As the events of recent days continue to reverberate, let there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. Such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of long-standing conflicts in the region. Let me also state, on this matter as on others, that while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group—not even 30 student groups—speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”
It does take some courage to say, “I made a mistake, I’m going to correct it.” She’s new in the presidency, there was a learning curve. She did the right thing, and I think she won’t make the same mistake again.
Three excellent statements were released right away, all three in New York, by the CIty University of New York (CUNY), New York University and Columbia. We were pleasantly surprised by Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez at CUNY, who hasn’t been perceived as being the strongest leader on our issues and has come under heavy criticism. He said, “We want to be clear that we don’t condone the activities of any internal organizations that are sponsoring rallies to celebrate or support Hamas’ cowardly actions. Such efforts do not in any way represent the University and its campuses.”
There have been others. There was a really good one from University of California at Irvine, a good one from San Diego State University. We’re really interested to see how leaders respond to rallies that chapters of SJP are holding.
What’s different about working in a crisis like this?
On the one hand, it’s an opportunity, because everybody’s focus is now crystallized. At the same time, emotions are very charged. There are students who are hurting and who feel alienated because either the university hasn’t spoken out or it has spoken out in an inadequate way. On the pro-Palestinian side, you have students who feel like their message is not being heard either, or that they’re being accused of being terrorists. They’re facing demands that they engage in a way that doesn’t glorify, justify, defend or excuse terror. And that can be a hard place for them.
Are you seeing an upsurge in antisemitic incidents?
This is not our first rodeo, so we know from past times that when there is an uptick in violence between Israel and Hamas, or in the West Bank, we have previously seen an uptick in antisemitism both off and on campus. In poll after poll, very few Jewish students say they fear for their physical safety on campus. That doesn’t mean there isn’t vandalism, such as mezuzahs coming off doors, but they’re not fearing getting beat up.
But if events are planned that are expected to draw people from off campus, students may wonder if the antisemitism is going to be such that they can’t express their Zionist identity.
When there are pro-Israel and anti-Israel rallies in close proximity, where there isn’t campus police or good security, and emotions are highly charged, could something get out of control? Definitely. We saw last Tuesday at the University of Florida, Jewish students held a vigil and pro-Palestinian students were a little distance away—and then someone dropped a can and it made a popping noise and people thought it was a gun. There was this mass of people running away, and it was nothing.
In current campus anti-Israel rhetoric, I haven’t seen the classical antisemitic messages that you usually see in vehemently anti-Israel materials, about Jews and money, Jews and power. But what we’re hearing when students support Hamas is almost worse, because it’s actually condoning physical violence against Jews in Israel. As the Harvard faculty letter said, How can Jewish and Israeli students feel safe on campus when it’s considered acceptable to justify or even celebrate the death of Jewish children?
One thing we’re watching carefully is faculty engagement. What are the anti-Israel faculty on various campuses saying? What are they writing? What are they putting on social media? And there’ve been a handful of ugly, inappropriate, totally inappropriate tweets by a few faculty here and there, the usual suspects. But there hasn’t been what we saw in spring 2021, this momentum to have whole departments, such as gender studies and ethnic studies, issue anti-Israel statements. And I think there’s a savviness on the part of the faculty leading the anti-Israel movement in that they may have realized pretty quickly, maybe as early as Monday as information about atrocities began to emerge, that they’d better sit this one out. National Students for Justice in Palestine, I think, did not act in a savvy way. And I think they are going to regret that.
What kinds of guidance are universities looking for?
Many mid-level administrators and deans ask us whether they should shut down SJP rallies in advance when they’ve been announced. Some outside groups are calling for universities to defund the SJP chapters, to take away their registered student organization status. And our position is that you have to let the event happen. The university can speak too, condemn violence, educate or even require mandatory antisemitism training. If there’s a true threat or incitement to violence against Jewish students, that’s different. Then it’s a police matter, almost an FBI matter.
Some university administrators have asked our network how to handle inflammatory or upsetting posts by individual faculty, especially if students are sharing them widely. Our view, as with faculty speech generally, is that the university can always do its own tweet or posting in response and say, “We reject this message, we deplore it, but we recognize the right of our faculty to engage in public debates of consequence.” And that’s sufficient. Most of the faculty postings I’ve seen have been garden variety—”Why are you not criticizing the occupation?” and so forth.
One Yale faculty member in ethnic studies distributed a picture of one of the women who had been abducted, with the comment that it was legitimate to take this woman because she was of military age, and therefore not a civilian. I thought that was particularly disgusting. And this is a faculty member, her students are seeing it. If I were her dean or chair, I would distance the university from that.
What role is social media playing? Is it setting the tone?
Students are seeing a lot of material on Instagram. National SJP released storyboards on Instagram, and one of the pictures is a cartoon of a Hamas paraglider. It’s a reference to that music festival. And to take that image and to put it on your poster for a rally in support of Palestinians—that’s not in support of Palestinians or Palestinian rights, you’re glorifying the killers that came in to kill young people of your age who were at a music festival. Would you have supported the terrorists at Bataclan [2015 theater massacre in Paris]? How can you do that?
But when we shared our concern over that image with some faculty, we had to cut and paste the poster so they could see it, because they didn’t know how to get on Instagram. All the students see it, and the faculty and administrators don’t even know what they’re talking about.
On the other hand, much of what we know about the heinous two days of Saturday and Sunday were from clips shared on social media, and they’re horrible. As of Wednesday, some of the student organizations that signed that Harvard statement were pulling out, and I think that is the result of more information coming to light, about the murders of babies, for instance. For students who grew up knowing about 9/11 and about terrorism and atrocities in their lifetime, I think this resonates.
So on balance, social media has actually helped. There have been a lot of raw emotional pieces put up by Israeli moms and dads about what they experienced and what they’re still experiencing because their loved ones are being held hostage. I think it was helpful that the Biden administration made a very strong statement, and I think that’s something students might have seen and heard.
Among students on campus, some are engaged and knowledgeable, but many others are coming to these news events with no knowledge or background on the issue. What kind of information do you think they need to know?
We work mostly with faculty, but a lot of them aren’t very knowledgeable either. They often don’t know a lot about the religious aspects of the conflict, and this even is the case with Middle East experts who are not necessarily experts on Israel/Palestine. They don’t know, for example, that Israel prevents its own Jewish citizens from going up whenever they want to the Temple Mount or some other religious holy sites, because of the need to preserve public safety. It’s very helpful to share examples like that, because they then realize how different the situation is from the United States. To understand the conflict, it’s important to have some of those basics. And then there’s just a need for people to understand what contemporary antisemitism is and what it looks like and how it’s experienced by American Jews both on and off campus.
Initially we sawsome statements that I thought read as if they’d been pulled off the shelf from previous incidents…If you’re going to release something, don’t add insult to injury.
Are you seeing a difference in response in places where you’ve already been working with faculty and administrators?
On the campuses where we have trained administrators and they’ve been in our programming for a year, two years, we do see better responses. They know how events like this in the region would impact the Jewish, Zionist and Israeli communities. They denounce Hamas and also condemn anyone that wouldn’t condemn these actions. We urge them to call it out, not with a statement that sounds like you wrote it five years ago. Say that it’s unprecedented, which it is, and not a both sides situation right now. And call for stronger statements from leadership. Because when the faculty is silent, and particularly when the Jewish faculty is silent, I think sometimes administrators say, “Well, they don’t really care, so I guess we don’t have to do anything or say anything.” Or if they’re divided, with some Jewish Voice for Peace faculty and some others, then the administration might do nothing.
We’ve told faculty asking for advice to come to the vigil for terror victims or for the hostages who are now in harm’s way. The president, the provost can attend that event. Don’t attend the rally supporting terror martyrs, that’s not the speech we want to support, this is the speech we want to support, this is the speech that’s consistent with our values.
That sends a very powerful message, and it won’t get you into trouble with a lawsuit or with groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) that is always looking to see if there are places where students are being denied their free speech rights. They might say, “Oh, a president shouldn’t take sides,” or whatever. But that’s not our position. Presidents can and should pick a side. You’re not being paid the big bucks as a president or a chancellor to just sit this out and let the students duke it out.
Notice that in Larry Summers’s tweet, which got a lot of attention, he does not say that these students should be punished or sanctioned or kicked off campus or have their funding removed. The focus of his attention is not really on the students, it’s on the university, it’s on the president to speak out. And again, I think students, even these kids that are a part of SJP chapters on campus—I don’t mean the leadership, but the kids on the campus that gravitate to it—they have goodness in their hearts. They don’t know all the facts. They see an underdog, they see state power against the powerless, it fits with their left-wing politics generally. They want to support fellow students who are Palestinian and they’ve been asked to do it. They’re not the enemy, they really aren’t. They need to be educated. And the university’s door should be open to do that, to say, “Come to our office hours, come and we’ll talk about it and maybe we’ll be able to convince you that this wasn’t the right document to sign. Come sit with the Hillel chapter and the Chabad chapter so we can have a dialogue.” That’s what the university needs to do, and that’s what faculty are there to do.
In terms of official punishment and particularly removing funding for groups, I think that should be reserved for very limited circumstances, if there is actually discrimination, like Jews aren’t allowed to come into a rally, or one time there was an SJP chapter that affixed eviction notices on student dorm room doors. That was a violation of a campus policy, and they suspended the chapter for six months. There might be an occasion at a rally where one chapter does something that is actionable, that actually does violate campus policy in that way. But to call a priori before even events happen for universities to shutter registered student organizations on the basis of heinous speech, that sets a bad precedent, because tomorrow somebody’s going to say the Zionist student organizations have heinous speech.
Are you seeing those actions being taken, groups shut down or disciplined?
No, we are not seeing it. And I think the university’s lawyers would say you can’t, certainly at the public universities. But some groups are calling for universities not just to condemn the speech, as we urge, but actually calling for punishment and official sanctions and the recognition of their registered student organization status to be withdrawn, or their funding to be rescinded, if they’re in leadership positions in student senate, for them to be removed from those positions. Those are all sanctions. We’re not going to sign that, and I don’t expect it to have traction, but it’s interesting that that’s where some of the organizations have gone. I can see why, because these events and these rallies celebrating Hamas are just so ugly that you want to be able to prevent it or stop it.
But as Louis Brandeis said, the way to counter bad speech in our system is always to bring better speech. You let them march in Skokie and you have the counter-protest that is larger, bigger, with better speech.
What do you make of the public identification of students in all the groups that have issued pro-Hamas statements, for the attention of potential employers?
That’s the same question that’s come up for us with Canary Mission, which compiles and publicizes the names of allegedly anti-Israel faculty and students. Look, if you put things out in the public domain, you have to be aware that people are going to criticize you or condemn you. Otherwise, say something in a private space. But if you’re going to put something public, then you want everybody to see it, and you have to expect that some people may not like it.
Our parents, our grandparents, they were not activists on the cheap. My mom went to jail in the 1960s fighting for civil rights and teachers’ rights. There were real costs to being an activist. So if you want to be an activist for justice in Palestine and sign something like this, then expect that there might be costs for you, and some future employer might not like that you did that. People should be thoughtful before they engage.
Top image: A Pro-Palestinian protester confronts a photographer during a march in Cambridge, MA on October 10, 2023. Photo credit: “John Doe,” via flikr. The image is in the public domain.