Tufts. NYU. Vassar. UCLA. Columbia. Syracuse. The roster of North American universities and colleges represented at the first national conference of Alums for Campus Fairness in Los Angeles on February 9 to 10 displayed the cream of U.S. higher education. It was a sobering reminder of how widely the poison of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bias has spread across our country’s college scene. However, it was also an uplifting demonstration of the Jewish community’s strength and organizing capacity in advocating for fairness to the Jewish state.
Jewish alumni and parents of college students have watched helplessly over the past decades as student associations have passed resolution after resolution demanding adoption of the boycott, divest and sanction policy against Israel, and as campuses have become stages for annual “apartheid week” protests in which anti-Israel propaganda is disseminated and pro-Israel students are heckled and harassed. Alumni say they don’t recognize their alma maters any more, since they have become hotbeds of intolerance directed mainly toward Jewish students speaking up for a more balanced debate about the conflict in the Middle East.
ACF was formed in 2015 by three alumni of Vassar, who had organized a group at their own college, called “Fairness to Israel at Vassar,” the year before. Mark Banschick, Laurie Josephs, and Susan Julien-Levitt were disturbed by several incidents on campus that year. Most notable, in February 2014, Students for Justice in Palestine set up a human barricade to obstruct entry to a classroom where a course in the college’s international studies program was in progress. The course included a trip to Israel and the West Bank later in the year; the goal was to study watershed geology and water management in the Jordan River Valley.
Students entering the classroom reported being verbally harassed and feeling physically intimidated by SJP members and their supporters, who reject any contact with Israel, even (or especially) contact of an academic nature. Banschick, Josephs, and Julien-Levitt decided it was time for alumni to organize and advocate with the college administration to maintain a respectful atmosphere regarding discussions of Israel, as well as to promote balance on the topic of Israel in the classroom and at campus events.
Throughout the rest of 2014, FTI gathered more Vassar graduates via personal contacts and social media. Alumni of other colleges began to express interest in organizing and advocating. The next year, Banschick, Josephs, and Julien-Levitt organized ACF, with Julien-Levitt as its first executive director, to assist them in forming their own chapters and to provide know-how for engaging with the college’s faculty, administrators, presidents, and boards of trustees. Knowing the importance of alumni to college officials — principally, but not exclusively, for financial support — ACF offers practical methods to harness alumni energy and stem the tide of anti-Israel sentiment promoted by SJP and other campus organizations. (For her work, Julien-Levitt was honored by the Algemeiner newspaper in 2017 as one of its “Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life.”)
In 2016, ACF joined the Israel Emergency Alliance, which includes StandWithUs, one of the principal organizations assisting college students who support Israel. In less than five years, ACF has expanded to more than 35 chapters in the United States, including Ivy League colleges such as Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Cornell, and Dartmouth. ACF keeps alumni and parents informed about campus activities that affect the perception of Israel. Jewish students often are reluctant to tell their parents about harassment, because they don’t want to worry them. Unless a sensational case makes it to the press, alumni and parents have no way of knowing about biased professors, disruption by anti-Israel student groups, or the dissemination of anti-Zionist propaganda.
When colleges fail to protect students from anti-Israel or anti-Semitic harassment, when they are passive in the face of disruption of lectures, when they fail to live up to their professed mission of tolerance and academic freedom, it is the alumni who have the power to get the college’s attention. Last year, students and faculty at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges consortium in California, voted to cancel study programs at Haifa University. The vote was held over the Passover holiday, a move clearly designed to thwart Jewish participation. ACF alerted all Claremont alumni and posted a petition on its website. The alumni response was immediate and overwhelming. Claremont administrators estimated that the consortium stood to lose up to $30 million in donations if Pitzer implemented the cancellation of its Haifa program. Pitzer President Melvin Oliver vetoed the proposal.
In 2016, Jasbir Puar, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, gave a lecture at Vassar College titled “Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters,” in which she intimated that Israelis “harvested” the organs of Palestinian terrorists killed in action. FTI was instrumental in publicizing that statement and other egregious remarks of hers. In a survey of FTI’s membership the following year, more than 75 percent of the 100+ respondents advised that they had canceled annual donations to the college. The estimated total loss represented by those forgone donations was $1 million.
More than three-quarters of the Jewish community in North America have had some level of higher education. College and university alumni are vital resources, not only in terms of donations but also in reminding their alma maters of their basic mission: to educate and inform in an atmosphere of free and unbiased inquiry. The very existence of an alumni group poised to counter anti-Israel propaganda gives pro-Israel students a feeling of security. As Roz Rothstein, CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs, said at the conference, “When Jewish students on campus are being bullied and silenced, ACF can do something about it.”
ACF’s Website is www.campusfairness.org
Melinda B. Maidens is an attorney in Fort Lee, a member of the executive council of Fairness to Israel at Vassar, and an honorary board member of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Northern New Jersey.