Anti-Semitism on campuses across America seems to be growing, spreading poison and causing a toxic environment for Jewish students. One recent example in the New York area has continued this troubling trend. The City University of New York system, where high numbers of Jewish students traditionally have enrolled, has recently experienced many anti-Jewish incidents at four different campuses, causing fear among students and faculty and leading the New York State Senate to recommend decreasing funding for the system.
What is the right response to this frightening trend?
While free speech is sacrosanct, there are times when the line gets crossed, and one person’s right to free speech impedes another’s basic right to safety. It is not a stretch to say this is the case at CUNY right now. When Students for Justice in Palestine condemns the “Zionist administration” at CUNY for hosting Birthright programs, hurls invectives at Jewish students and faculty, and goes so far as to call for an Intifada, the time to act has come. Instead of promoting SJP’s right to voice its opinions, CUNY should act swiftly.
CUNY administrators have condemned some of the anti-Semitic statements and assembled external advisors to provide input, but in my view the response is inadequate. Students who engage in overtly racist behavior should be educated, but sometimes a teachable moment requires discipline as well, to demonstrate the unacceptability of prejudice and to create an atmosphere where minority students can feel comfortable. It would be surprising if overtly racist as opposed to anti-Semitic comments would be dealt with in the same way. It is far more likely that the offending students would be sanctioned quickly and aggressively.
Colleges are the ultimate educators. Beyond the academics and intellectual pursuit of knowledge, universities must educate students to become responsible and tolerant citizens of the world. Differences of opinion, attitudes, and perspectives are part of the natural course of life, but students must be taught how to address those differences respectfully and responsibly as they interact with others on campus, in communities, and eventually in the workplace. Many colleges are composed of a diverse student body, and for the most part tolerance of various ethnic minorities is promoted. And yet, when it comes to anti-Semitism, even in the most overt cases, the credo of acceptance applied to other groups does not seem to be in effect.
Just as racism and anti-gay sentiments never would be tolerated, anti-Semitism cannot be allowed to fester and grow. College administrators and leaders must act more aggressively to denounce all forms of prejudice. Higher education is simply too important not to get it right.
Dr. Alan Kadish of Teaneck is president of the Touro College and University system.