A few weeks ago, the University of Oklahoma appropriately responded swiftly and strongly when members of a fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, sang anti-black chants that included the “n” word and references to lynching.
The university expelled two students and shut down the entire fraternity chapter, even though not all its members were involved in the incident. Similarly, colleges and universities are cracking down on hostile actions against women. For example, after members of Delta Kappa Epsilon chanted “No means yes” on campus, Yale University banned the fraternity for five years.
Yes, these responses were tough, but they sent an important message not only to the wrongdoers and the university community, but also to society at large: that bigotry against African-Americans and women is repugnant and intolerable, and there will be harsh consequences for those who engage in it.
Why then, when it comes to campus bigotry against Jews, aren’t university leaders sending the same strong message?
That message is long overdue. Anti-Semitism has been a serious problem on college campuses for years, and those of us who work with students are alarmed to see the problem growing. In 2006, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held its first hearing on campus anti-Semitism. Based on evidence provided by the Zionist Organization of America and others, the commission found that college students were not only facing “traditional” anti-Semitism – threats, derogatory remarks, vandalism and swastikas – they were also being subjected to anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda that the commission distinguished from legitimate political discourse. The Commission rightly concluded that “[a]nti-Semitic bigotry is no less morally deplorable when camouflaged as anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism.”
A study released last month showed that of 1,157 Jewish students surveyed at 55 university and four-year college campuses, more than half reported having been subject to or witnessing anti-Semitism on their campus. Importantly, the survey was conducted in March-April 2014, before last summer’s Hamas war against Israel, which led to a frightening rise in anti-Semitism around the world.
The Civil Rights Commission’s findings and the recent survey corroborate the reports we have been receiving for years from Jewish college students across the country, some of whom have reported not only being harassed, intimidated, and discriminated against, but also physically threatened and assaulted. At Rutgers University, for example, a Jewish student was terrorized on Facebook by another student who threatened to “beat” him “with a crowbar.” Shockingly, a Rutgers employee publicly disparaged the same Jewish student, calling him “that racist Zionist pig!!!!!!!!” and directing others to go to a special Facebook hate page about him, apparently so that they could read and post their own hateful messages. That employee also charged at the Jewish student, trying to provoke a fight. And she started a petition to have him removed as a student paper columnist, simply because she did not like his pro-Israel views. University officials did not punish either wrongdoer, and the employee is still working at Rutgers to this day! Why?
At UC Berkeley, a Jewish student was holding a sign that said “Israel Wants Peace,” when she was rammed from behind with a filled shopping cart; she suffered injuries that required medical attention. Her attacker had a history of threatening and assaultive behavior, but the university let him off the hook and merely put him on probation, which allowed him to remain on campus and continue to terrify his victim. Why?
Recently, when four members of the UCLA student government challenged a student’s fitness to serve on the judicial board simply because she was Jewish and affiliated with the Jewish community, those student government members were not sanctioned and they kept their leadership positions. Why?
Colleges and universities that receive federal funding – and almost all do – have the legal obligation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to provide Jewish students with a non-hostile environment that is conducive to learning. This is the same law that protects African-American students from a racist learning environment. Indeed, in expelling the two students last week, the president of the University of Oklahoma told them that it was “because of your leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant which has created a hostile educational environment for others.” This president appreciated that even a chant could impair students’ physical and psychological safety and well-being, and thus could not be tolerated.
Certainly physical threats, physical assaults, and discrimination targeting specific Jewish students, like those at Rutgers, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, would have the same, if not a greater, harmful impact. On some campuses, Jewish students have had to endure other expressions of anti-Semitic bigotry – being shouted at, called baby-killers, Nazis, and Zionist pigs, and hearing Jews being compared to Satan. It is time for university officials to step up to the plate and crack down hard on campus anti-Semitism, in the same way that they are responding to bigotry against African-Americans, women, Latinos and gays. When anti-Jewish bigots create a hostile environment for Jewish students, they must be held accountable and punished, just like the anti-black bigots at the University of Oklahoma were.