One-year program helps US universities find and correct overlooked anti-Semitism on campus

NEW YORK – On Rosh Hashanah this year, a student at the University of Utah reported receiving an anti-Semitic text message. It came from an unknown phone number, the recipient was not Jewish, and a subsequent investigation showed it to be an isolated event. However, university officials were alarmed.

“This incident is one of many that members of the Jewish community in higher education are experiencing across the country as incidents of anti-Semitism are on the rise,” said a statement released by the university.

So even though only 200 of the university’s 24,634 students are Jewish, the administration decided to take action, said Brian Jay Nicholls, special assistant to the director of security at the University of Utah. Earlier this year, it became one of 27 campuses participating in Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative (CCI), a one-year program designed to assess campus climate for Jewish students in the United States. .

Nicholls hopes to use the ITC assessment survey to help the university better serve its Jewish students, whether it’s to ensure that kosher food is available or that exams are not scheduled for Jewish holidays, and thus Of course, to combat anti-Semitism.

“Just because the Jewish community is so small and underrepresented doesn’t mean we don’t need to hear what it’s like to be Jewish on campus. On the contrary, usually when the smaller voices are not heard as much, we have to make sure we pay more attention, ”said Nicholls.

While the University of Utah incident was not the most surprising case of anti-Semitism to hit American campuses at the beginning of the fall semester, it nonetheless represents just how widespread the problem has become. In fact, a third of Jewish college students experienced anti-Semitic hatred in the past academic year, according to a new survey released by Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Brian Nichols, special assistant to the director of security at the University of Utah. (Courtesy of the University of Utah)

Additionally, the majority of students who experienced anti-Semitic activity on campus did not report it, suggesting that the actual number is likely even higher, according to the survey.

“This poll makes clear that anti-Semitism and hatred are a growing concern for Jewish college students and deserve the attention of college leaders across the country,” said Adam Lehman, Hillel President and CEO. “These findings underscore the importance of our work at Hillel in engaging with university administrators to address the campus climate for Jewish students and ensure that all students can live and study in a safe and welcoming environment.”

As a result, Hillel and the ADL organized a multi-pronged approach to combat persistent anti-Semitism on campus. Although there have been previous efforts by Jewish groups to address anti-Semitism on campus, many of those efforts were directed at individual institutions rather than higher education as a whole. Furthermore, Hillel and the ADL see this effort as different from previous ones in that it invites universities to participate in the process by offering courses and training on anti-Semitism, or by participating in the ITC.

Illustrative: A Holocaust denier holds up a sign in the courtyard of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, September 10, 2019 (Courtesy of AMCHA).

In addition to the CCI, Hillel and ADL are also developing short courses and training sessions for students, faculty, staff, and administration that not only address the history of anti-Semitism but also how it manifests itself on campus today.

In addition, together with the Secure Community Network, the official safety and security organization for the North American Jewish community, Hillel and the ADL launched, a centralized database where students can anonymously report anti-Semitic incidents.

The best way to change culture is through education, said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, adding that the partnership with Hillel is critical as Hillel has a presence on 500 campuses across the United States.

Adam Lehman, President and CEO of Hillel International. (Courtesy of Hillel International)

Despite Hillel’s presence, universities have been slow to join. The CCI was launched in February this year, but disruptions to university life due to the coronavirus pandemic meant that the project only began to gather steam early this fall semester, Lehman said. Many schools are still grappling with the impact of COVID-19, he said, from transitioning back to in-person learning to dealing with declining enrollment. Lehman hopes more campuses will join as the program continues and colleges have a chance to see how it works.

The steady rise in anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses in recent years influenced the decision to launch these initiatives, but the issue took on urgency when it became clear that the number of incidents did not decrease as campuses closed to stop the spread of COVID. . -19.

According to the survey, Jewish students want their fellow students and campus faculty, staff, and officials to understand anti-Semitism, but unfortunately, many universities do not provide this education.

“The culture on campus that increasingly excludes students because they are Zionists, or causes them to renounce their Zionism, is deeply dangerous and totally contrary to the open dialogue that universities are supposed to promote. However, incessant complaints don’t work, constructive solutions do, ”Greenblatt said.

Additionally, several students noted in the Hillel-ADL survey that Jews and Judaism are not featured in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) curricula that students, faculty, and staff are often required to attend at universities. .

“You can fire a cannonball through most DEI trainings and miss a module on anti-Semitism,” said Mark Rotenberg, vice president of university initiatives and legal affairs at Hillel. “The battle against anti-Semitism cannot be seen simply as a Jewish student problem, it is a university problem.”

Illustrative: The statute of the alma mater on the campus of Columbia University. (Wikimedia Commons via JTA)

‘Exclusion is cooked in ideology’

Some recent students and graduates say they are skeptical about working with the campus DEI offices.

“I personally think anti-Semitism is a problem because of the campus IED [offices], which uses language and rhetoric that inflames anti-Semitism and overwhelmingly excludes Jews. It’s cooked up in ideology, ”said Blake Flayton, a senior executive at the New Sionist Congress, a nonprofit organization that works to promote Zionist education and empowerment.

“The question ADL and Hillel should ask themselves is why were the Jews excluded in the first place? It is no accident that Jews are not included in the conversation. DEI offices generally look at Jews, many of whom have white skin, and see privilege. They don’t listen to us and they devalue our truths, ”said Flayton, who also recently graduated from George Washington University.

That’s why Flayton said he favors the University of Connecticut approach. Next semester, UConn will offer a new seven-hour, one-credit asynchronous elective whose flexible scheduling and lighter workload than a regular three- or four-hour course make it easier for students to take on.

“It’s not going to be the course of anti-Semitism, we don’t want anti-Semites to be the ones to frame who the Jews are. Rather, the course will talk about Jews, Jewish diversity, and Jewish representation, ”said Avinoam J. Patt, director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut.

The course will be available to the 18,847 college students, of whom 11 percent, or 2,000, are Jewish. The decision to launch the course comes after a series of incidents over the past academic year, including the spray painting of a giant swastika on the campus chemistry building.

Illustrative: Anti-Semitic flyers found on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe in November 2019 (video screenshot).

No school is immune

In September this year, mezuzahs, small boxes containing Bible verses that many Jews place on their doorposts, were stolen from dormitory doors at Tufts University. Last spring a swastika was placed on a student’s door. The Tufts University Police Department investigated both incidents, but was unable to identify the responsible parties.

The incidents led Tufts to realize that the spike in anti-Semitism had reached the campus, where nearly 20%, or 1,000, of its 6,114 college students are Jewish.

“Unfortunately, there has been a disturbing rise in antisemitism nationally and on college campuses across the country, and Tufts is not immune to this trend,” said Patrick Collins, director of public relations at Tufts University.

And so the administration and board of trustees convened an ad hoc committee on anti-Semitism to better understand how the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in higher education manifests specifically at Tufts. At the same time, Tufts Hillel told the administration about the ICC.

“The next logical step was to participate,” Collins said.

Anti-Israel materials distributed at the National Students for Justice in Palestine conference held at Tufts University in October 2014 (Elan Kawesch / The Times of Israel).

Even before universities introduce courses, they must adopt and include the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism in their discrimination and harassment policies, said Kenneth L. Marcus, former Secretary of Education for Civil Rights of USA, and founder and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law.

“The goal is to change the culture on college campuses and that requires a significant cultural change,” said Marcus. “Once there is a definition, there will be a base from which they can participate in education and training.”

“The situation is, of course, different on campuses, but too often anti-Semitic incidents are not treated as seriously as other incidents of bias and Jewish students are seen simply as privileged white people who need to own their privileges.” , said.

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