By Johanna Markind
On March 31, a number of colleges announced their admissions decisions for the class of 2020. As colleges and students seek the best fit, I have suggestions for both that take account of rising campus anti-Semitism.
For those who haven’t been watching, anti-Semitism is back in fashion at an increasing number of American universities. Some of it takes the form of “traditional” anti-Semitism. In other cases, it appears in the guise of anti-Zionism. Drawing swastikas on fraternity houses, impugning the qualifications and loyalty of Jewish student-government candidates, promoting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the classroom, hounding professors who write Facebook posts supporting Israel against Hamas, shouting down scheduled speakers supporting the right of Israel to exist, demanding a (non-Israel-related) speaker withdraw on the grounds that Hillel co-sponsored her talk, all seem part of the new normal.
These events aren’t happening in the backwaters, but at prominent schools: Oberlin, Brown University, Vassar, University of California at Los Angeles, UC-Davis, UC-Santa Cruz, Stanford, University of Minnesota, Connecticut College, Northwestern, Northeastern — the dishonor roll gets longer every month.
Sadly, many of these schools have ignored or downplayed the problem, or worse, excused it or defended anti-Semitic faculty against Jewish students. The University of California Board of Regents’ recent condemnation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is a welcome sign, but whether it marks a real change or just window dressing remains to be seen.
By contrast, several American colleges have worked hard in the last 15 years to raise their rankings by luring Jewish students. Impressed by Jews’ reputation for intellectual vitality or simply seeking “diversity” and a national reputation, schools like Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, Vanderbilt University, Washington and Lee University, Case Western Reserve University, Franklin and Marshall College, and Susquehanna University set about making their campuses more attractive to prospective Jewish applicants.
These schools have not exactly been on the beaten path of America’s large Jewish communities. Some, like Vanderbilt, once had substantial Jewish populations, but that changed after Ivy League schools discontinued their Jewish quotas. To make themselves more appealing, the schools have adopted strategies such as creating Jewish studies departments with endowed professorships, setting up Hillel programs, and offering kosher meal plans.
Recent events have offered schools that want to attract more Jewish students a simple tool they can use to increase their appeal: adopt (or maintain) a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-Semitic hostility, whether it is in the guise of Jew-hatred, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, or of demonizing, delegitimizing, or applying a double standard to Israel (the three Ds of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism). Treat swastika-incidents with the seriousness they deserve. Stand up firmly and promptly for Jewish students whose qualifications are challenged on the basis of their religion. Sanction faculty who teach anti-Semitism, and both faculty and students who try to shout down invited speakers. Feel free to advertise the hospitable climate you maintain for Jewish students. Eventually, they will notice.
To Jewish high school students, I offer the following advice: Don’t just have an academic safety school, have a physical and psychological safety school. Prioritize your physical safety and your dignity. Ask each school you are considering for data about the number and type of anti-Semitic incidents it has had in the past several years, and how the school responded to each. Apply to at least one school with negligible anti-Semitism and no active boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, even if it’s a little further afield than you had planned to go.
If you are accepted to schools where anti-Semitism is rampant and to schools where it isn’t, consider making your college choice into a statement against anti-Semitism. Opt for the school that treats it as what it is — an unacceptable evil. Don’t hesitate to tell the other schools you rejected them because they tolerate anti-Semitism. Idealism and activism don’t always mean fighting for someone else. Recognize that you belong to a group under assault, and that you are worth fighting for.
The resurgence of anti-Semitism is a sad reality that Jewish students, and their parents, need to face.
Hopefully, adding concern about anti-Semitism to the college shopping list will create pressure and incentives for schools tolerating anti-Semitism to clean up their act. Meanwhile, schools that welcome Jews, and Jews looking for a welcoming environment, have a common interest.
Johanna Markind writes about the Middle East and anti-Semitism for various outlets.