By Romy Hermans
The Israeli-Hamas war has propelled antisemitism throughout the world and sparked wide debates about Zionism and its place within Judaism. In the two weeks following the October 7 massacre, the Anti-Defamation League reported more than 22 daily antisemitic attacks in the US, a 388% increase from last year. These far-reaching disputes are reflected on college campuses across the United States, providing insight into how the newest generation of changemakers approach multifaceted belief systems. Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies hosted Sunday’s webinar, “Unpacking Antisemitism on College Campuses,” providing expert thinking on the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and where American Jews land in the midst.
Dr. Pamela Nadell, Director of American University’s Jewish Studies program, began the conversation with a quote from author Leonard Dinnerstein surrounding antisemitism: “Most American Jews don’t see it, feel it, or fear it. What the future brings is impossible to know, but in the United States today, antisemitism is too minor an issue to disturb the daily lives of American Jews.” Written more than a decade ago, Nadell highlighted just how much Jewish life has changed. Despite this inability to predict the future, it is clear that antisemitism has been ingrained into American Jewry.
Researchers and academics alike have contrasting views on definitions of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, but together recognize their role in differentiating free speech from hate crime. Nadell defines antisemitism in her guide as any rhetoric, discrimination, prejudice, promotion of conspiracy theories, hostility, and/or violence against Jewish people or Jewish institutions. She described Zionism as upholding the Jewish right to national self-determination as protected under international law, which many anti-Zionists deny. Per Nadell, criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic when anti-Jewish language, symbols, and hate speech are involved. Dr. Britt Tevis, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Katz Center, suggested that antisemitism is a political program aimed at denying Jewish people equal civil and political rights, generally motivated by Christian theology, racial science or ideology, and conspiracy theory. Antisemitism manifests in words, discrimination, bigotry, and anti-Jewish violence. The difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, according to Tevis, is violence. The diverse nature of the debate also requires the consideration of context and intent. Tevis contends that antisemitism is ultimately the denial of rights developed over the last 500 years of emancipation efforts.
Emancipation efforts heightened in 1894 after the infamous Dreyfus Affair when French artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of selling national secrets to the German enemy because he was Jewish. As the French J’Accuse movement and emancipation efforts flooded Europe, antisemitic acts increased substantially, and efforts for assimilation as an answer to the “Jewish question” proved unsuccessful. In response, Journalist Theodore Herzl proposed the creation of a national home in Israel in a concept called Zionism, which, as Tevis describes, was a solution to antisemitism itself. Some 6,000 miles away, Zionism captured the American consciousness in the early 20th century. Some early Americans believed that acting as a protector of Jews fulfilled their destiny as a chosen people in a god-blessed country. The American Evangelical population felt that Jewish people needed to return to the land of Israel to fulfill a biblical prophecy, as outlined in the book of Revelation. Americans found a special connection to the Yishuv, whose propaganda drew parallels to pioneering citizens, settler states, and earnest work with the land. Antisemitism across Europe, especially related to the Holocaust and Russian pogroms, evoked American sympathy for Jewish people and their safety. Zionists and Americans also held common values and ideas like democracy and self-determination, a major factor in former President Harry S. Truman’s decision to recognize the state in 1948.
American Jews continue to hold strong connections to Israel and Zionism today. Nadell believes that modern Americans may not understand how central Israel is to Jewish identities. The Pew Research Center reported in 2020 that the majority of American Jews believed that caring about Israel is either essential or important to what being Jewish means to them. Tevis explained that although the elimination of Israel does not technically deny the rights of American Jews, being asked to witness the denial of rights for other Jews is extraordinarily painful. Furthermore, American Jews often have political and familial ties to the land of Israel and remain scarred by historical events like the Holocaust and, most recently, the October 7 massacre. The Jewish community is much smaller compared to the pre-World War II population, meaning most Jewish people are only one or two degrees of separation away from violence.
Antisemitic hate crimes have been present on college campuses as early as 1968, according to Nadell, but they have not always been surrounding Israel. In the 1990s, Holocaust deniers took out full-page advertisements in university newspapers which led to wide debates about the parameters of free speech. In 1995, the antisemitic remarks of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, led to campus-wide tensions between African Americans and Jewish students. Nadell describes that the extent of modern antisemitism dates back to the First Intifada (Arabic for ‘uprising’) of 1987 when collective Palestinian frustration with Israeli rule manifested into widespread conflict, which ended with the Oslo Accords of 1993. The Second Intifada, sparked by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the Temple Mount in 2001, also intensified antisemitism on campuses. Dr. Tevis adds that even before these events, Jewish students faced antisemitic administrations through anti-Jewish quotas at prestigious colleges, housing discrimination, and anti-Jewish surveillance, even on Jewish faculty. Broader cultural violence, especially antisemitism, has been exacerbated by the online space, where individuals are targeted in a way that was not possible before.
The webinar ended with messages for university administrations, including a debate on whether official statements on current events are appropriate and impactful. Tevis and Nadell recommended that university faculties create educational guides about differentiating and defining antisemitism and anti-Zionism. This burden disproportionately falls on the Jewish faculty but should be a campus-wide effort. Another step is to create spaces for students to learn about antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and islamophobia in a safe environment. Ultimately, students must be comfortable educating themselves about these intricate issues through interpersonal dialogue without external pressure to publish a performative opinion. As antisemitism continues to rise following the October 7th massacre, the efforts to combat antisemitism are crucial for ensuring a safe environment for the Jewish community on and off campus.
Romy Hermans is a senior in the School of International Service and minors in the French Language. She previously took History or Israel, which inspired her to take U.S.-Israel Relations this semester. After graduating she hopes to teach English abroad. She enjoys reading, watching documentaries, and running in her free time.