ADL prepares college students for realities of anti-Semitism

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Anti-Semitism on Bay Area college campuses is a growing concern and poses a challenge for students who encounter it. A number of local incidents have been widely reported in the media, including swastika graffiti appearing at U.C. Davis and Stanford University. Nationally, the Anti-Defamation League’s 2014 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents reported a 21 percent increase from 2013, and has registered a number of serious anti-Semitic incidents in 2015. California witnessed a 27 percent increase. Underlying these numbers is that these incidents have a real effect on the wider Jewish communities at these colleges.

Another troubling trend is that well-organized anti-Israel groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine, which was founded in the Bay Area, are becoming more active locally and nationally and are increasingly using confrontational tactics that intimidate students. California college campuses, in particular, continue to be a proving ground for various anti-Israel campaigns, tactics and messages. At U.C. Santa Cruz, a group of anti-Israel activists recently set up a mock Israeli checkpoint that physically prevented students from entering university facilities, in violation of the code of student conduct.

Calling to mind a similar incident at UCLA, the questioning of Stanford University student Molly Horwitz during her bid for student senate cast aspersions on her ability to be a fair and impartial representative because of her “strong Jewish identity.” Horwitz, who eventually won the election, understood too well the political machinations on campus when she felt it necessary to remove any references to Israel from her social media pages for the sake of her campaign. 

Reporting unsatisfactory responses from the Stanford administration and others to whom she had turned for help after the incident, Horwitz contacted ADL for assistance, support and guidance. Together with Stanford Jewish and pro-Israel groups, Horwitz and ADL are now working together to foster dialogue about anti-Semitism on campus and to educate the campus community about, among other relevant topics, what distinguishes legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism.

While the distinctions range from clear to subtle to nonexistent, we must not conflate anti-Israel activism with anti-Semitism. ADL has worked with student groups, campus Hillels and administrators on numerous local campuses to guide them in making distinctions between legitimate expressions of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. At the same time, administrators need to recognize that the impact of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activism can often be very similar. And too often, one can lead to the other. Some students on campuses where there is significant anti-Israel activity report that they feel increasingly marginalized, isolated or compelled to hide their Jewish identity. As one student impacted by anti-Israel bias told us, “We shouldn’t have to defend our identity. The fact that I am Jewish is getting in the way of my studies.”

The good news is that people are beginning to take notice and take action to support Jewish students on California campuses. University administrators generally recognize the importance of issuing swift, forceful statements condemning anti-Semitism. And while there is a need for directly labeling anti-Semitism when it occurs, some campus administrators are going further to proactively ensure inclusive campus climates free from any harassment or intimidation.

Unfortunately, some who are understandably frustrated by the proliferation of anti-Israel activity on campuses have sought a quick fix by turning to legal means to confront BDS. Legislation that bans BDS activity threatens both First Amendment-protected free speech and the value of academic inquiry that guides the vigorous exchange of ideas on university campuses. Such legislation is likely to be struck down as unconstitutional  by the courts and rejected by the campus community.

Instead, it is critical to take a comprehensive approach that includes educating students about proactive and reactive ways to engage with those who may not understand their perspective. ADL, a leader in anti-bias training, is partnering with Bay Area synagogues, schools, campus organizations and student groups to prepare college students and college-bound students for potential campus encounters with a new training program, Words to Action. It equips Jewish young adults with an understanding of how anti-Semitism is manifested on campus and how it differs from anti-Israel bias or anti-Zionism. It also offers strategies for responding effectively. Unlike more traditional Israel advocacy programs, Words to Action provides students with numerous approaches to addressing a range of issues, from insensitive remarks to more blatant anti-Semitic incidents.

ADL has brought the program to several Bay Area schools, synagogues and campuses, and the demand is growing. For information, contact [email protected] or call (415) 981-3500, or check out www.adl.org/wordstoaction.

Vlad Khaykin is assistant regional director for the Central Pacific Region of the Anti-Defamation League.