The Campus Battle Over Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism

The debate over Israel and Palestine has provoked much controversy across America, but nowhere more divisive than on college campuses. 

It is not surprising that many college students and faculty sympathize with Palestinians and view Israel as the oppressive force, aided and abetted by the U.S. government.  After all, today’s college students, and young faculty, have known only one Israeli prime minister — Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s version of Donald Trump. 

Moreover, following the Hamas massacre on October 7th and Israel’s counter-offensive, all that today’s college students (and faculty) see on TV and read on social media are photos and horror stories of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, plus the racist comments of Netanyahu and other Israeli government leaders.  Add to that AIPAC’s increasingly close alliance with right-wing Republicans, white supremacists, and Christian white nationalists in order to defeat progressive Democrats who are critical of Israel.  That’s a recipe for discrediting Israel in the minds of many young liberals and progressives, including those in the Jewish community.

At Occidental College [pictured above], where I teach, Students for Justice in Palestine led a sit-in at the administration building in October.  The SJP group is relatively small (perhaps 10 students) but they enlisted the support of about another 40 students to join them in the three-day occupation.  The sit-in itself was peaceful, but what upset some Jewish students were the signs posted on buildings with slogans like “From the River to the Sea” and “Free Palestine.”  There is, of course, much debate about what these slogans mean, but to some Jewish students, they can be traumatizing, as they are perceived to be calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Occidental’s president refused to agree to SJP’s demands to divest the college’s endowment from companies doing business in Israel or the call for a ceasefire of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in response to the October 7th Hamas attack. He also did not agree to a demand from 40 Jewish parents – affiliated with the new national group Mothers Against College Anti-Semitism – to kick SJP off the campus and to fire or discipline faculty who signed a statement criticizing Israel (described below). He did, however, agree to support the creation of the Middle East/North Africa Studies program, and also encouraged the faculty to create a Jewish Studies program as well.  

On October 28th, 37 (out of about 160) Occidental faculty issued a statement (joined later by another 20) that described Israel as a “settler colonialist state,” called Israel’s attack on Gaza a “war crime,” and asserted that “what is occurring on the ground is genocide.”  The statement did not mention Hamas’ October 7th massacre. It did include an unusually-worded section that seemed to be an oblique way to excuse Hamas’ terrorism and to ignore its fascistic, theocratic, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-women fundamentalism:

We cannot in good faith say that we stand for justice if we demand Palestinians be ‘perfect victims.’ To demand ‘perfect victims,’ to insist that Palestinians have no ground from which to protest or that they must only protest in an ‘appropriate’ way, is to fall squarely into the camp of ‘both sides.’ And we know all too well that ‘both sides’ is what allows for the normalization of state terror and the culture of impunity under the guise of self-defense. 

The statement also noted the upsurge of “anti-Arab racism and anti-Semitism in the United States and elsewhere.” It observed that “As numerous Jewish activists and scholars have pointed out time and again, a challenge to Israel is not anti-Semitism.”  On November 8th, a professor of English—one of the drafters of the faculty statement, who is Jewish—gave a talk on campus about the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. He seemed to be making the case that the student protesters were not anti-Semitic.

Most of Occidental’s 2,000 students are liberals and progressives, as are the Jewish students, who represent no more than 10% of the student population. Most Jewish students at Occidental were already quite critical of Israel’s policies, even sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations for self-rule; a few Jewish students joined the sit-in. But most were unwilling to join a protest that failed to acknowledge Hamas’s responsibility for its massacre of Israeli Jews. They do not think that their non-Jewish friends are anti-Semites, but quite a few were upset that those friends did not understand why they were troubled by the SJP slogans, or recognize that Jews, too, have been victims of discrimination and bigotry and that anti-Semitism is a form of racism.

In the wake of the protests, a significant number of Jewish students felt the need to affirm both their support for Israel and their criticism of its government and began organizing a campus chapter of J Street, a progressive pro-Israel, pro-peace organization, while a few other Jewish students discussed starting a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist organization.

In response to the anti-Israel statement signed by some of my faculty colleagues, and to the talk by the professor that put a thick wall between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, I wrote an email to the entire faculty. I got a few hostile responses (some calling me a racist) but I received many more supportive comments. Unfortunately, the hostile comments were distributed to the entire faculty via the faculty list-serve, while the supportive comments were sent to just me, personally. I inquired and discovered that those who sent supportive comments were gun-shy about getting into a public dispute over Israel. Here is what I wrote:


I’d like to weigh in on this debate, since it raises many questions that I’ve been thinking and writing about for a long time. First and foremost: anti-Semitism is not the same as anti-Zionism. One can oppose specific policies of the Israeli government (such as the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, or the bombing of Gaza), or even oppose the idea of Israel as Jewish state (which is anti-Zionism), and not be anti-Semitic.  Anti-Semitism is one of the oldest forms of hatred and bigotry and has many forms.

People can hate or denigrate Jews without having an opinion about Israel.  When the KKK and other white racists bombed many Southern synagogues and the homes of Southern Jews in the 1960s, it wasn’t about Israel. It was about the widespread and visible support of Jews for the civil rights movement. 

Even though the U.S. has been quite open to Jewish immigrants and expressions of Jewish culture and practice, anti-Semitism has a long history in this country, going back to its founding. A national poll conducted in 1939 found that 53% of Americans viewed Jews as “different” from other Americans. Nearly 10% favored their deportation. Given those views, it isn’t surprising that the U.S. government under FDR refused to allow all but a handful of Jews to escape the Holocaust and settle in the U.S. (Ken Burns’ recent three-part documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” is an excellent source of information on this subject). 

It was not very long ago that colleges had quotas against Jews, that many neighborhoods barred
Jews from buying homes through restrictive covenants, that many social clubs and country clubs (including fraternities and sororities) banned Jews from becoming members, and that many employers refused to hire Jews.  When, during the last few years, people have engaged in mass shootings at synagogues (such as in Pittsburgh and Poway), Jewish schools, and public events in Jewish neighborhoods (such as the mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois), those actions are based on stereotypes about and hatred of Jews, including various forms of scapegoating.

Some even blame Jews for the wave of immigrants coming to the U.S. in the past few decades.  When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 shouting “Jews will not replace us,” that, too, is based on hatred of Jews, not Israel.  I wrote about this in an article in 2020 entitled “Why Anti-Semitism is On the Rise in the United States,” where I describe the
different kinds and sources of anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, sometimes anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism do overlap.  The war between Israel and Hamas has fueled a wave of old-fashioned anti-Semitism-bigotry against Jews-as-
Jews.  FBI director Chris Wray recently told Congress that threats against Jews had reached “historic levels.”  He said: “In fact, our statistics would indicate that for a group that represents only about 2.4% of the American public, they account for something like 60% of all religious-based hate crimes,” referring to American Jews.

This phenomenon is also happening in Europe.  Reports of anti-Semitic incidents are escalating in countries across Europe, following Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Last weekend, a Jewish woman in Lyon, France, was stabbed in her home; authorities found a swastika painted on her door. Last month in Berlin, someone(s) threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue and a Jewish community center. Stars of David have been spray-painted on Jewish homes in Paris and Berlin. Someone set fire to the Jewish section of Vienna’s largest cemetery last week. Anti-Semitic incidents more than quadrupled in the United Kingdom in the days following the initial attacks, from physical assaults on Jews to tearing down posters of Israeli hostages. Setting fire to a Jewish cemetery is not explicitly about Israel, but it is certainly no coincidence that such attacks are skyrocketing in the midst of the widening war between Israel and Hamas.

One can debate whether Israel should be a predominantly Jewish state that includes many non-Jewish citizens with equal rights (which is certainly not the case now), whether there should be a one-state solution that combines Jews and Arabs in some form of shared democratic governance, or whether there should be a two-state solution that includes one sovereign state for Palestinians and another for Jews.  

But consider this analogy: One can justifiably denounce the U.S.’s mistreatment, even genocide, of native Americans, and seek redress and reparations for those atrocities, without seeking the wholesale dismantling of the country, its return to its indigenous tribes, or the annihilation of its white citizens.  Similarly, one can justifiably denounce the U.S.’s history of slavery, institutional
racism, and racial capitalism, seek remedies such as various forms of reparations and end to racist practices in mortgage lending, police behavior, and employment, without calling for the wholesale dismantling of the country and/or the annihilation of all its white citizens.

Likewise, one can support Palestinian self-rule, but slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “There is only one solution, intifada revolution”—which have been heard on college campuses and elsewhere recently—call for the annihilation of all Jews who live in Israel, which is a fundamental tenet of Hamas. That is not a legitimate policy position.  It is anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

During the spring semester, the college will be sponsoring a series of talks and facilitated small-group discussions, to promote greater understanding of the history and current situation of Israel, Palestine, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.