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Pens, pencils, and swastikas.

As an academic I have become accustomed to a certain predictability accompanying the start of the fall semester; campus flowerbeds are tended, colleagues with grand plans for a fruitful summer lament their lack of productivity, and instances of overt anti-Semitism haunt campus.


At my employer alone, four separate instances of anti-Semitic graffiti have been reported since the school year began. This is to say nothing of the slew of racist incidents at colleges and universities across the nation this fall.

Anti-Semitism on-campus is nothing new, though life for Jewish students and faculty is certainly better than it was at its nadir, in the early part of the 20th century. Gone are the days when the American university system placed quotas on Jewish students and faculty (Harvard capped the class it admitted in 1922 to no more than 15% of the “Hebrew race”) but the American college campus has, once more, become a rich home for anti-Semitism.

For many in this generation of college students, public displays of anti-Semitism may come as a shock, but it’s certainly nothing new. Historians often call anti-Semitism the “world’s oldest hatred.” Despite this perennial hatred there was a period of time, stretching for about 50 years, when it was unacceptable to hate Jews, at least in polite company. That half-century after Auschwitz was liberated marked a historical aberration when it was unfashionable to be overtly anti-Semitic. Clearly in America that time has passed, especially on-campus.

I am not the first social commentator who has noted this sharp rise in public anti-Semitism on the American college campus, but when the discussion turns to the origins of this hate I find myself baffled by the attribution. Many well respected groups rightly correlate the rise in anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses with anti-Zionist movements, but they seem to miss the underlying motivations of this animus. When the Amcha Initiative released its vital report on the staggeringly high instances of anti-Semitism at American colleges and universities, it noted:

“[A]nti-Semitism was twice as likely to occur on campuses where BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign] was present, eight times more likely to occur on campuses with at least one active anti-Zionist student group such as SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine], and six times more likely to occur on campuses with one or more faculty boycotters. In fact, schools with more faculty boycotters and more BDS activity tended to have more incidents of anti-Semitic activity.”

The report went on to say:

“In addition to ostracizing and alienating Jewish students from certain areas of campus life, anti-Zionist students repeatedly attempt to shutdown events organized by Jewish students and suppress their free speech about Israel and other topics. Sadly, because of strong emotions on Israel, Jewish students are being targeted, discriminated against and ostracized, and their civil rights are being egregiously violated.”

While the report is correct to say that Jewish students are being harassed about Israel, they are not being harassed because of Israel, they are being harassed because they are Jewish, and that is the history of Israel itself.

Anti-semitic Graffiti in a Georgetown University Elevator, September 2017.

The movement to create a Jewish state, called Zionism, is often attributed to Theodor Herzl, the Austro-Hungarian writer and political thinker who founded the World Zionist Organization in 1897. At that time, Jews were a diaspora people, subjected to pogroms, expulsions, and genocides throughout the known world. Many of the early Zionists said that Jews being a minority everywhere meant that they were respected nowhere, and that if the Jews had a nation of their own they would finally be on par politically and socially with every other people. This belief actually aligned, in a bizarre way, with the rhetoric of some anti-Semitic politicians at that time.

At the turn of the last century the clarion call of these anti-Semites was: Jews, go to Palestine. Leave our countries, leave us alone, and there won’t be any problems. Now that message has been turned on its head and today the call is: Jews get out of Palestine and there won’t be any problems. Well, which one is it? Perhaps anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Jews having a homeland, and everything to do with Jews simply being at home anywhere. Bigotry may try to couch its animus in unemotional trappings, but at its root it’s still nothing more then hatred of the other, plain and simple.

White Supremacists and Neo-Nazi marching on Charlottesville, 11 August 2017. (Flickr / Karla Cote)

Throughout human history anti-Semitism has been “justified” by its perpetrators in any number of ways. Pagan anti-Judaism targeted Jews for being monotheists. The charge of deicide haunted Jews for centuries throughout christendom. Untold numbers of Jews died in pogroms across Europe, instigated by accusations of blood libel and kidnapping. Hitler attempted to cloak his ontological anti-Semitism in the language of race, eugenics, and science. Holocaust deniers claim they are just historical revisionists, correcting the record, not bigots spreading lies. Today it’s Israel and Jews the are once again blamed for the very anti-Semitism they endure.

Israel is not the cause of, or the solution to, anti-Semitism. No one who paints a swastika in an elevator car is interested in having a rational conversation about West Bank settlements. This is not to say that all criticisms of Israeli politics or government policy are de facto anti-Semitism; a quick scroll through the Jerusalem Post or Haaretz will reveal the beloved Jewish past-time of Jews criticizing their leaders, but swastikas in bathroom stalls and elevator cars are not the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

United Nations HQ, New York (Flickr / WorldIslandInfo.com)

For over two millennia the Jew has been slandered as the creature who poisoned the well, spread the plague, murdered children, and even murdered God. Today Israel is called an apartheid state and a perpetrator of genocide. Outside of the United National headquarters in New York City the flags of 193 member states fly; 31 of those flags have a cross on them, 21 have the Islamic crescent and star, five have images of Hinduism or Buddhism, and one has the Star of David. For some people that seems to be one flag too many.🔷


(Cover: Photograph by Flickr / Karla Cote, White Supremacists and Neo-Nazi marching on Charlottesville, 11 August 2017.)


Author image
Assistant Dean in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. He studies the role of science and technology in the Holocaust.
Washington D.C., US