When does Anti-Israel Activism Cross the Line into Anti-Semitism?
Jewish students at Emory University found mock eviction notices posted to the doors of their dorm rooms from the university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. Credit: Posted on Facebook by Sophia Weinstein, image provided by ADL.
By Yael Brown
On April 5, reports rolled out of several media sources describing an anti-Semitic incident on Emory University’s campus. Jewish students found mock eviction notices posted to the doors of their dorm rooms, apparently an act by the university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. Shockingly, Emory’s Office of Residence and Housing Approval permitted SJP to post the flyers, which appeared on dorm doors adorned with mezuzahs. Although the university issued a formal apology and a statement condemning hate on their campus, the question persists: When does anti-Israel activism cross the line into anti-Semitism?
The logic of Emory’s SJP members was to symbolize the eviction of Palestinian families after the 1948 war that won Israel’s independence. However, the students targeted by the eviction notice were not part of pro-Israel organizations, nor did they hang Israeli flags on their doors. They were students who publicly displayed their Judaism via a religious symbol.
The incident at Emory is far from the only case on college campuses in the United States. Last October, outrage against a professor at the University of Michigan erupted after he rescinded his offer to write a recommendation for a student who wanted to study abroad. His reason for not writing the recommendation, as documented in an email from him to the student, was that he felt he could not endorse her participation in a program located in Israel because of his moral objection to the Occupation. The professor also referenced the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, which the university publicly opposes, as part of his reasons for not writing the recommendation. Is this a case of anti-Semitism against a student, or a political clash with an educator who has a personally held position against a foreign political conflict?
More recently, a flyer distributed at Colombia University created a conflict between the school’s chapter of SJP and the Columbia Students Supporting Israel. CSSI accused SJP of using anti-Semitic tropes in its flyer, which depicts an Israeli solder with what they describe as a horn on his head (an anti-Semitic image dating back to medieval times). Furthermore, the flyer advertises “Israel Apartheid Week,” another commonly used SJP tactic to equate the Israeli-Palestinian with the horrific policies and former apartheid practices in South Africa. Once again, the line between anti-Israel opinions and anti-Semitic rhetoric is blurred.
The University of Texas at Austin, unfortunately, also shares in the experience of anti-Semitism on its campus through anti-Israel activity. In the 2018 student government election, an alliance of two candidates published a Tweet on their official Twitter account calling on students to vote for them in opposition to more “straight white Zionist men in power,” a reference to their opposition, who was a white male. One candidate tweeted from her personal account a much more virulent, expletive post against Israel and Zionists on campus. Although the offending candidates claimed their statement was directed against their political opposition to the state of Israel, the climate on UT’s campus became increasingly hostile. Jewish students reported the tweet as ant-Semitic and reported feeling increasingly unwelcome on campus because of their involvement in Jewish student communities. They insisted that these candidates, who claimed to fight for voices of all marginalized groups on campus, did not include Jewish students as part of UT’s greater student community.
Texas Hillel, located just two blocks from campus, has experienced multiple protests against programs featuring Israeli speakers. In 2017, Texas Hillel experienced vandalism, which was investigated as a possible incident targeting the Jewish community. These incidents connect anti-Israel activism with violence against the Jewish community, a concerning trend that ADL documented in its 2017 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents. This report documented 118 anti-Semitic incidents—including harassment and vandalism—on college campuses in the first three quarters of 2017, a 59 percent increase from the previous year.
ADL believes college campuses should be places for civil discourse and exploration of new ideas. ADL provides resources for students and educators to have discussions where the goal is not total agreement, but acceptance of differing beliefs among a classroom or community. All students and educators are entitled to their opinions on foreign policy, and on the conflict in Israel. However, silencing those whose opinions are different from one’s own violates our right to free speech.
Furthermore, conflating Israel’s political policies with the American Jewish community’s values is a fallacy that increases misinformation, creates unnecessary conflict, and, most concerning, can lead to violence against Jewish students. Communities can build an environment where these difficult topics can be explored safely and with respect. Students of all backgrounds should be welcomed to campus and given the opportunity to learn with and from their peers. ■