Countless Jewish families welcomed their children home from college this holiday season and gave tens of thousands sanctuary from what has become alarmingly normal behavior on their campus: virulent anti-Semitism.
It’s no secret that hatred of Jews has exploded online and on our streets in recent years. But it has also taken root on our college campuses, making countless students feel unwelcome and unsafe.
Among family and friends, Jewish students will not be exposed to doors with “Kill the Jews” scrawled on them. They are not forced to dress up their Star of David necklace or take a detour to class. They don’t have to question whether they’re wearing a Hillel sweatshirt or hiding that they studied in Israel.
Anti-Semitic incidents hit new highs in 2021, according to the Anti-Defamation League. On college campuses in particular, the ADL recorded a record number of incidents against Jewish students, including profanities and spit being hurled at them.
Much has been written about the rising tide of anti-Semitism, and at this point hardly a day goes by without a new incident or report. With each new episode, the Jews had to become more and more resilient and forget the last inappropriate remark.
But the tide of anti-Semitism on campus calls for a deeper level of concern. These incidents are not just one-off vulgarities – they are signs of institutional Jew-hatred.
Students at Tufts University, the University of Southern California and UCLA have attempted to prevent or remove the election of Jewish students to serve in student government. At Wellesley, the student newspaper ran an editorial in support of The Mapping Project, a database of Jewish organizations and figures. Nine Berkeley Act organizations have banned Zionists from speaking at their campus meetings. When these nine groups were outed for their anti-Semitic charter, five others adopted the same rule.
And so on, one campus at a time. Administrators and faculty often subtly or vocally champion these actions, including with institutional support. At Yale Law School, a diversity coach argued that anti-Semitic incidents reported to the FBI were inflated because of “an agenda.” At Stanford, a diversity and inclusion program tried to argue that since Jewish power does not require campus-wide concern for Jewish people, antisemitism should be excluded from its agenda.
The City University of New York is not immune to horrific anti-Semitism scandals either. At CUNY Law School, the student government recently passed a resolution banning Hillel and other mainstream Jewish clubs. The school chose an opening speaker calling for the eradication of the State of Israel. Elsewhere, a CUNY student group promised to create programs to challenge and criticize Jews.
This institutional anti-Semitism is reminiscent of the unsettling early 1930s at German universities. In 1933, the Nazi leadership passed a law restoring the professional civil service that removed from their posts Jewish civil servants who had not fought in World War I – including 1,200 university professors.
This opened the door to anti-Semitism on campus, including student actions. In the same year, students carried out a mass boycott of Jewish faculties, stormed a Jewish fraternity house in Heidelberg and occupied university buildings in Frankfurt, denying entry to their Jewish colleagues. In Baden, students filed complaints with the local Ministry of Education because Jewish students occupied the best seats in the classrooms. Soon Nazi officials issued a decree that only non-Jews could sit in the front row of a classroom.
We are seeing the echo of those actions on American college campuses today, prompting university leaders across the country to take immediate action to ensure the horrors of the past are not repeated.
Leadership can make a difference. Officials can withdraw funds, support and space from organizations that promote antisemitism, and they can direct resources for hate crime alerts, training and audits. In Austin, for example, administrators at the University of Texas withdrew their support from the student government and banned the use of the university’s name and likeness. They responded – with appropriate seriousness – to a resolution that marginalized and targeted Jewish students.
The state of Colorado has made supporting Jewish students a presidential-level priority, and ex-boss Joyce McConnell has established a task force on Jewish inclusion and the prevention of anti-Semitism. The goal: to develop a concrete plan to make the CSU a Jewish-friendly campus.
These individual examples of courageous and compassionate leadership illustrate a larger and more important point. Antisemitism doesn’t have to be the kind of matter dealt with by afterthoughts and tortured press releases. Officials can take preemptive action and do more to combat Jew-hatred before it becomes institutionally acceptable.
As students return to school in the coming weeks, my New Year’s resolution is to make sure our university leaders wake up to the fear and concern of their Jewish students — and commit to doing something about it.
Ronald S. Lauder is the President of the World Jewish Congress.