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Racism on campus

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Protests have erupted on college campuses in the wake of Hamas’ October 7th terrorist attack on Israel. Verbal and even physical assaults on Jewish students have taken center stage at multiple schools. Some of the most well-publicized incidents have occurred at Ivy League institutions and other elite colleges that are often perceived to be bastions of liberalism (or “progressivism”). As a result, a curious narrative has formed as to why anti-Semitism is on the rise in higher education.

Specifically, a chorus of conservative politicians and pundits has advanced the notion that postsecondary institutions are fomenting anti-Semitism with the indifference – or even tacit complicity – of the schools’ leadership. This week, the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania appeared before Congress to explain and defend their actions, or alleged lack thereof, to curb bigotry against Jewish people. All three presidents are women and one of them is Jewish. Neither fact has insulated the schools against such charges.

Anti-Semitism is real and it is spreading. We have seen people rip down posters of Israeli hostages. We have witnessed execrable slogans in support of additional violence against Israelis. Recently, conspiracy theories questioning the reality of the Hamas attack have cropped up. Tragically, such hatred isn’t new, including on college campuses. If we were able to transport ourselves 100 years into the past, we would see the abbreviation “NSJ” (i.e., “Name Sounds Jewish”) scrawled on applications in an attempt to keep Jewish applicants from being admitted to Ivy League schools.

Yet, it must be noted that such disgusting sentiment did not come from progressives. Most importantly, progressives have not committed the most hateful acts – and certainly not the worst atrocities – against Jewish people, whether historically or contemporarily. For example, the hate-filled coward who gunned down Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh was not a liberal. Neither were the white nationalists in Charlottesville who proudly declared “Jews will not replace us”.

Regarding college campuses, administrators are being criticized because some students and faculty have made deeply offensive statements about Jewish Americans and Israelis. Conservative critics want schools to be more aggressive in combating anti-Semitism. While these institutions should do all they can to ensure the physical safety of everyone on campus, freedom of speech – even of the racist variety – should not be abrogated. Further, it is interesting that the very people who are most critical of “cancel culture” are calling for freedom of expression to be squashed. Indeed, I always find it interesting that the people who want absolutely no limits on the Second Amendment always seem to be actively in favor of curbing the First Amendment.

Importantly, those who are leveling such criticism against these schools have not been equally outraged about the Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab students who are also being attacked. Just as anti-Semitism is on the rise, so are incidents of Islamophobia – including physical attacks – against students who are (or who are assumed to be) Muslim. What’s really going on here?

Conservatives are blame shifting in an attempt to divert attention from their well-documented record of anti-Semitism. Consider, for example, the history of the uber progressive (and decidedly non-racist) Unitarian church as compared to the labeling of Jewish people as “Christ killers” in Evangelical circles – the latter of which is my religious tradition. Today, Elon Musk, who has made stunningly anti-Semitic remarks, is not a progressive. Neither is Donald “Very Fine People on Both Sides” Trump.

Further, progressives don’t use the word “globalist”, which has replaced “international bankers” as a dog whistle for Jewish stereotypes. Progressives don’t traffic in conspiracy theories regarding financier George Soros. Most importantly, liberals aren’t Holocaust deniers.

The reality is that conservatives have a decades-long vendetta against academia. Thus, they have seized upon the current moment to cast higher education as the locus of American anti-Semitism. To borrow from Chris Rock, this is an example of “selective outrage” against left-leaning institutions. It is easier to point a finger than it is to hold up a mirror.

The political identity of Jewish Americans is instructive. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 70% of Jews “identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party.” In fact, 79% voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms. This certainly would not be the case if they considered progressives to be more anti-Semitic than conservatives.

Too many people in our nation have a worldview is too simplistically divided into a liberal vs. conservative dichotomy. This lens is refractorily flawed. While left vs. right is a fair way to frame many issues, it is inherently limited. Indeed, it is often woefully inadequate.  

As I wrote a few weeks ago, empathy is necessary to view all members of the human family as children of God. Jewish people are no more or less valuable than are Muslims or Arabs – and vice versa. In the end, we must come to a shared commitment to dismantle racial and/or religious bigotry in all its forms.  

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