University administrators seem to be surprised that they have been incubating some of the leading and most active antisemites in America. In their reactions to the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, and then to subsequent outrages against Jewish students and campus communities, they seem mystified. Institutions so devoted to “safety,” “inclusion,” and “diversity” have become the launching pad for the vocal and aggressive demonization of Israel and Israelis, as well as any student who identifies as a Zionist. How can that be? 

I’ve worked with pro-Israel students on campus for nearly two decades. I concluded long ago that university leaders don’t think of Jews as deserving of any of the traditional protections or considerations of the modern American university. Jewish students are seen as privileged and white, and therefore in a position of permanent, structural power. When students of color, gay or transgender students, or Muslim students complain of mistreatment, universities swiftly come to their aid with new security and police measures, heavy administrative involvement, and loud calls to identify and investigate the perpetrators. When Jewish students complain — even about explicitly threatening vitriol that no one would dare level against any other group — universities suddenly remember their real purpose. Jewish students, and Jewish students alone, are told: Learning to contend with your ideological opponents is what the university is about.

This “justice for me, but not for thee” dynamic isn’t new. For years it has caused Jewish students and faculty to self-censor, to hide their Jewish identities, and especially to deny their connections to Israel and Zionism. Today, on one campus after another, Jews are being called to testify against themselves in some kind of lose-lose inquisition: If they defend Israel, they are guilty. If they criticize elements of Israel’s counterattack in Gaza but still believe Israel was victimized by Hamas — they’re also guilty.

How should university leadership respond? One particularly important question will be whether they have fostered campus antisemitism by funding and sanctioning individual chapters of a leading anti-Israel group on campus, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). SJP has been treated with kid gloves on most campuses, but the signs of this group’s fascistic tendencies have been obvious for years. At campus debates over boycotting Israeli products, SJP has attempted to drown out and intimidate pro-Israel students. Its members have physically blocked the tables for Birthright Israel trips and confronted students interested in signing up. SJP has even taken to calling for the removal of Hillel from campus, simply because Hillel believes in the importance and value of a Jewish state. 

Far from espousing interest in legitimate debate about Middle East politics, and far from calling for a two-state solution, SJP has long endorsed the annihilation of the State of Israel. Chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” are mainstays at their rallies. In the weeks since October 7, their statements and activities at Harvard, George Mason, Northwestern, Rutgers, and other campuses have endorsed “all forms of resistance,” “our comrades in blood and arms,” and “a unified Palestine” — all of which, in the current climate, could be understood as incitement to violence. That’s exactly what happened at Tulane late last month, when three Jewish students were physically attacked, and more recently at UMass Amherst, where a student was arrested for punching a Jewish student.

Leaders must choose to lead. Administrators must follow consistent principles. Faculty must honor the universal pursuit of truth and learning.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently banned SJP from state university campuses, while Virginia’s attorney general has launched a probe into the group’s fundraising, suggesting that Virginia may follow Florida’s lead. This week, Brandeis University became the first private university to ban SJP, citing its support for Hamas. The Anti-Defamation League and the Brandeis Center have sent a letter to university presidents urging them to investigate SJP for “materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization.” SJP’s funding sources remain opaque, since it is not a 501(c)3 nonprofit, but its ties to American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) are well-documented. As the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has revealed, AMP was reconstituted from the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and also the Islamic Association for Palestine, which were shut down by the U.S. government for funding Hamas.

Those defending SJP’s presence seem to have discovered a newfound commitment to freedom of speech, open inquiry, and university neutrality. The rest of us can be forgiven for finding this defense disingenuous and unlikely to last the next time a more popular marginalized group is attacked in the same way. The hypocrisy of private colleges and universities is particularly shameful, as they have enforced speech codes policing “hate speech,” harassment, and intimidation much less aggressive than SJP’s.

As Jewish students at Brown, Cornell, and Yale recently argued in the New York Times, SJP’s tactics are not about swaying opinion but about intimidating Jewish students. The students defend the right to debate and peaceful protest, but add:

Free inquiry is not possible in an environment of intimidation. Harassment and intimidation fly in the face of the purpose of a university. The codes of ethics of universities across the country condemn intimidation and hold students and faculty to standards of dignity and respect for others. Campuses are at a crossroads: The leadership can either enforce these ethics, or these places of learning will succumb to mob rule by their most radical voices, risking the continuation of actual violence. Simply affirming that taunts and intimidation have no place on campus isn’t enough. Professors violating these rules should be disciplined or dismissed. Student groups that incite or justify violence should not be given university funds to conduct activity on campus.

Whether SJP should be permitted to operate on campus is no longer primarily a legal question, but a moral one. If the rhetoric and actions at Charlottesville or the argument that “All Lives Matter” were easy for universities to denounce and marginalize on campus, why can they not do the same for SJP? If I were a university leader taking seriously the spread of antisemitism on my campus, I would look at SJP and ask whether its presence was improving or damaging the campus climate. The answer should be obvious.

Instead, when these incidents are presented to university leaders, whether by Hillel or Chabad directors, or by national organizations such as my own (the Israel on Campus Coalition), the response is similar. “This is concerning and merits further study and monitoring.” “This is a very emotional issue, and if Jewish students need support, we are there for them.” “We try not to police people’s views on highly charged political issues.” It’s always the same neutral and bloodless language of today’s therapeutic culture. But Jewish students don’t want therapy and counseling. They want security — and the freedom to learn without intimidation sanctioned and permitted by the universities themselves.

That expectation is starting to gain a following. Three out of the past four presidential administrations — Bush’s, Trump’s, and Biden’s — have pressed the Department of Education to protect the civil rights of Jewish students. Increasingly, the department’s civil-rights bureaucracy is responsive. This should give university administrators pause: The government is starting to listen to Jewish students, and it has the power to investigate, take sworn testimony, read emails, and make administrators answer for their sins of commission and omission. 

The only way universities exit the spiral is by setting a new course for themselves and defining a culture that is not, at its core, comfortable with antisemitism or its present corollary, anti-Zionism. University leadership must expect a new and firm commitment to civil discourse from all campus organizations that would force SJP to the sidelines. Any organization recognized or funded by the university must forswear hateful speech, rhetoric inciting or celebrating genocide, and acts of intimidation, both in-person and online. University presidents must publicly outline plans for combating antisemitism on their campuses with the same strength they bring to the fight against racism. Enforcement and compliance could come in many forms. But a culture is not created in a disciplinary hearing. Leaders must choose to lead. Administrators must follow consistent principles. Faculty must honor the universal pursuit of truth and learning. People of good faith must defend the rights of Jewish students and faculty who believe that Jewish lives matter. Such actions are not too much to ask, but for decades, they were rare in most American universities, and we accepted it. It is time to follow the lead of Marc Rowan and other donors forcing universities to make a choice: Either change or become fully captive to people who support the genocide of the largest Jewish community in the world.

This article was published on November 9, 2023.