Is Anti-Zionism on Campus a Passing Nuisance, or a Fundamental Threat?

The answer might come down to how well America can resist the influence of European-style anti-Semitism.

A banner for Students for Justice in Palestine at a rally in New York in 2015. Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

A banner for Students for Justice in Palestine at a rally in New York in 2015. Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

June 6 2016
About the author

Suzanne Garment, who was the chief operating officer of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, is a visiting scholar at Indiana University. She is writing, with Leslie Lenkowsky, a book about the politics of American philanthropy.

“The subject is gloomy, but the food will be good—and the music spectacular.”

Thus, in late January, spoke Alvin Rosenfeld, a professor at Indiana University and director of its Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism. He was describing a four-day international scholars’ conference scheduled for late spring on the university’s Bloomington campus. In the event, the conference did not disappoint in its food, its music—or its gloom, which rose like a miasma from the days-long rehearsals of the varied and abundant forms of anti-Semitism, particularly in the form of anti-Zionism, in today’s world.

As if to reinforce the gravity of the occasion, the conference took place in the interval between the November 2015 terrorist massacres in Paris and the disclosure in April of the social-media posts by Naz Shah, a Labor member of the British parliament, advocating the forcible “relocation” of all Israeli Jews to America and the even greater uproar a month later over anti-Semitism among senior party leaders. Although the focus of the conference was mainly on Europe, both the academic setting and the topic, “Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Dynamics of Delegitimization,” inevitably launched attendees into the middle of an issue that many American Jews have strenuously tried to avoid: namely, the anti-Israel activity now rampaging through U.S. universities. Is this a fundamental threat, or a nasty but passing nuisance?

The answer suggested by the conference deliberations—“both of the above”—may sound like another evasion, but reflects an understanding of the still-relevant distinction between the seemingly ineradicable persistence of European anti-Semitism and the contrasting benignity of American social and political institutions. It also suggested the need to exploit that distinction before it becomes too late.


I. The European Scene


That today’s anti-Semitism is intimately connected with anti-Zionism is a virtually axiomatic proposition. Still, there are variations, and Europe specializes in them. The scholars at the conference—mostly from outside the United States—did a thorough job of filling in the European background, anatomizing the beast’s profile in individual countries, and connecting it in each case with the details of local politics. Without pretending to do justice to the richness of these presentations, it’s possible to sketch a few main themes before returning to the American scene.


That Old-Time Religion         

There are places in Europe—and especially in Eastern Europe—where anti-Semitism is still so unreconstructed, and the sanctions against its open expression so few, that it doesn’t bother to cloak itself in “mere” anti-Zionism. One of these places appears to be the Czech Republic.

Thus, according to Zbyněk Tarant, an expert in cyber-hate at the University of West Bohemia, anti-Semitism on the Czech Internet, once chiefly a staple of neo-Nazi websites but now also part of the arsenal of more general conspiracy theorists, has recently specialized in resuscitating more ancient tropes in order to “explain” current events.

Serving as just such an occasion was the 2014 outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which soon gave rise to anti-Semitic postings on both sides of the divide (though in the web offerings the pro-Putin side has eventually dominated). Anti-Zionist statements do appear, but Israel is mainly a collateral target in an openly anti-Semitic propaganda war featuring pre-Nazi images of a perfidious Jewish hand poisoning the wells to control the course of history and the fate of peoples.


Islamist Reinforcement

If the resurfacing of more venerable forms of anti-Semitism constitutes one aspect of today’s European reality, a better known ingredient, especially in Western Europe, is traceable to the now-50-year-old Muslim immigration. And this, too, has its twists. Remco Ensel of Radboud University in Holland described the way in which the influx of a quarter-million Muslims helped to inject an anti-Israel element into an already receptive Dutch political culture. Then, beginning in 2000 with the second intifada, a new wave made its appearance: Islamist or Islamist-inspired activists armed with a specifically religious identity and vocabulary and eager to invoke the stereotype of the treacherous Jew, this time rooted in the framework not of Christian but of classical Islamic teachings. Daniel Rickenbacher of the University of Zurich told of a similar change in Switzerland, where a new generation of Turkish Muslims has Islamized anti-Zionist politics to the point where recent anti-Israel demonstrations have featured more Caliphate than Palestinian flags.

True, there is more to this story. Throughout Western Europe, an anti-immigrant reaction has made itself felt, notably in the well-documented rise of populist movements and parties of the right. In both France and Germany, the surge has been accompanied by a deliberate effort on the part of a new generation of leaders to downplay or even repudiate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, once a hallmark of the right. In Holland, the ascendant Freedom party led by Geert Wilders is openly pro-Israel.

Still, anti-Semitism among the general Dutch population remains not only palpable but quite stunning, evidenced in, among other places, schools and sports arenas. This year’s official government report on Dutch anti-Semitism cites the chant of one soccer club: “Father was a commando, Mother was SS. They burned Jews together, because Jews burn best.”


Migration of the Elites

A third element in today’s European anti-Semitism, more closely related to Israel, is the evolution of “polite” or acceptable attitudes toward Jews over the past 50 years. In describing it, Marlene Gallner of the University of Vienna reached back to the writings of Jean Améry (born Hanns Chaim Mayer), a fighter in the anti-Nazi resistance, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and the author of a classic book on the Holocaust, At the Mind’s Limits. In the 1960s, Améry bitingly identified the anti-Zionism then already developing among European elites as an “honorable [form of] anti-Semitism.” Its singular virtue, he wrote, lay in the sense of relief it provided to Germans who could now, finally, blame the Jews for something. In Améry’s memorable phrase, this type of anti-Zionism contained anti-Semitism “as a cloud contains a storm.”

Fifty years later, the storm had well and truly broken. One especially resonant thunderclap was an anti-Israel diatribe in the form of a 2012 poem by the best-selling German novelist and international idol (and SS veteran) Günter Grass. Responding sympathetically to Grass’s outburst, the German public intellectual Jakob Augstein wrote in Spiegel Online:

Israel’s nuclear power is a danger to the already fragile peace of the world. This statement triggered an outcry because it’s true—and because it was made by a German, Günter Grass, author and Nobel Prize winner. . . . One must, therefore, thank him for taking it upon himself to speak for us [emphasis added].

For this, Augstein’s column made the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s annual list of “top ten anti-Semitic slurs.” But, as explained at the conference by Marc Grimm of the University of Augsburg, Augstein was correct in his characterization: if both he and Grass had broken a taboo, it was by saying what much of the German public already thought. Indeed, most German media defended Augstein, claiming that the Wiesenthal Center’s accusation had “devalued” the charge of anti-Semitism—presumably, by applying it where it didn’t belong.

This, then, is not the open anti-Semitism of East European discourse or of the Islamists and their sympathizers. In Germany and Austria—as also in France and elsewhere—strong anti-hate-speech laws and social conventions limit such unadorned forms of expression. Instead, anti-Zionism in this context takes its place in a very particular progression of postwar German (and not just German) feelings toward Jews: the progression, in brief, from guilt to resentment. And from there, it is but another short step to the charge that Israelis are the new Nazis.


II. American Attitudes


What does all this have to do with the United States? In Europe, attitudes toward Jews, while affected directly by events and developments on the ground, simultaneously draw rich nourishment not only from a long history of hate but from, as it were, the ambient air. That the disease is infectious is clear from the example of Britain, where, despite the generally more salubrious atmosphere, anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism flourishes both in the academic world and within the “progressive” politics of a Labor party anxious to appease and accommodate an increasingly radicalized Muslim constituency.

To American ears, however, both contemporary European particulars and the history they carry in their train can seem to be taking place in a truly foreign language. Yes, an American might say, there has been open anti-Semitism here, and there has also been open anti-Zionism (including among Jews). But has there also been, at least since the end of World War II and the establishment of the Jewish state, the sort of anti-Zionism that, in Améry’s words, contains anti-Semitism “as a cloud contains a storm”? If so, it would seem to be confined to certain precincts of the far left and—what can amount to the same thing—the universities. As serious and as dismaying as it is, many observers, including a number of the American and Canadian participants in the conference, appear convinced that in the American context it is both aberrant and—so far—non-contagious.

Of course, there is no denying its toxicity on college campuses. So-called BDS campaigns to boycott, divest from, and sanction the Jewish state and its people and to demonize its supporters; annual weeklong protests against “Israel Apartheid”; clamorous and abusive anti-Israel demonstrations; the shouting-down of speakers, disruption of classrooms, smearing and “outing” of pro-Israel professors and students—all ugly stuff. In one recent incident, demonstrators shouting “Long live the intifada!” outside a showing of an Israeli film at the University of California-Irvine tried to push their way into the screening room; at film’s end, police escorts were needed to ensure the safety of exiting students. Such events are usually made uglier by the disinclination of university administrators to restrain or supervise them with anything like the requisite force.

But is the ferocity of BDS and the rest only and entirely an excrescence of the last few years, unconnected with larger and existentially more ominous currents?

Not really. The roots go back much farther than that. We have here, you might say, a history of successive imports from abroad that in the course of decades have become increasingly naturalized, including in American politics.

To this history I can testify from personal experience. In the 1970s, when I worked with Daniel Patrick Moynihan at the United Nations, we witnessed the foreign toxicity close up, if still with very little idea of what it ultimately portended. By the time Moynihan was named U.S. ambassador to the UN in 1975, he had already analyzed (in his Commentary article, “The United States in Opposition”) the degree to which America and American values were coming under assault in international bodies dominated by the international Marxist-socialist left. In the same essay, he called for an active defense of those values on the part of American spokesmen, representatives, and intellectuals. But in our early days at the UN we still thought we could triangulate, locating points of convergence between American principles and founding UN doctrines and, together with likeminded friends and self-interested others, forging links of at least partial consensus on key issues.

The relevance of the Moynihan game plan to the position of Israel was obvious. Yet, preoccupied as we were with the cold war and with East-West problems more generally, we were surprised by the seemingly sudden and anomalous introduction of Resolution 3379 denouncing Zionism—of all national-liberation movements!—as a form of racism and racial discrimination. We were even more shaken by the dawning realization that the resolution stood every chance of succeeding in the General Assembly.

As we soon discovered, the scurrilous charge against the Jewish nation-state had been bubbling through the sludge of international-forum-speak for almost a decade, and had been extensively peddled by the Soviet Union. In that light, things began to make more sense. Having located the prime agent of the disease, we were confident we also had the means of isolating and combating it—including by mobilizing American public opinion. And indeed, although the resolution passed, Americans reacted to it in a burst of what Gil Troy has called “patriotic indignation,” almost as if the country were a collective immune system bracing to expel a foreign body.

That sentiment helped to direct subsequent American policy on the issue. In the long run, steady pressure by the U.S. government, and especially the administration of George H.W. Bush, led to the UN’s repeal of its infamous anti-Israel resolution in 1991, the same year the Soviet Union fell. The end of Soviet totalitarianism, many of us had reason to believe, would deprive the anti-Zionist obsession of its motive force.

We were wrong. Among other things, we’d overestimated the degree to which the idea was the exclusive property of the USSR and its third-world clients and therefore containable. In fact, long before the introduction of the Zionism-racism resolution, and with mounting ardor after Israel’s victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War, the European left had begun adding indictments of Israel—“expansionist,” “imperialist,” “racist”—to its standing catalogue of Western, mainly American, sins. Here at home, elements of the radical and eventually the liberal left dutifully began to follow suit, with, over the next decades, modified or partially modified versions of the anti-Israel catechism making their appearance on editorial pages and in journals of liberal opinion, in foundation programs, in the preachings of mainstream churches, and in the universities. The virus has even, though still rarely, affected American party politics—most sensationally, in the wild eruption of “No!”s from the floor when, at the 2012 Democratic party convention, a boilerplate reference to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was reintroduced into the party platform. Compared to what may yet ensue at this year’s convention, given Bernie Sanders’s representatives on the platform committee, that earlier disturbance could yet seem tame.

But the locus classicus of the movement remains the universities—and there, too, it sports a historical pedigree. In Resurgent Anti-Semitism, a volume edited by Rosenfeld, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of the University of California-Santa Cruz has described a specific instance of the process by which anti-Israel and anti-Jewish ideas have infiltrated campus activity from as far back as the 1960s.

San Francisco State University, which today has a well-earned reputation for quite venomous anti-Semitism, was first radicalized in the 1960s by a breakaway group from the existing student civil-rights organization. Calling itself the Black Students Union (BSU), the new group adopted the slogans and doctrines of the Black Panther party, a self-declared revolutionary socialist movement embracing armed resistance to America’s racist, capitalist, and imperialist oppression of blacks. To the extent that Jews figured in BSU’s litany of vituperation, they were one group of malefactors among others. In due course they would emerge into the spotlight: BSU’s successor, the Pan-African Student Union, a group indebted ideologically to both the Organization of African Unity and the Nation of Islam, denounced Jews specifically as quintessential white bloodsuckers preying on black communities.

By the 2000s, leadership of the campus’s anti-Jewish “struggle” passed seamlessly from the Pan-African Student Union to the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS). This group, officially created in Cairo in 1959 and long an arm of the PLO, fell into dormancy with the signing of the Oslo Accords but was revitalized following the 2001 World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa—a coming-out party for today’s trope of Israel as an apartheid state. Since then, by fair means and foul, GUPS has striven with notable success to turn the Jewish state and its supporters into still more specific objects of universal campus odium.

Here, in short, is a textbook case of the melding of eliminationist anti-Zionism with racial grievance politics, Marxist-tinged liberation ideology, anti-colonial discourse, and the residual energies of the anti-apartheid movement to create a new, overarching cause for “progressive” souls on American campuses. And the term “progressive” is key: as a number of observers have noted, the striking success of campus anti-Israelism, a reactionary movement if ever there was one, owes much to its ability to insinuate itself into the cluster of approved causes, from environmentalism to feminism to gay rights to Black Lives Matter to “peace,” that constitute the certified progressive mindset.

That same success, moreover, is what has cast so many Jewish youngsters into a profound crisis as they struggle to reconcile their Jewish loyalties with the lockstep dictates of political correctness. As the contradictions become ever more heightened, some Jewish students, who remain stubbornly pro-Israel, find themselves isolated, vilified, forced out of what they have assumed to be their “natural” home on the liberal left; a few fight back; most keep silent. But such is life in the university, the most Europeanized of American institutions and one that has been diligently insulated from most of what goes on in ordinary American politics.

The question is: for how long will ordinary American politics remain insulated from it? How far will the poison spread, and what can be done to contain or stop it?


III. What Can Be Done?


In 2014, an American academic named Andrew Pessin became the object of a campus-wide vendetta. A professor of philosophy at Connecticut College, Pessin had written a Facebook post describing Israel’s efforts to deter Hamas terrorists as akin to “keeping a rabid pit bull chained in a cage.” Within days, coordinated student newspaper editorials charged him with advocating genocide, and from there the mob rage spread. Soon he was being heatedly accused of hate speech, denounced by fellow faculty members, and left hanging by the college administration, which pointedly took no disciplinary action against the students responsible for defaming and terrorizing him. Death threats were not long in coming. Shortly thereafter, he petitioned for a medical leave of absence.

Incidents like this one and others no less harrowing have convinced Rossman-Benjamin, who was a participant in Rosenfeld’s conference, that a generation of Jewish college students may end up being intimidated into denying or suppressing their identities simply in order to get by. In a grotesque irony, such imposed silencing of free discourse is happening at a moment when universities are expending tens of millions of dollars to satisfy the “non-negotiable demands” of every grouplet of allegedly aggrieved undergraduates, and creating “safe spaces” to protect the sensitivities of every ethnic, racial, and sexual identity—except that of pro-Israel Jews, who (as presumptive co-conspirators in evil) appear to have forfeited their rights. No wonder Rossman-Benjamin concludes that things can only get worse.

And so they undoubtedly will—unless the anti-Jewish aggression is confronted and stopped. On this point, Pessin himself, who is scheduled to return to teaching in 2017, brings interesting news. At the nadir of the campaign against him, he reports,

[P]eople outside campus started reaching out to me. . . . A petition on my behalf was circulated with 10,000 signatures. . . . When you see there are thousands of virtual soldiers ready to support you, you start to feel strong enough to fight back and to reach out to other individuals to help them.

More generally, Kenneth Waltzer, formerly of Michigan State, has helped organize a movement, the Academic Engagement Network, explicitly to combat BDS; despite everything we know about the campus climate, he says he has found surprising success in recruiting faculty to his campaign.

No one who has lived through this year’s primary season can doubt that American political culture harbors its own characteristic corruptions and threats to civilized discourse. Still, on the issue of anti-Zionism, the forces here are not arrayed as they are in Europe. Private colleges have donors. Public universities are governed by public bodies, including federal and state legislatures. Courts and administrative agencies are more willing to entertain legal actions. Media are diverse enough to provide channels of communication. Strong traditions of private voluntary action produce advocacy groups.

These relative advantages won’t make the fight easy, but they help to make it possible. Last week, the Israeli mission to the UN teamed up with a number of Jewish organizations to sponsor “Ambassadors against BDS: An International Summit at the UN.” To the 1,500 attendees gathered in the chamber of the General Assembly, a succession of speakers brought encouraging news about the means available for fighting the BDS onslaught, from court challenges to hotlines for reporting harassment and intimidation. It is doubtful that the event’s organizers, or audience, had a full sense of the bitter incongruity of the moment, assembled as they were in the very hall and in front of the very podium to which Yasir Arafat came in 1974 bearing, as he was careful to stipulate, “an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun”; at which Israel’s ambassador Chaim Herzog tore up the “Zionism is racism” resolution; and by means of which a massively corrupt international organization has over the decades made itself into one of the globe’s foremost propagators of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

But, formidable as the challenge rightly appears, at least those present in the hall were mobilizing the not-insignificant resources that lie at hand. Even if the universities are a lost cause intellectually, it remains plausible to try and limit the damage they do to their students and by extension to the mental and moral health of other Americans. Otherwise, what will be the condition of American political discourse a decade from now, when the current generation of students, having passed through the anti-Israel grinder and internalized its falsehoods, will have entered the professions and be both consuming and producing the national attitudes and positions of the future?

The most recent survey of American opinion related to that question, by the Pew Research Center, finds overall support for Israel holding steady. But Pew also reports the share of millennials who sympathize more with the Palestinians than with Israel at 27 percent, three times higher than in 2006.

What the Indiana conference helped to clarify is that Americans rightly appalled by the climate on U.S. campuses have at their disposal many more assets with which to fight than do their European counterparts. What history and survey data suggest is that these advantages cannot be expected to last indefinitely. There is every reason to use them now.

More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Israel & Zionism, Jews on campus