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Antisemitism Is Popular Again. How Can Jewish Students Respond?

Historically, Jews as a group are often blamed and abused for the actions of some Jews. Sometimes, they fled; other times, they fought back. Now, Jewish students in the United States are facing antisemitism stoked by the Israel–Gaza war. They are responding by using their voice. Will that be enough?

New York City, January 5, 2020: People marching from Manhattan to Brooklyn against the rise in antisemitism in New York. © Christopher Penler /

November 24, 2023 02:07 EDT

For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water, because the comforter that should relieve my soul is far from me; my children are desolate, because the enemy prevailed.

— Lamentations 1:13

By virtually all accounts there has been a dramatic rise in antisemitic ‘incidents’ throughout the United States and the other Western democracies. This eruption of Jew-hatred globally has been ignited by Israel’s response to the attacks carried out by Hamas operatives on October 7, 2023. As night follows day, pictures of Gazan civilians suffering as the result of the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) bombing raids have led to attacks on American Jews and Jewish institutions. Perpetrators of these attacks have held American Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli military, whatever the views of individual Jews and Jewish institutions. 

This is, of course, the logic of the pogrom. Historically Jews have been held to be collectively responsible for the behavior, real or imagined, of individual Jews.

Collective blame of Jews has a long history

For example, there were widespread attacks on Jewish communities throughout the Russian Empire following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. The Czar’s murder was carried out by an anarchist group, the People’s Will, a few of whose members were Jewish. In response, large numbers of Jews fled Russia for destinations in Western and Central Europe. More emigrated for the United States. 

In the aftermath of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917, a civil war broke out between the new Communist regime, the “Reds”, and the “Whites” who were violent opponents of Lenin, Trotsky and their fellow revolutionaries. The Whites often blamed Jews for the new communist order. The fact that Leon Trotsky and a handful of other revolutionaries were Jewish led the Whites, Cossacks and other Ukrainians to carry out violent attacks on Jews in the Ukraine and Poland during 1918–1920. Some 100,000 Jews were murdered in Kyiv and other Ukrainian and Polish cities during this extensive pogrom.

These killings and many like them in nineteenth-century Europe were secular versions of Christian and Muslim massacres of Jews dating back centuries. Throughout the late Middle Ages and beyond, even into the early 20th century, rumors spread, often during Easter time — the “Blood Libel” that Jews had killed a Christian infant and used its blood to bake matzo as part of their Passover ritual. Among populations in Central and Eastern Europe these rumors, sometimes spread by ecclesiastical authorities, led to outbreaks of mob attacks on Jewish communities based on this long-lasting superstition.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Dreyfus Affair created an occasion for anti-Jewish violence throughout France, the home of the European “Enlightenment.” In this episode, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the first Jew to serve on the French General Staff, was accused of treason. It was alleged that Dreyfus had committed treason by transferring French military secrets to the German ambassador in Paris.

Dreyfus was court-martialed, found guilty, stripped of his rank, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Eventually, after multiple court proceedings and ferocious public debates, another military officer was found to be responsible for the crime. Dreyfus was exonerated and restored to rank. But during this protracted (1894–1905) episode Jews were violently attacked throughout France because of this false allegation against a single individual.

How Jews have defended themselves from antisemitism then and now

What were the responses of Jews to these centuries of abuse and murderous violence in nominally Christian Europe? Where possible, it was flight to safer parts of the world. Given the options of “fight or flight,” many European Jews chose flight. The European Zionist movement is an example of the “flight” option. Rarely in this long history of violent persecution did Jews in general exercise the fight alternative. (The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising was a dramatic exception.) More commonly, though, the response was one of endurance and the public expression of lamentations. Like hurricanes and other natural disasters, common European Jewish reactions were stoic endurance and persistence — under the assumption that it will all blow over, at least until the next event occurs.

The formation and persistence of modern Israel, on the other hand, embodies the “fight” reaction. Over the decades, the Jewish state’s leaders and its average citizens have exercised the “fight” alternative, concluding, reasonably enough, that if Jews wished to survive as a people in the Middle East they had better learn to fight. If not, at best they would have been treated as dhimmi, i.e. tolerated as an inferior minority in the Muslim lands (Dar al-Islam). The historical parallel that comes to mind is the brutal treatment accorded the Armenian Christian minority in the later years of the Ottoman Empire. They were a minority community subject to the whim and caprice of the Sultan. If a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” were to become a reality, Israelis might either exercise the “flight” option or suffer the fate of the Armenians under Muslim rule.

In terms of central tendency, the reaction of American Jews to the outbreaks of antisemitism that followed the Hamas attack of October 7 and Israel’s armed reaction to it has involved still another response: “voice” (use of the term owes to Albert Hirschman, who wrote Exit, Voice and Loyalty). Confronted by pro-Palestinian and oftentimes antisemitic protests staged throughout much of the country in the streets, on college campuses and in other public spaces, the leading Jewish “watchdog” organizations (e.g., the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee) have raised their voices in condemnation of the attacks on individual Jews and Jewish institutions. 

Jewish students on college campuses from Cornell on the East Coast to UCLA in the West have been the targets of antisemitic threats of violence. Swastikas and antisemitic slurs of various kinds have been spray-painted on the sides of campus buildings. Social media postings have threatened Jewish students with Hitler-like denunciations. In response, students and wealthy donors (e.g. the Jon Huntsman Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania) have appealed to university administrators to do more to stop the antisemitic threats and abuse.

When interviewed by reporters, many Jewish students have expressed fear and trepidation. Orthodox men have reported removing their kippah (skullcaps) out of fear they would be attacked. Other Jewish students said they were afraid to attend classes or show themselves at dining halls for the same reasons.

These reactions to antisemitic threats have a familiar ring to them. We have re-entered the world of the shtetl and Jewish lamentations. If only the czar (or provost) knew, he would put a stop to the antisemitic threats and violence. (For a discussion see, for example, Anemona Hartocollis and Stephanie Saul’s article in The New York Times.)

Unlike Israelis and the IDF, Jewish students attending American universities have conspicuously avoided the “fight” response. Instead of preparing to defend themselves, individually and collectively, the dominant reactions have been ones of anxiety and fear. 

These students are, of course, a world away from Odesa in 1882, Kraków in 1918, or Polish and Romanian universities in the 1930s, but their reactions to antisemitic abuse seems strikingly similar to those of their ancestors. Voice, yes, but fighting back, no.

What can we learn from this most recent experience of antisemitism?

There appear to be a few lessons to be learned by the continuing experience of on-campus abuse of Jewish students (and some Jewish faculty). The first is that courses and university programs aimed at promoting diversity, inclusion and mutual tolerance have proven to be virtually worthless, at least so far as combating antisemitism is concerned. The same applies, sorry to say, for courses on the history of the Holocaust. When the chips are down, none of these courses and programs have served to insulate Jewish students from abuse and violence by those who equate their ethnic or religious identity with the state of Israel. 

Instead of participating in these programs and taking these courses, Jewish students would be better served, better able to defend themselves, if they began learning the martial arts. In more extreme cases of on-campus abuse and violence, these students might even be encouraged to learn how to use firearms responsibly. On-campus awareness that Jewish students possess or may possess firearms might very well have a deterrent effect for those who threaten them.

A final consideration: In 2022, the US Senate overwhelmingly confirmed Deborah Lipstadt as a “Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism” – with the rank of ambassador-at-large. Given her status and apparent influence in the State Department, she might very well be approached by Jewish student groups and their well-wishers to help combat the on-campus abuse of Jewish students. If this abuse and violence can be attributed to particular students or faculty, the ambassador might use her influence to have their visas revoked, so that they may be returned to their countries of origin in the Middle East or elsewhere. Some awareness of this possibility might also have a deterrent effect on those contemplating antisemitic violence. Otherwise, the ambassador might be preaching to a choir of those already opposed to the present revival of antisemitism in the Western World.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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