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Antisemitism Is a Problem. But Shuttering Speech Is No Solution.

Neither administrators nor donors ought to have anything to say about what is taught in the classroom or said aloud in a peaceful protest.

The Cornell University campus on November 3
Matt Burkhartt/Getty
The Cornell University campus on November 3

On Saturday, October 28, and Sunday, October 29, a series of messages were posted on a listserv at Cornell University (my alma mater, as it happens), in which an individual made threats, among other things, to “stab and slit your throat,” directed toward any “pig male Jew” he saw. The messages continued with threats toward any “pig female Jew” (with rape now included) and any “pig baby Jew,” whom he promised to “behead … in front of your parents.” An explicit threat of mass murder was also directed against the school’s kosher dining hall, on behalf of what the person, who signed his missives “hamas,” “hamas soldier,” and “kill jews,” called his campaign to “eliminate jewish living from cornell campus.” On Tuesday, November 1, Ithaca police arrested Patrick Dai, class of 2024, who had recently taken two semesters off from school due to what his parents described as mental health issues.

Also at Cornell, on October 15, associate history professor Russell Rickford attended a pro-Palestinian rally on the campus grounds and called the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel—in which the terror group murdered over 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians, wounded thousands, and took some 200 hostages—exhilarating” and “energizing.” Soon thereafter, Rickford apologized for his words and decided to take a leave of absence from teaching.

In much of the news coverage of these two incidents, they are treated as equivalent; part of an explosion of antisemitism on America’s college campuses that threatens the safety and security of Jewish students and needs to be shut down by virtually any means necessary. And that is certainly true of the first example. But it is not of the second.

Let me be as clear as possible. While I am well aware of the horrors of life in Gaza, for which I hold the Israelis largely (though not exclusively) responsible, I can think of no imaginable excuse for the inhumanity that characterized Hamas’s mass murder, butchery, and kidnapping of Israeli Jews. I cannot imagine having cordial relations, much less affection, or admiration, for anyone who cannot condemn this attack without qualification.

Furthermore: I, like millions of Jews worldwide, feel a strong sense of identification with the Israeli victims and cannot but be haunted by the echoes of centuries of violent pogroms and other attacks on Jews throughout history culminating in the Shoah. While appearing to be dormant for decades, violent antisemitism has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years in the United States, tied, undoubtedly, to the rise of White Christian nationalism that spews hatred toward anyone and anything that does not match its proponents’ beliefs, coupled with a former president who has somehow remade one of America’s two political parties into an antisemitism-friendly movement that consistently exploits the feelings of these same individuals with frequent coded appeals, attacks on prominent Jewish philanthropists, and, in Trump’s case, dinners and kind words for actual neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers.

It’s been a terrifying period for many Jews who thought they were done with this kind of thing. And yet, I force myself to remember that Hamas was not raping, killing, and torturing Jews as “Jews” in the manner of Hitler, Stalin, Torquemada, and so many others throughout history. They do not hate Jews for the reasons Trump’s dinner companions Ye and Nick Fuentes do. They hate Jews because they blame them for the dispossession of the Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 and the brutal treatment it has meted out to them since, including especially the desperation of life in the “open-air prison” that Gaza has been since Israel conquered it in 1967. Hamas leaders often make statements that undoubtedly qualify as antisemitic, but Israeli leaders have lately been making statements no less objectionable about all Palestinians. The organization’s fury is not directed toward Jews in Paris or the Upper West Side. Rather it’s at those living in historic Palestine.

Professor Rickford’s proclamations were anti-Israel, anti-human even, but not antisemitic. They should be denounced, I think, without equivocation. But they also need to be protected. Rickford—unlike Patrick Dai, if he was indeed the culprit—was announcing his solidarity and admiration for people attacking Jews who live 6,000 miles from the Cornell campus. He presented no threat to the students, save to their feelings. And while it’s true that universities ought to not promote speech that is hurtful or even provocative for its own sake, it’s absolutely necessary that they not only allow such speech but also protect it.

Challenging speech and thought are one reason we have universities in the first place. We test our trusted verities and transcend our intellectual comfort zones. Dr. Shahar Sadeh, who served, until recently, as the Jewish Community Relations Council’s director of strategic affairs, insisted to me via email that universities shouldn’t just be “safe spaces” where students get to be themselves, express their identities, and feel “at home.” They need to serve as “brave spaces” where “hard, uncomfortable conversations take place. This also requires brave faculty members who are not shying away from difficult topics and conversations. Obviously, this includes discussions of Israel and Palestine.”

Our social media feeds are filled today with reports of student demonstrations in support of Hamas and of Palestine generally, with accompanying attacks on Israel, followed, inevitably, by stories of letters boasting the signatures of hundreds of alumni demanding that the school’s president denounce the demonstrations as antisemitic (at the very least) and creating an “unsafe” environment for the school’s students. Donors have, in a number of instances, either threatened or promised to withhold funds unless action against these demonstrators—and their supportive faculty—is taken, pronto. Dueling signed faculty letters that denounce Israel or Hamas and sometimes each other are another feature of these battles with letters from the school’s president denouncing antisemitism and begging for peace, love, and understanding. So many of these letters and proclamations have proliferated that a friend of mine asked me to please stop forwarding them, though, as it happens, he had authored one himself.

A second problem haunts Jewish students on these same campuses these days: In addition to the defacing of Hillel offices with antisemitic graffiti, a perennial problem that we should note preceded the Hamas attack, we have also seen more than a few instances of Jewish students and faculty, either praying for the slain Israelis or speaking in sadness and solidarity with the dead and the Israelis mourning their losses, be harassed by pro-Palestinian students shouting anti-Israel slogans, usually led by the exceptionally obnoxious organization National Students for Justice in Palestine. At CUNY’s Brooklyn College, where I have been privileged to teach for the past two decades, Jewish students praying for the lives of Israeli hostages on the campus quad just three days after the massacre were shouted down by pro-Palestinian protesters with a bullhorn until campus security intervened. Days later, at a pro-Palestinian rally held just off campus Republican Brooklyn City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov showed up brandishing a quite visible holstered pistol.* (This is against the law in New York City near a school, and she was later arrested but released without any charges.)

Most of what you’ve likely read about these campus battles, however, has taken place at Ivy League universities. This is in part because these are the only schools that Ivy League–educated elite journalists concern themselves with and, in part, because Jews are radically overrepresented relative to the population at large (just as they are in the mainstream media).

More than 20 years ago, Columbia University was riven over the case of a few professors saying nasty things about Israel, leading to an enormous media kerfuffle and a multimillion-dollar campaign by Jewish groups designed to try to police—or at least influence—the school’s tenure process and even to fire tenured pro-Palestinian professors. Columbia’s president at the time, Lee Bolinger, was forced to appoint a commission of inquiry, which ended up mostly blaming the outside groups for making mountains out of molehills.

As I wrote in my recent book, We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel, what lay at the bottom of this controversy was the fact that America’s colleges were now teaching a very different version of Israel’s history than they had in the past; one that shocked the Jewish parents of students who went home and told their families. The elite college campus has therefore become a sort of ground zero for Jewish concerns about the changing perception of Israel from David to Goliath that has occurred in many scholarly and liberal political circles in recent decades. I note in that book:

Almost all upper-middle-class American Jewish high school students go on to college. Most do so, however, having been educated about Israel in a Leon Uris–type of ideological bubble. In college, they enter an alternative universe in which Israel is understood to be the oppressor and the Palestinians their victims. This caused cognitive dissonance, and the result was often panic. Their parents, meanwhile, were also often panicked to learn that the hundreds of thousands of dollars of tuition they were paying were resulting in their children coming home with arguments they believed to be not merely wrong, but personally (and painfully) offensive. This was especially true given what had become the central role that support for Israel now played in defining secular American Jews’ identity.

At the same time, Jewish organizations led by the Anti-Defamation League, have, for decades, sought to define all forms of anti-Zionism as antisemitism, in part as a response to the demands of their donors but also, unmistakably, as a means of censoring if not entirely eliminating harsh criticism of Israel. As I recently noted in these pages, the organization’s leader, Jonathan Greenblatt, recently went so far as to argue that the words “free Palestine” constitute ipso facto antisemitism. There are literally dozens of organizations and publications that seek to reinforce this position on university presidents and faculty, with their complaints passed along to various news organizations (almost always including Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, along with the well-read, right-wing website and email blast “Jewish Insider”). This inevitably leads to funders threatening the schools with the withdrawal of promised gifts from angry Jewish donors, making them, whether intentionally or not, allies in the right-wing push to politically police America’s university curriculums.

In addition to Cornell—where, on November 4, all classes were canceled for a “Community Day” in response to what its administration called the “extraordinary stress” facing students—we’ve been inundated with a series of high-profile battles that have taken place at other Ivy League schools.

Columbia has seen numerous demonstrations and counterdemonstrations, physical attacks on both Jewish and Arab students, and angry dueling faculty letters, along with the requisite presidential letter. Billionaire Leon Cooperman told Fox Business that the estimated $50 million he has donated in the past will now be all it gets, and Dov Hikind, the loudmouth former Brooklyn state assemblyman and founder of Americans Against Antisemitism, has been agitating for an end to Columbia’s taxpayer funding.

At Harvard, after nearly three dozen student groups signed an open letter claiming that Israel was “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” the Wexner Foundation announced the end of its considerable funding for the school. The far-right (and misnamed) Accuracy in Media organization sent a truck to Cambridge advertising the URL “” Dueling letters followed with thousands of signatories, including high-profile demands from the likes of former Harvard president Lawrence Summers and alumni Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz demanding that the school take action to denounce the groups in stronger terms than it had originally done. Over a thousand Jewish students and alumni formed an ad hoc organization to make a series of demands of its president and college dean. Unfortunately, at least two of them proved consistent with right-wing political policing efforts: One involved a demand for the definition of “antisemitism” the university should adopt, and another called for an investigation of the school’s “DEI framework faculty training.”

At the University of Pennsylvania, the administration was already reeling before the Hamas attack from its willingness to allow a Palestinian literary conference to take place on its campus. This inspired denunciations and threats of withdrawn funding from Jewish cosmetics mogul Ronald S. Lauder and private equity’s Marc Rowan, both deeply involved in funding legacy Jewish organizations, along with former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and Law & Order creator Dick Wolf. The ADL joined in, complaining that allowing an outside group to use the campus for this purpose was “incompatible with our institutional values.” Following the festival, which took place shortly before the Hamas attacks, demands proliferated for Penn’s president, M. Elizabeth Magill, to resign, and the Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a statement last month raising concerns about the “coercive power that trustees and donors are exercising over academic matters that are the purview of faculty.” As has since happened at both Columbia and Harvard, the university did its best to placate the funders, announcing a program to investigate and combat antisemitism on campus, without explicitly defining what constituted it.

One interesting complaint voiced by Lauder in his earlier letter about the Palestinian conference was what he termed the “drastic change in the numbers of Jewish students enrolled,” which he attributed to what he called its “openly hostile” environment. The campus Hillel has reported that, while Jews had once constituted roughly one-third of Penn’s student body, their percentage had fallen to 16 percent or a mere eight times their percentage in the general population. David Magerman, a computer scientist, investor, and philanthropist, told The New York Times he saw “general trends on college campuses around America that are giving in to certain views that are antisemitic.”

This is nonsense. While it is true that the percentage of Jews in Ivy League schools has declined, Mark Oppenheimer, director of open learning at American Jewish University and host of the excellent Gatecrashers podcast on the history of Jews in the Ivy League, explains that the decline “has nothing to do with antisemitism. Rather, it’s a result of many other factors: a stagnant or shrinking pool of Jewish applicants (Jews have low birth rates and intermarry more and more; of half- or quarter-Jewish teenagers, some identify as Jewish, some don’t), the big push for increased numbers of international students (never from countries with a lot of Jews), the desire to enroll first-generation college students (few of whom, by now, are Jews), and the push for non-white students (Jews are classed, sometimes controversially, as “white”). When you hold steady the number of athletes on most campuses (among whom Jews are under-represented), the result is way fewer Jews.” What’s more, he adds, “Jews have spread out, geographically and it was never going to be the case that the same high numbers of us wished to attend the elite northeastern schools.” Needless to say, these controversies quickly become hoisted into use by politicians. Republican politicians could hardly be expected to resist the urge to exploit the complicated dilemmas facing universities seeking to protect their commitment to free expression, their funding streams, and the feelings of Jewish students who feel themselves under siege. (The feelings of Arab students are an afterthought at best.) At the recent Republican Jewish Coalition confab, candidate after candidate sought to tie pro-Palestinian expressions to the notion that, as Ron DeSantis put it, the schools have “been captured and corrupted by a woke agenda.” He proudly issued an order for Florida to shut down all state SJP chapters as well.

This Biden administration also jumped in, promising to ally with schools’ efforts to oppose campus antisemitism and instructed the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to work with campus security as well as state and local law enforcement and expedite the processing of discrimination complaints. Ironically and no doubt symbolically, they deployed a statute that The New York Times noted “is intended to specifically prohibit certain forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

Do some professors’ arguments and the rhetoric of campus protests over Israel make some Jewish students uncomfortable? They sure do, just as the opposite is true for many Arab students and those who identify with the Palestinians’ struggle for self-determination. But absent actual threats to students’ safety and explicit expressions of Jew-hatred (or Islamophobia), neither administrators nor, for goodness’ sake, donors, ought to have anything to say about what is taught in the classroom or said aloud in a peaceful protest. If freedom of expression is not safe on our college campuses, it is not safe anywhere. Israel and Palestine arguments often grow heated and uncomfortable for all concerned, but having them in a respectful environment is yet another crucial democratic value universities teach our children: tolerance.

* This article has been corrected to remove an erroneous reference to the president of Brooklyn College.