Supporting College Students Facing Antisemitism

Jewish campus professionals like me serve as human gauges measuring the barometric pressure of antisemitism as a component of campus climate. I am often asked by board members and community partners, “How are things on campus?” which increasingly means, “How’s the antisemitism on campus?”

I used to answer with pluck: “Sure, there are challenges, but we are working collaboratively with university partners to meet them!”

Now, as we mark five months since Oct. 7, I’m quite weary, answering, “Things have been challenging. We and our partners have our work cut out for us.” In truth, it feels like the mercury has climbed precipitously on college campuses.

The statistics bear this out. There has been a quickening in the pace of growth of reported antisemitic incidents over the past few years. The Anti-Defamation League’s most recent audit for the year 2022 showed a 36% increase in incidents from the year before, including a 41% increase on college campuses.[1] While that trend was itself alarming, the pace increased exponentially following Oct. 7. An ADL/Hillel/College Pulse survey in November of 2023 found that “since this academic year began, the average monthly rate of antisemitic incidents witnessed by Jewish students has increased twenty-two-fold from that prior to this academic school year,” such that a whopping 73% of Jewish students surveyed experienced or witnessed some form of antisemitism in a mere three months since the beginning of the academic year.[2] As a result, a majority of Jewish students reported feeling physically and emotionally unsafe on college campuses in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks.[3] An overwhelming majority of Jewish students (70%) say their universities are not doing enough to respond to antisemitism.[4]

Campus antisemitism has taken a number of forms. Physical assaults and threats are relatively infrequent,[5] though the fear created by them is widespread, significant and should not be minimized. This fear is exacerbated by an uptick in vandalism of buildings and spaces targeting Jews. Most often, however, students are hearing explicitly anti-Jewish comments or problematic comments about Jews and Israel online, on posters or in person.[6]

While the current conflict in Gaza has acted as an accelerant, campus antisemitism has been growing for years, creeping in at the edges of an increasingly polarized political climate. Until now, right-wing antisemitism has been the primary headline-grabber. Now, though, as Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman proclaims in his recent Time cover piece, “the most perniciously creative current in contemporary antisemitic thought is more likely to come from the left.”[7]Academics and student activists take legitimate critique of Israel as a point of departure, but tend to veer towards illegitimate generalizations about Israel, Zionists or Jews that rely on age-old antisemitic ideas. Feldman asserts,

The core of this new antisemitism lies in the idea that Jews are not a historically oppressed people seeking self-preservation but instead oppressors: imperialists, colonialists and even white supremacists. This view preserves vestiges of the trope that Jews exercise vast power. It creatively updates that narrative to contemporary circumstances and current cultural preoccupations with the nature of power and injustice.”[8]

When activists on college campuses utilize elements of this narrative, whether explicitly or in an implied manner, they may include antisemitic ideas and images and tend to open the door to explicitly antisemitic rhetoric, online and in person that may have nothing to do with the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Many Jewish students, faculty and Jewish campus professionals like me find ourselves overwhelmed by responding to a constant barrage of incidents that are buoyed by this current of antisemitic thought. We are faced with the impossibly difficult task of debunking these theories in real time, hoping desperately to be able to overcome the bias leveled against us. The task feels impossibly difficult because peers are approaching in a state of moral outrage brought on by an overflowing information stream of current events in Israel and Gaza that are refracted through the distorting lens of social media. Add to that the profound impact of the COVID pandemic, along with personal and intergenerational trauma tied up in the current conflict, and the result is that there is much less mental space for compassion and empathy, both sorely needed at this fraught moment.

So, what can any of us do to change things for the better? You may be personally connected to this as a student, parent, alum or a university staff or faculty member at a university currently in the throes of facing these challenges. If not, you probably have someone close to you that fits into one of these categories. Whatever your connection may be, I hope one or more of the following suggestions are helpful areas of pragmatic focus:

1. Bring down the temperature.

Give yourself a moment to breathe. Release some of the tension you are feeling. Before beginning a conversation that may be challenging, invite whomever you are speaking with to do the same. Every good conversation I have on campus usually starts with food, sitting down, something fun or something embodied. I let students get into the challenging stuff if and when they want to; I don’t push it. I do my best to listen compassionately and actively, and work against my own inclination to find solutions. Often, they simply need to be heard.

Back in October, a student who I knew was really hurting couldn’t even talk about it. So, we spent time together taking down the sukkah and stacking chairs, something that felt grounding. Recently on our campus, student leaders from Hillel and Goucher’s Black Student Union joined together to bake yam biscuits from culinary historian Michael Twitty’s masterpiece, Koshersoul. These moments are so deeply important. They help to build relationships, and they allow us to come down from being in constant fight-or-flight to a place where we can engage with one another across differences and find common connections.

2. Focus on small conversations and ask good questions.

The most transformative moments are going to happen in the same place where the most harm is being done — in the interpersonal realm. An important reframe (all credit to my wife Nikki here) is to move to asking questions and listening as a first step rather than making statements. Conversations have to involve a back and forth, a curiosity in encountering one another and one another’s opinions. As I wrote in an article published in our student newspaper last December, “Having the humility to ask, listen and learn is how we access the power to transform ourselves and our community.”[9] From that place, we can sometimes — if and when we are ready — start conversations about antisemitism, racism, and how the events taking place in Israel and Gaza touch each of us.

3. Be willing and able to engage with Israel in a multifaceted way.

Israel can be a divisive topic within progressive Jewish communities. This can lead to avoidance of engaging with Israel because of the fear of opinions clashing when what we need is healthy engagement across difference to build complexity. Fairly often, I hear from college students who had only a very basic understanding of Israel as a Jewish state, with little to no understanding of the history of Zionism and Jews’ connection to the land, Israel’s diverse religious and political demographics, the Israel-Palestine conflict and peace process or direct encounter with the people and land of Israel. Any account of Israel they have is one-dimensional and an easy setup for a counternarrative that reveals the “true” nature of Israel as the bogeyman conjured by the current strain of antisemitic rhetoric.

We have to be willing to live with some ability to consider conflicting narratives. Israel is the legitimate Jewish homeland AND the very same land is the legitimate Palestinian homeland.

The truth, of course, is more complicated. We have to be willing to live in some cognitive dissonance with regard to Israel, with some ability to consider conflicting narratives. Israel is the legitimate Jewish homeland AND the very same land is the legitimate Palestinian homeland. Israel is fighting a war for its survival against a dug-in terrorist group that commits atrocities with abandon AND Gazans are struggling to survive starvation and bombardment. Learning to connect with Israel needs to involve a balance of appreciating its uniqueness AND understanding its flaws. The experience of meeting Israelis and Palestinians can’t be undersold as a critical element of building these understandings. The students who are the most prepared to handle the challenges on campus are the ones who have done this kind of engagement. They are also the best at recognizing when the line has been crossed from valid critique into conspiracy theory.

4. Help university administrators and faculty to better understand antisemitism so they can call it out unequivocally.

Jewish community members need to feel that someone on campus has their back first and foremost, and that they are valued members of their university communities. Yet, the now-infamous congressional hearing involving the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the now-former presidents of Harvard and Penn universities showed on a national stage how university presidents at the highest level are having trouble identifying where on-campus rhetoric crosses the line into antisemitism. The dynamic nature of antisemitism, which can defy logic and alter its content to fit the societal ills of any moment, makes it difficult to capture in a static definition.

In speaking about the issue on my campus, I’ve tended to direct people first to Hillel’s famous guidance to the prospective convert: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.”[10] Simply recognizing the hallmarks of hate so that it can be addressed is an important first step. Regardless of content, the tone of hatred, along with its tendency to find scapegoats for complex societal problems, is fairly easy to identify for most people.

It’s important to be versant with universities’ language and commitments around DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and to insist that Jewish students should be granted the same protections against discrimination, as they are guaranteed them by law in the US under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The late November ADL/Hillel/College Pulse survey found that “while a majority of university students (55.8%) have undergone DEI training, only 18% of those students have received any training about antisemitism.”[11] This needs to be rectified at all universities. When double standards are employed, as they unfortunately often are, they need to be pointed out. For example, colleges rightly make unequivocal statements against racist rhetoric on campuses; they should do so as well with regard to antisemitic rhetoric.

University administrators are wary of making statements against antisemitic speech that could be interpreted as limiting academic freedom. A number of activists have gaslighted universities into thinking that voicing opposition to hateful rhetoric is the same thing as censorship or silencing of all activism. A false syllogism is being advanced – if we say that ANY criticism of Israel can be antisemitic, we are saying that ALL criticism of Israel is antisemitic. Obviously, that is not the case. Administrators need to be able to understand and parse for themselves WHEN such critique crosses the line and what language or images are problematic. Free speech, even hate speech, is protected by the first amendment in the US at large, but academic freedom is not unlimited on college campuses. Your academic freedom ends when it impedes mine. When Jewish students’ academic freedom is abridged by antisemitic speech, it is a violation of Title VI, and it needs to be called out by university leadership.

Free speech, even hate speech, is protected by the First Amendment in the United States at large, but academic freedom is not unlimited on college campuses. Your academic freedom ends when it impedes mine.

5. Focus on the long term with pragmatic goals.

I’ve been working for 16 years on my campus, the last four of which I’ve been engaged in working collaboratively with my college administration and Hillel International through Hillel’s Campus Climate Initiative, a proactive approach to improving campus climate for Jewish students. Mostly, I’ve learned that this work takes a lot of patience, persistence and partnership. From policy to training to dialogue to classroom dynamics, there is a lot of work to do. And there are constantly factors outside of our control that will continue to have an impact on campus. Let’s keep it real: Antisemitism isn’t ending anytime soon,[12] on any of our campuses or in the world at large, so let’s not aim to eradicate it. Instead, let’s aim to build more awareness of antisemitism, Jews and Judaism across our campuses, so that we are collectively better prepared to face the inevitable challenges that will come our way.

[1] Source: Audit of Antisemitic Incidents 2022

Accessed on 3/1/24 at:

[2] Source: Campus Antisemitism: A Study of Campus Climate Before and After the Hamas Terrorist Attacks. Accessed on 3/1/24 at:

[3] Ibid. Self-reports of feeling physically safe dropped from 66.6% to 45.5% after Oct. 7, and sense of emotional safety declined even further, from 65.8% to 32.5% after Oct. 7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. Physical assault made up 2.7% of antisemitic incidents witnessed, physical threats 5.7%.

[6] Ibid. Of those who personally experienced an antisemitic incident (67.7%), this category made up 93% of reported incidents.

[7] Feldman, Noah. The New Antisemitism. Accessed on 3/1/2024 at:

[8] Ibid.

[9] Snyder, Josh “What if…?”, accessed on 3/1/2024

[10] Shabbat 31A

[11] Source: Campus Antisemitism: A Study of Campus Climate Before and After the Hamas Terrorist Attacks. Accessed on 3/1/24 at:

[12] Though it’s only a matter of time until Robert Kraft prevails on the NFL to print “End Antisemitism” behind end zones across the league.

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