Magazine Feature

‘Hate Has No Place on Our Campuses’

As antisemitism and other forms of bigotry surge, higher ed searches for a path forward

By Marilyn Cooper

Winter 2024

  • At Tulane University in Louisiana, a pro-Palestinian demonstrator repeatedly struck a Jewish student with a flagpole after the student tried to prevent a different demonstrator from burning an Israeli flag.
  • At Drexel University in Pennsylvania, an unknown person set fire to religious decorations on the door of a Jewish student’s dorm room, and a swastika was painted on an academic building along with expletives about Jewish people.
  • At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a student punched a Jewish student holding an Israeli flag and then spit on the flag.
  • At American University in Washington, DC, the dorm rooms of two Jewish students and a bathroom were vandalized with swastikas and a Nazi slogan.
  • At Columbia University in New York, a nineteen-year-old struck a Jewish student from Israel with a stick after the student confronted the teenager for ripping down posters of Jewish hostages taken by Hamas.
  • At Stanford University in California, an instructor asked Jewish students to identify themselves during class and then told them to leave their belongings and stand in a corner because “this is what Israel does to the Palestinians.” The instructor then asked how many Jews died in the Holocaust. When a student said six million, the instructor replied, “Yes. Only six million.”
  • At Ohio State University, two people threw bottles at a Jewish fraternity house and yelled antisemitic slurs. Two students were also physically assaulted while off campus in Columbus after answering “yes” when their attackers asked if they were Jewish.
  • At Cornell University in New York, a student used an online discussion forum to post messages that threatened to kill and injure Jewish students, commit acts of sexual violence against Jewish women, “shoot up” a kosher dining hall, and “bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot all you pig Jews.”

These are among the 412 reported antisemitic incidents that occurred on US college and university campuses during the two and a half months following the October 7, 2023, attacks and the subsequent outbreak of the Israel-Hamas War, according to Hillel International, a major Jewish-life center for students with eight hundred chapters around the United States. The incidents represent more than a 700 percent increase over the same period in 2022. A total of 3,283 antisemitic incidents occurred nationwide in the initial months after October 7.

Colleges and universities are confronting questions about what counts as antisemitism and where to draw the line between protected speech and prohibited harassment. Many institutions are now caught in a vortex of politics, donor threats, and legal actions. The situation has led to a crisis for higher education.

Since the beginning of the 2023–24 academic year, 73 percent of Jewish students and 44 percent of non-Jewish students have experienced or seen antisemitic incidents, according to a November 2023 survey released by Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish civil-rights organization.

Although Jewish students’ experiences with and perceptions of antisemitism vary from institution to institution, apprehensions about the current environment on campus are pervasive, according to a December 2023 survey conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. At institutions with the “highest antisemitic hostility,” 83 percent of Jewish students said they were at least “somewhat” concerned about antisemitism on campus. Even at institutions with the “lowest antisemitic hostility,” 55 percent of Jewish students were still “somewhat” concerned.

The nation has also seen an overall increase in Islamophobic incidents. Since October 2023, 774 complaints, including reported incidents of anti-Muslim bias, have been filed with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). (CAIR defines anti-Muslim bias as incidents that involve “violence, threats, intimidation, harassment, discrimination, bullying, or hate speech motivated by Islamophobia.”) That’s the highest number of complaints since 2015, when then presidential candidate Donald Trump called for barring Muslims from entering the United States.

CAIR does not report the number of incidents that occur at colleges and universities separately from its overall tally, but Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students have experienced a significant increase in harassment and discrimination on campus. Students have reported slurs, violence, and threats of violence aimed at them, as well as the forcible removal of hijabs. On November 25, 2023, three Palestinian American college students were shot and injured (one seriously) while off campus in Burlington, Vermont.

Colleges and universities around the country are grappling with how to respond to the acts of hate and prejudice. “Right now, because we’re in the middle of a war, emotions are understandably running really high,” Wesleyan University President Michael Roth says. “People have intense feelings—that complicates a difficult situation.”

The speed with which the overall situation has unfolded and continues to evolve is another challenge. “How we talk about and frame antisemitism has changed drastically, and it’s changed very quickly,” says Mary Ann Villarreal, the vice president for equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of Utah. (In February 2024, Governor Spencer Cox of Utah signed a bill prohibiting DEI programs at the state’s educational institutions that eliminates Villarreal’s job and her department as of July 1, 2024.)

As of late January 2024, the US Department of Education was investigating almost three dozen colleges and universities over complaints that they had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by mishandling antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents on their campuses. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, ethnic characteristic, or shared ancestry in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. Most of these investigations began after October 7, 2023. Students complaining of antisemitism or Islamophobia have also sued numerous colleges and universities.

Campus leaders, policymakers, faculty members, free-speech experts, advocates, and students have significantly varying views on how to characterize recent events and on how higher education should respond. However, many in these groups agree on three points: One, the overall situation is serious and urgent. Two, safety must be a top priority. Three, institutions must have zero tolerance for all forms of bigotry.

“As leaders, we must ensure every student is free to learn in a safe and inclusive educational environment,” US Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten says. “We must refuse to tolerate antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab hate, or any other form of hate on our watch. Hate has no place on our campuses.”

Mirroring a surge in antisemitism throughout the United States, antisemitic episodes on campus were on the rise well before the outbreak of the current Israel-Hamas War. The ADL has tracked reports of antisemitism on campus since 2014. In 2021, the ADL tallied 155 antisemitic incidents at more than one hundred US colleges and universities, representing a 21 percent increase from the 128 incidents recorded in 2020. Reported incidents spiked by another 41 percent in 2022 to 219. The actual number of incidents is probably significantly higher. Consistent with other victims of hate crimes and bias-motivated incidents, most Jewish students who experience antisemitism do not report it.

The most common forms of antisemitism reported on campus between 2014 and 2021 were threats, slurs, depictions of swastikas and other Nazi symbols, Holocaust-denying posters, expulsion from campus clubs, and vandalism of Jewish fraternities, sororities, and cultural buildings. Reports or threats of violence made up only 1 percent of reported incidents. Despite the increase in incidents, before October 7, 2023, the ADL and Hillel noted that “antisemitism did not define most of the day-to-day experience of being Jewish on campus.”

Over the past decade, events in Israel have correlated strongly with antisemitism on US campuses. Marten explains that even before October 7, 2023, Jewish students, educators, and administrators were “derided, ostracized, and sometimes discriminated against because of their actual or perceived views on Israel.” After the May 2021 outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians over access to religious sites and other issues, students across the United States experienced a sharp increase in antisemitic activity, according to The ADL–Hillel Campus Antisemitism Survey: 2021.

In one incident, a University of Vermont teaching assistant posted on social media that she did not give Jewish students course participation credit and subtracted points from their grades because “I hate ur vibe in general.” She also added the word “Kristallnacht” above a picture of a damaged storefront window with Hebrew writing on it and publicly celebrated the theft of an Israeli flag from a Jewish student’s residence.

Prior to October 7, 2023, different incidents occurred at DePaul University, Wellesley College, the State University of New York at New Paltz, and the University of Vermont, in which Jewish students alleged being expelled from study groups and academic clubs over public support for Israel. Similarly, in separate episodes at the University of Southern California; the University of California, Los Angeles; and Tufts University, some students tried to remove their Jewish classmates from student leadership positions or attempted to prevent them from serving in student government due to their pro-Israel views, according to campus newspapers and other news reports.

In recent years, Jewish students around the country have said that they avoided parts of their campuses for safety reasons or that they kept all signs of their support of Israel off social media, according to Jewish on Campus, a Jewish student advocacy group. Other Jewish students have reported hiding their religious identities by removing jewelry, yarmulkes, and shirts with Hebrew script for fear of being targeted. Emerson College student Bailey Allen spoke of calculating whether she should wear objects that represent her religious identity at a 2022 ADL forum on antisemitism in Boston. “It’s really, really hard to navigate,” Allen says. “Do I wear my Hillel sweatshirt today? Do I wear my Star of David necklace today?”

Ongoing disagreements about what constitutes antisemitism and when criticism of Israel and its government cross over into antisemitism have been dominating discussions about antisemitism on campuses. Conflicting definitions of antisemitism animate this debate.

At its simplest, antisemitism is hostility toward or prejudice against the Jewish people. But that definition does not encompass the complexities of the current situation. “There’s a lot of static around the definition of antisemitism and the extent to which it should or should not include certain forms of anti-Zionist discourse,” says Sara Coodin, director of academic affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

Most in higher education agree that symbols like the swastika and language such as blood libel accusations—the claim that Jews use human blood in ritual sacrifices—are antisemitic. However, people often disagree about whether criticisms of Israel, such as calling Israel an apartheid state or likening the Israeli military to Nazis, constitute antisemitism. Some believe such language is protected speech, while others say these and other examples are anti-Zionist—opposition to the existence of the state of Israel—rather than antisemitic.

How to label the language used at pro-Palestinian campus protests is a particular point of contention. “There’s definitely a gray area,” Roth says. “Some people view chanting ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free’ as antisemitic, but I don’t think that’s a helpful way to understand pro-Palestinian protests. However, actions principally aimed at intimidating Jewish students, rather than getting Israel to change its tactics, are clear-cut cases of antisemitism, and perpetrators must be held accountable.”

Others disagree with Roth’s assessment of the “from the river to the sea” slogan. “It is a quotation from the Hamas charter,” says Mark Rotenberg, vice president for university initiatives and general counsel for Hillel. “That charter is not simply a statement of Palestinian peoplehood—it’s an attack on Jews. People who today condemn Israel but not Hamas and who celebrate the slaughter of Israelis are engaging in antisemitism.”

Alan Ronkin, AJC regional director for Washington, DC, agrees. “For the most part, anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” Ronkin says. “People who parrot the talking points of a terrorist organization that wants to destroy Israel and kill Jews have crossed the line into antisemitism.”

Arguments about whether to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism (known as the “working definition”) are also part of the debate. According to the IHRA definition, faulting Israel in ways not normally used to criticize other countries and denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, such as claiming that the existence of Israel is a racist endeavor, are antisemitic. IHRA lists holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel and comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis as specific examples of antisemitism.

The Biden administration’s U.S. Strategy to Counter Antisemitism uses the IHRA definition, and the US State Department has also adopted it. In 2019, then President Trump signed an executive order instructing federal officials to expand the interpretation of Title VI to include “discrimination rooted in antisemitism.” That order also told federal agencies to “consider” using the IHRA definition.

Many major US Jewish organizations, including the ADL, AJC, Jewish Federations of North America, and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, support using the IHRA definition. “We think campuses should define antisemitism through the IHRA working definition of antisemitism,” says Meredith R. Weisel, regional director of the ADL for Washington, DC. “It acknowledges the complex ways antisemitism manifests on our campuses.”

However, some academics have expressed concerns that adopting the definition would stifle academic freedom and free speech on campus. “Many who reject the IHRA definition do so because, in their interpretation, it is less about ending antisemitism and more about protecting Israel from criticism,” George Washington University professors Michael Barnett and Nathan J. Brown wrote in June 2023 in Inside Higher Ed.

Kenneth S. Stern, now the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, was the lead drafter of the IHRA definition in 2004 when he was the AJC director for the division on antisemitism and extremism. He has repeatedly stated that the definition was never intended to be a campus hate-speech code—it was primarily created to help European data collectors monitor antisemitism. “I’m worried administrators will now have a strong motivation to suppress, or at least condemn, political speech for fear of litigation,” Stern wrote in a 2019 Guardian essay about the IHRA definition. “I’m a Zionist. But on a college campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression.”

On December 5, 2023, members of the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce questioned Elizabeth Magill, Claudine Gay, and Sally Kornbluth, then respectively the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), about free-speech policies; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives; and their handling of antisemitic incidents and protests on their campuses since October 7, 2023.

The hearing culminated with an exchange about whether the institutions should discipline students who call for the genocide of Jews. The presidents’ responses, that disciplinary action would depend on the circumstances and context, garnered significant criticism in the days and weeks that followed. “It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” Andrew Bates, deputy press secretary for the White House, wrote in a statement released the day after the hearing. On December 13, 2023, the House passed a bipartisan resolution condemning the testimony of the university presidents. Magill resigned days after the hearing, and Gay stepped down a month later amid criticisms of her testimony and allegations of plagiarism.

The hearings have reenergized debates about freedom of speech on campus. “The presidents should have said, ‘Advocating for genocide is not protected speech,’ ” says Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. “As campus leaders, we need to respect broad parameters for freedom of speech, but we also need to remind everyone on campus that speech is not an absolute right. It is bounded by rules of safety and the prevention of violence.”

The line between protected and prohibited speech often involves concerns about physical safety and threats of violence. “If someone calls for the killing of Jews or any other group, they should be punished. They should be expelled,” Roth says. “To me, that’s crystal clear.”

Pro-Palestinian groups and students, however, have expressed concern that there’s a “Palestinian exception” to freedom of speech. In November and December 2023, at least four universities suspended their chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the most prominent pro-Palestinian student group. The universities accused SJP members of disrupting classes, intimidating other students, and supporting terrorism. The national SJP organization has disputed the allegations. “These suspensions are a dangerous escalation of the repressive measures administrators have been taking to characterize anti-Zionist student organizers as a violent and existential threat,” SJP said in a statement. Administrators “have crafted the [educational] infrastructure for mass repression, censorship and intellectual manipulation.”

Individual Palestinian students have said they’re afraid to express their views on campus. “I know many people don’t like Palestinians. They think we’re all terrorists who want to kill Westerners,” says one student, who asked not to be identified. “I’m scared to say what I think. I’m afraid I’ll be canceled on campus. Other students won’t want to be my friend.”

The work of campus DEI offices has also faced intense political scrutiny in recent months. At a November 8, 2023, congressional hearing, House Republicans argued that DEI offices divide students and foster hate. In a subsequent statement to Fox News, Congressman Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas, asserted that these offices “separate everyone into oppressed or oppressor.” He has also blamed DEI initiatives for the spread of antisemitism on campus because “Jews are often not counted among the oppressed.”

Elizabeth Kleinrock, the founder of Teach and Transform, an anti-bias educator and an Asian American Jew, explains that in the anti-racist or DEI space, “anything equated with Whiteness is often viewed as bad.” A common misperception exists in the United States, she says, that all Jews are wealthy, privileged, and White. (In fact, at least 12 percent to 15 percent of US Jews are Jews of color, according to researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.) “There’s a binary of race—we’re taught to see Black and White. We ignore anyone who doesn’t easily fit into those two categories,” Kleinrock says.

As a result, Jews are often not included under the DEI umbrella. “I’ve noticed that because I don’t present as White, people in DEI spaces are often more willing to listen to me when I talk about antisemitism than someone with lighter skin,” Kleinrock says. “That’s an enormous form of bias.”

DEI initiatives, Villarreal says, need to frame their work through multiple lenses: “People bring a breadth of experiences, including their religious and spiritual experiences, to campus. We have to be cognizant of our whole constituency.”

In addition, institutions should work to place issues faced by Jewish and Muslim students, faculty, and staff under the same auspices as racism against Blacks and other people of color, McGuire says. “There’s a tendency to isolate certain ethnicities and religious groups,” she says, “but it’s all part of the work we need to do for social justice. We must act with moral clarity. We must recognize that every person has dignity, and every student has the right to thrive on campus.”

In what many institutions are calling a “spring reset” after the challenges of the 2023 fall semester, colleges and universities are now seeking out innovative and effective policies, programs, and solutions to address antisemitism and other bigotry on their campuses. Many institutions have created special task forces and advisory groups to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia. Institutions also plan to clarify procedures for reporting antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents, reexamine speech codes and student-conduct policies, and strengthen mental health support for students.

Many colleges and universities are also prioritizing education, dialogue, and community building. In one such initiative, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), is establishing an institute for civil discourse. “The institute will help maintain the university as a place to explore ideas and for the free exchange of ideas,” says Yan Searcy, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at CSUN. “The institute will help students learn to communicate effectively, even when there are challenging ideas and contrary perspectives.”

In another effort to promote constructive dialogue, Trinity Washington University is asking students and faculty to participate in a series of roundtable discussions during the spring 2024 semester. Topics will include antisemitism, Palestinian rights, and Middle Eastern history. “We have to create forums where people can come together for measured, respectful conversations,” McGuire says. “We need places and times when people can agree, disagree, or say that they’re confused. We cannot run from these issues or bury them.”

Villarreal adds that colleges and universities should be “where people can and should engage with diversity. We need to learn to sit with discomfort and delve into the messiness. That will enable us, as campus communities, to do the work together.”

Indeed, the current crisis presents opportunities for growth and positive changes, McGuire says. “We need to model peaceful and productive responses to conflict for the larger community,” she says. “That’s the path forward. As educators, we must demonstrate our belief in the rationality of the intellectual life. If colleges and universities can’t do that, who can?”

The Mental Toll

How antisemitism undermines students’ well-being

“It’s been really hard to concentrate,” says Katya Boukin, a Jewish graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I’m not able to work effectively. I feel scared, I can’t sleep, and I no longer have a sense of belonging here.” Boukin is talking about the effect of the rise in antisemitic incidents on campuses following the deadly October 7, 2023, Hamas attacks on Israel. She’s not alone. Many other Jewish college and university students have also been struggling mentally because of increasing antisemitism.

“Students are reporting profound experiences of isolation, hopelessness, anxiety, and grief,” psychotherapist Halina Brooke says. “In this state of chronic stress, their attention and motivation decrease substantially, and their ability to engage with and complete coursework diminishes. This in turn ushers in shame and hopelessness.”

Psychologists have found that when members of a group experience exclusion, dehumanization, or direct violence—whether as the target of antisemitism, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, or other forms of hate—their mental health is negatively affected, explains Daniel Rosen, chair of the department of counseling and health psychology at Bastyr University. However, Rosen says, the psychological effects of antisemitism must be viewed through the lens of the unique historical experiences of the Jewish people. Recognizing the effect of intergenerational trauma is especially important. “It’s not possible to understand most Jews’ reactions to October 7, for example, without first understanding the context of the Shoah [Holocaust],” Rosen says.

Trauma reverberates from generation to generation through epigenetics and through learned emotional responses and behaviors, explains Laura S. Brown, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington. “With intergenerational trauma, your mother was traumatized by her mother’s trauma, and, in turn, [your mother’s] trauma traumatizes you,” Brown says. This can result in self-hatred or depression. Epigenetically, trauma can be inherited because it causes changes in a person’s DNA. These changes are passed down to the person’s children. Individuals who experience intergenerational trauma are more vulnerable to mental health issues when additional trauma occurs, as has been the case for many Jewish students following the October 7 attacks.

The long-term effects of experiencing antisemitism in college can be devastating. “People’s lives get derailed,” Brown says. “People with pre-existing vulnerabilities, such as a history of depression, are more likely to get knocked off center and may struggle to get back up again.” Students are also experiencing these events at a crucial but vulnerable stage of life. “Experiencing micro- and macroaggressions,” Brooke says, “impacts identity formation in crucial ways and can lay the groundwork for a lifelong sense of exclusion, as well as increased feelings of anxiety and hopelessness in myriad contexts throughout the lifespan.”

Colleges and universities can better meet the needs of Jewish students by expanding mental health services and resources and hiring counselors trained in culturally responsive therapy, Brown, Rosen, and Brooke all point out. “Universities must amplify existing efforts to mitigate stigma against mental health,” Brooke says. “They must explicitly invite students to reach out and tell them they will be believed and supported.”

Illustrations by Paul Blow


  • Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper is the associate editor of Liberal Education.