Responses to Hamas’s October 7 terrorism and gruesome slaughter of innocent men, women, and children has, among other things, shined a light on the situation of Jewish students on college and university campuses across the United States. The temporizing statements issued by university presidents and other administrators, and in some cases, their silence, stand in stark contrast to vigorous condemnations that they regularly issue in response to manifestations of hatred on their own campuses and in the wider world.
To take one example, as a report on NY1 noted, Harvard University’s president, Claudine Gay “came under fire for being slow to issue a statement following Hamas’ attacks on Israel…and then for not condemning Hamas when university leadership did speak out.”
Leading the chorus of criticism was former Harvard President Lawrence Summers. Summers called out Harvard’s initial response, saying that Harvard had appeared “at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.”
Summers pointed out that Gay’s predecessor, Lawrence Bacow, “quickly released a statement denouncing Russia following its invasion of Ukraine last year” and that when she was Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Gay had made a “powerful statement on police violence.”
On my own campus, something similar to the missteps at Harvard happened.
At Amherst College, where last year a student publication featured an article entitled “In Defense of Hamas,” the first response came from Amherst’s Office of Student Affairs and Religious Life, not its president.
That statement never mentioned Hamas or what it did on October 7.
It began, “We are appalled by and condemn acts of war and terrorism that target civilian loss of life and the taking of civilian hostages. The conflict in Israel/Palestine tends to be tremendously polarizing, leading those with strong views to frame current conflict as originating from or justified by their own impression of that history. Whatever our beliefs, allegiances, and desired outcomes, let us not overlook this very real and significant loss of human lives.”
The college’s president and provost initially were similarly equivocal in naming what Hamas did. On October 10, they said “Our primary concern is caring for our students at a time when they are processing the horrific news and images of violence coming from Israel and Gaza. We know that this will be a moment of profound anxiety for many of our students—as well as for many of you—and we are also aware that issues regarding Israel and Palestine elicit strong and divided views in our community and worldwide.”
Following the Harvard pattern, a day later the Amherst president issued a full-throated condemnation of Hamas. Perhaps his initial reluctance to take a clear stance was a response to the fact of “the strong and divided views” on campus “regarding Israel and Palestine.”
But to understand why that is a bridge too far on many college campuses we need to look beyond the headline-grabbing problems of college and university leaders. In a world where diversity and diversification of the student population is priority one for many colleges and universities, those same institutions don’t seem to know how to think about Israel or Jewish students.
Should Jewish students be treated as a minority group needing care and protection or as a privileged group whose interests and concerns conflict with those of other minority groups?
A look at the admission of Jewish students at elite schools, the incidence of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic acts on campus, and the priority that campus diversity equity and inclusion offices give, or fail to give, to ensuring that Jewish students feel protected and welcomed suggests that the Jewish question is not one which many colleges and universities want to acknowledge or confront.
Let’s start with admissions.
An American Enterprise Institute study found that “just under two-thirds (63 percent) of Jewish students attend private colleges and universities, while 63 percent of the students in the country attend public schools. Within the Jewish community, almost a third (32 percent) attend elite, top 25 schools, and another quarter (26 percent) attend the top 50 schools, per US News. Nationally, just a third (33 percent) attend colleges within the top 50.”
Yet there has been a dramatic decline in the number of Jewish students attending Ivy League schools.
Inside Higher Education notes that at the University of Pennsylvania, “Jewish students accounted for about a third of enrollment several decades ago and now make up just roughly 16 percent of the 10, 412 undergraduates at Penn. The number of observant students, which reached 200 in the early 2000s, has since dropped to about 70.”
That same report says that “Fifty years ago, Jewish student populations at Harvard (and) Yale… were estimated to be between 20 and 25 percent. Jews now make up 9.9 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate enrollment and 12.2 percent at Yale.”
Inside Higher Education quotes one authority on the history of Jewish admissions at elite colleges who says “‘Today I don’t think there’s anyone in college admissions who’s deliberately trying to squeeze Jews out.’ But he believes admissions priorities at the Ivies and demographic trends within Jewish communities themselves have shifted in ways that affect Jewish enrollments.”
And once on campus what do Jewish students find?
In June, months before the Hamas terror attack in Israel, USA Today reported that “U.S. colleges and universities have seen a rapid rise in anti-Jewish activity…. In April, the Anti-Defamation League said such reports had spiked by 41% in 2022 compared with the previous year, with incidents recorded at more than 130 schools.”
Recent campus climate surveys have found that “almost three-quarters of Jewish students reported that they had personally experienced or familiar with a recent collegiate-based act of anti-Semitism.” As a result, almost ¾ of Jewish students on college campuses feel that they have to hide their Jewish identity and especially their support for Israel.
Over half of the students surveyed “report being subjected to campus antisemitism and 72 percent do not believe that collegiate administrators take this threat seriously.” Across the landscape of colleges and universities, one would be hard-pressed to find either a clear acknowledgment of the problems Jewish students experience or programs designed to address the things that lead them to feel they have to hide their religious identity.
A 2022 study of 24 major college and university diversity, equity, and inclusion offices by the advocacy group Stop Anti-Semitism found that only two of them had programming or initiatives targeting the experiences of Jewish students on their campuses or anti-Semitism. The group concluded that “DEI departments have not made fighting anti-Semitism a priority.”
Moreover, in some places, as Seth Mandel, the editor of the Washington Examiner, observes, the accepted DEI ideology “views Jews as emissaries of (white) power.”
Stop Anti-Semitism graded schools “on how well or poorly they are responding to, and preventing, antisemitism on their respective campuses.” Amherst received a C, because Jewish students “DO NOT feel that the administration does enough to ensure the safety of its Jewish population” and because the school “Does not include Jews in its DEI initiatives.”
Harvard University received a D, Williams College a D-, and Yale an F.
These are shocking findings. They suggest that some of our most prestigious institutions of higher learning have not learned how to make Jewish students feel a sense of safety and belonging on their campuses.
As we try to come to terms with what happened in Israel on October 7 and with what is happening on campuses in the aftermath of that horrible day, it is time for our colleges and universities to forthrightly address the Jewish question. Just as they have launched long-overdue anti-racism campaigns on their campuses, it is now time to bring the same focus and energy to dealing with the experiences of Jewish students and addressing the problem of anti-Semitism.