Anti-Semitism and the American College Campus

A Historian Examines a Persistant Problem

By Robert Wistrich

Jewish Daily Forward: Published June 29, 2011, issue of July 08, 2011.

 The recent controversy over the axing of Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Initiative for Studying Antisemitism (to be replaced by a new faculty-based research program) has generated much heat, but little light. Some of the commentary has been venomous, unnecessarily personalized, and self-serving, while invoking unproven allegations of political bias. The highly polemical tone of the debate has, in my view, obscured some more important and wider issues about American campuses, not least of which is the question of why the academic study of anti-Semitism has come so late to the United States.

 Campus Visitor: The 2007 appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
at Columbia University was an example of a lax approach to anti-Semitism
Getty Images

One possible explanation is that American Jewry, following its highly successful integration into postwar American society, initially had no special interest in highlighting a phenomenon that might underline its “otherness” to an uncomfortable degree or recall the hostility it had once encountered. Until fairly recently, most American Jews have shared the unwarranted assumption that anti-Semitism greatly declined in the West following the Holocaust. This was partly true in the United States, but much less so elsewhere.

In Britain and much of Western Europe, for example, it is a deeply troubling fact that anti-Semitism (often in the form of anti-Zionism and hatred of Israel) has become a significant part of intellectual and academic discourse. In the United States, too, we have witnessed a comparable phenomenon, as any reader of Eunice Pollack’s important anthology. “Antisemitism on the Campus: Past & Present,” published recently, can readily ascertain. Not only do anti-Zionist campus activists across America insistently call for the boycott of Israel (as they do even more forcefully in Britain), but some even demonize the Jewish state as the “Synagogue of Satan.” The truth today is that, for many American Jews, anti-Semitism is no longer something that happens far from home. It belongs not to only an endemically tainted Christian European culture, nor to the jihadist radicalism of the predominantly Muslim Middle East. It is, in its own way, as American as apple pie.

In June, the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, which I have directed for the past decade, published an important research paper by Stephen H. Norwood, titled “Antisemitism in the Contemporary American University: Parallels With the Nazi Era” The paper casts valuable light on the current situation in the United States. Norwood reveals that in the 1930s, leading American universities (including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and the Seven Sisters chain of colleges) helped to legitimatize anti-Semitism by welcoming Nazi leaders to their campuses. Moreover, American university administrators almost never responded to the vitriolic anti-Semitic statements made on campus by Hitler’s diplomatic or student representatives, nor did they react to American apologists for the Nazi regime.

Norwood’s scholarly paper shows how, once again, in our own day, administrative indifference has become visible on campus. Anti-Semitism intertwined with anti-Zionism (and even with homegrown anti-Americanism) is being widely propagated, whether by Nation of Islam speakers, pro-Palestinian advocates or leftist agitators. One deleterious consequence is the creation of an increasingly toxic atmosphere (sometimes reinforced in the classroom by virulently anti-Israel professors) in which Jewish students feel threatened and intimidated. In truth, this pattern (with ups and downs) has been present for many years. As a young student at Stanford in the late 1960s, I remember having being stunned by the extremely anti-Jewish rhetoric of Stokely Carmichael and other Black Power demagogues on Californian campuses. In the 1980s and ’90s, Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam followers went even further in their anti-white racism and brazen anti-Semitism.

Today, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic speakers still attract large and enthusiastic college audiences as long as they emanate from the black and Muslim “anti-Zionist” camp or from white radical groups — some of them Jews. At the same time, an elite university like Columbia had no compunction about hosting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on campus despite his extreme anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and genocidal threats to wipe out Israel. By displaying such misplaced “tolerance,” some American universities, in the name of defending free speech. are effectively legitimizing hate speech.

In this real-world context, one would expect American colleges and universities to become proactive in promoting the study of anti-Semitism not only as it existed in the past, but also as it manifests itself in the present. Certainly, Yale and any other major American educational institution have an obligation to insist on academic rigor and a thorough grounding in the history of the discipline, just as we do in Jerusalem. Equally, it should go without saying that all forms of anti-Semitism need to be studied without fear, favor or political partisanship if we are to gain a deeper insight into the “longest hatred.”

But by the same token, current strains of the virus, such as Islamist Jew-hatred, left-wing “progressive” anti-Zionism and far-right neo-populism, whether in Europe, the Middle East or on the American continent, should on no account be ignored or downplayed for reasons of political correctness. We trust that Yale and other leading universities in the West will take this commitment to heart. 

Professor Robert S. Wistrich holds the Neuberger Chair of Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1989. 

Since 2002 he has also headed the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University. He was previously (1991—1995) the first holder of the Jewish Chronicle Chair for Jewish Studies at University College, London. He has spent sabbaticals at Oxford University, Harvard, Brandeis, and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Research. In addition, he has taught at the Ecole des Sciences Sociales in Paris, the University of Montpellier, the University of Vienna, and Yale. He has edited several journals including The Journal of Contemporary History and currently Antisemitism International. He is author and editor of 25 books, several of which won international prizes. They include Socialism and the Jews (1985) which received the American Jewish Committee award, The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph which won the Austrian State Prize for History in 1991, and Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred which received the H.H. Wingate non-fiction award in the U.K. in 1992. His recent magnum opus A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, 2010) has hailed by many commentators as the definitive work on the subject for years to come. It was recently awarded the Best Book of the Year Prize by the editors of the New-York based Journal for the Study of Antisemitism who described Prof. Wistrich “as the leading scholar in the field of antisemitism study”.

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