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Out of control? The truth about hate at US universities

    Palestinian MK Haneen Zoabi speaking at an anti-Israel event at Columbia University, New York
    Palestinian MK Haneen Zoabi speaking at an anti-Israel event at Columbia University, New York

    Anyone outside the US reading about Jewish American campus life will have come across a stream of troubling stories of late.

    In just the past month, a Stanford University student senator suggested that an investigation into the way Jews control society was a "valid discussion"; the governing body of ultra-liberal Oberlin College condemned one of its professors for suggesting that Israel was behind 9/11; and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to withhold nearly $500m from the City University of New York until the state was satisfied that it had addressed the problem of antisemitism on campus.

    These incidents were no mere flashes in the pan. Recently, antisemitic graffiti was daubed on the Jewish fraternity building at Brown, an Ivy League college. The David Horowitz Freedom Centre, a conservative think tank, released a list that ranked Columbia, Cornell and several University of California colleges among the most antisemitic campuses in the US. Meanwhile, at Connecticut College, philosophy professor Andrew Pessin had to take another sabbatical after his remarks about Hamas on Facebook led to a student outcry that, in effect, forced him off campus.

    What is happening? Have American universities succumbed to the same anti-Jewish bigotry rife in many other countries' academic institutions?

    The simple answer - and it is a relief - is "no". The complicated answer is more worrying.

    A student protester at Pittsburgh University
    A student protester at Pittsburgh University

    Historically speaking, antisemitism has not been a major issue in the US and, according to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents are currently at an all-time low.

    In that context, some of the antisemitism can be put down to ignorant students repeating calumnies without realising that they are tapping into an ancient, viral hatred. The college residents who scrawl swastikas on dorm rooms and the students who play Jews v Nazis beer games are clearly deeply misguided but, probably, stupid rather than racist.

    Meanwhile, for sections of America's left-wing student constituency, Jews are seen as part of the privileged, white establishment, and are therefore to blame for wealth inequality and the oppression of ethnic minority groups. The thinking goes like this: if a leading politician can call Mexicans "rapists" and still look likely to capture a major party nomination - while his main opponent characterised "New York values" as being about "media and money" - how could it hurt to highlight the Jewish branch of "white privilege"?

    In the US, the First Amendment underpins a cultural right to free speech. This is why outright antisemitism is often followed by widespread condemnation but not by official sanctions.

    Joy Karega, a professor at the liberal arts college Oberlin, in Ohio, claimed on Facebook that Israel planned the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January last year. However, the college did not fire Karega or even condemn her posts, adding that she had the right to express "her personal views".

    Jewish lecturers at Vassar in the Hudson Valley, New York State, have reported a string of antisemitic incidents, including a recent guest lecture at which Rutgers gender scholar Jasbir Puar accused Israel of stunting Gaza children's growth and harvesting organs from dead Palestinians.

    After an outcry, Vassar officials said that they would not limit free speech but instead would make sure that there were more pro-Israel events on campus.

    While the responses from university officials were, in these cases, lamentable, such out-and-out antisemitism is rare, and the issue being fought over on many more campuses is how a rational, fair debate can take place on Israel while respecting free speech: 19 campuses held votes on resolutions or referenda relating to Israel in the 2014-15 academic year.

    Although the First Amendment only applies to the creation of laws, its ramifications mean that there is unlikely to be a blanket ban on antisemitic speech such as the "no platform for racists" policy adopted by the National Union of Students.

    Semi-private groups on campus like Hillel have made rules that their local offices, which function like the JSocs, must not "partner with, house, or host" anyone who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement, but that ends up limiting local groups from dialogue, especially about Israel.

    In January, the University of California, faced with task of condemning antisemitic attacks while preserving the right of free speech within the Israel debate, issued its "Principles Against Intolerance." It begins by stating clearly that "antisemitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the university." But it has yet to qualify what it means by that and, in the end, it has few teeth. Even Charles Robinson, the UC's General Counsel, noted the statement was more "aspirational than prohibitory".

    What the regents of the University of California tried to do was set out the middle ground where reasonable dissent and acceptable protest over Israel could take place.

    Of course, that middle ground is not clear to many students. "Intersectionality" is the new buzzword among left-leaning campus-dwellers. It suggests that certain oppressive institutions are interconnected and should be jointly opposed. According to this logic, explicitly played out on Columbia's campus in New York City, if you are against the oppression of women by rape, you need to oppose the oppression of Palestinians by Israel.

    Sometimes, well-meaning outside actors have inadvertently made things worse. Jewish billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban made $50m available last year to help in the fight campus antisemitism, but criticism emerged that the initiative was too focused on radical-right Jewish groups and therefore fuelled antagonism between pro- and anti-Israel students.

    When Mr Saban pulled out of the joint project three months after it was announced, a Jewish activist involved in the movement to counter BDS in US universities told Ha'aretz: "He didn't like that Adelson was pushing towards funding groups that are only speaking in a right-wing echo chamber, and not towards pushing a message that would change hearts and minds."

    Other initiatives to counter anti-Zionism and antisemitism have proved less controversial. Aipac released an app, NGauge, to connect up pro-Israel activists. The ADL partnered with the Reut Institute to launch a fact-finding mission that would inform future strategies on BDS.

    No doubt such initiatives are needed to make sure the virus of antisemitism does not get out of control. However, while pure Jew-hate can sometimes be seen mixed in with anti-Israel activism, it is generally is limited to a few extreme corners of America's academic system.

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