The Plight of Jews on College Campuses
This is not the best of times for many — perhaps most — Jews on college campuses. Pro-Hamas, anti-Israel demonstrations and occasional vandalism have become commonplace, with more than a few explicitly calling for the extermination of Jews. Harvard’s graduate student union, backed by a majority of its members, issued a statement that demanded “the end of “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” A group of MIT students, the Coalition Against Apartheid (CAA), meanwhile, physically blocked Jewish students from attending class. The CAA “support[s] the liberation of all peoples, with a focus on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” Faculty similarly celebrate Islamic terrorism while condemning Israel for genocide and war crimes. This is not just from a nutty fringe. According to one study, one in five college students sympathizes with Hamas.
Jewish students can do little to turn the tide. Jewish billionaires can threaten to cease donations unless the school administration “does something,” but the campus apparatchiks are powerless. Ditto for firing professors who glorify Hamas brutality, nor can schools pull the plug on campus groups falsely condemning Israel for war crimes. Also forget about the federal government defunding of higher education unless universities crack down on hate speech.
What Jewish students and their sympathizers fail to grasp is that this antisemitic outpouring is not an aberration triggered by recent events in Gaza. Rather, it reflects the long and nearly invisible transformation of the academy, beginning in the late 1960s with the anti–Vietnam war protests and reaching maturity when the black civil right movement successfully advanced its racial justice agenda. Campus antisemitism is just the latest installment of a long story and will not be vanquished when the university’s president offers up a limp pro-Israel speech or Washington taxing school endowments.
Fundamental is how physical violence or its threat has become an integral part of campus life. Those who envision campus life as a serene setting where students and professor discuss big issues while experts wisely instruct novices on thermodynamics are out of touch with today’s reality. Yes, this “life of the mind” does occur, at least at some schools, but there is also a new arrival at the table: thuggish zealots who reject clever arguments and hard evidence by prioritizing the threat of force. This intimidation is seldom acknowledged openly, but rest assured: all university functionaries and professors can feel it.
Today’s campuses are vulnerable to intimidation. Universities are physically highly accessible, and protesting mobs will easily gain access to administrative buildings, classrooms, even professors’ offices. None is a “secure location” like the Pentagon. Nor are modern administrators and faculty recruited by virtue of their physical courage or prowess. Alas, intellectual brilliance and a knack for making convincing arguments count for naught when confronting wild-eyed ideological fanatics. Nobody in today’s universities rises to the top by demonstrating courage under fire.
Imagine if universities heavily recruited ex–Navy SEALs or professors who had undergone a week of Army Ranger training? Indeed, in the modern academy, those displaying “manly virtues” and smell of testosterone will seldom be hired (“toxic masculinity”). Long gone are the days when schools recruited the likes of five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower or hired veterans, many of whom had combat experience. Those intending to intimidating universities by making threats and throwing tantrums correctly see the university as a place run by wimps.
But the most important impetus toward intimidation is its record of success. Campus anti-war violence began the 1960s over the Vietnam War, but all the rioting was basically directed at ending the draft, not transforming higher education. Matters changed dramatically in 1969 at Cornell University, when armed black students took over Willard Straight Hall, the student union building, and forcibly evicted alums staying there. The student group, the Afro American Society, then presented a list of “non-negotiant” demands that included amnesty for their takeover and the creation of an Africana Studies Center.
This action bitterly divided the campus, but a few armed militants ultimately cowed an Ivy League school into submission. The impact at Cornell was far-reaching — everything from a new student judicial system to multiple programs to admit, then graduate impoverished blacks. As a Cornell faculty member, I personally witnessed terrified faculty acquiescing to whatever the militant blacks demanded.
The lessons from Cornell soon became the template for campus race relations: threaten trouble, especially physical violence, and opposition will collapse. The script was easy to follow, and at school after school, the litany of demands quickly became policy — black cultural centers, more black faculty, more black students admitted, autonomous black studies programs, more psychological counseling, separate graduation ceremonies, and on and on. Nor have the demands stopped.
When administrators caved to every demand decades ago, the impact extended far beyond race. Since no administrator was spending his own money, and reputations could be built by “keeping the peace,” no matter what the financial cost and damage to intellectual standards, universities experienced an onslaught of demands, which pushed already liberal institutions into bastions of left-wing ideology. Campus apparatchiki now resembled “ladies of easy virtue,” saying “yes” to every new grievance-focused department — Women’s Studies, Black Studies, even Queer Studies — while pressuring traditional departments to “diversify” that in practice pushed these department leftward. Radical students soon discovered that they could organize with all expenses paid, thanks to student government funding. Famous radicals like Angela Davis were paid huge speaker’s fees that in effect supported radical politics. Critically, radicals discovered that canceling their enemies was a painless way to control the campuses’ intellectual climate.
Ideas once judged bizarre, such as sex being socially defined, became the new orthodoxy. Chinese communist–style political indoctrination, making whites publicly confess their unearned “white privilege,” became standard. Professors, even in the hard sciences, now had to submit diversity statements on how their courses would overcome systemic white racism. Loopy airhead versions of “socialism” became the standard against which to judge caricatures of capitalism. Dorm counselors watched for displays of “hate,” such as an American flag, that could “trigger” vulnerable minorities. In sum, many schools edged ever closer to become schools of theology, whose mission was indoctrinating their novices in good and evil, and thousands of youngsters just wanting to survive drank the Kool-Aid.
Unfortunately, these indoctrinated youngsters are easy marks for Islamic attacks on Israel and Jews more generally. Jews are the perfect “bad” according to the university-invented theology. They are white, venerate book learning and high Western culture, excel economically, thrive in meritocracies and often against great odds, cherish family life, generally believe in G-d, and have built a first-world nation in a region notable for poverty and brutal violence. In a sense, “the Jew” embodies everything the modern left hates. If only Hebrews were dependent on government for handouts and lived dysfunctional lives, they might have caught a break.
Lastly, Jews have a deserved some reprove for not hitting back. Their survival skill set is to use brain power, not fists, and this proclivity makes them easy targets to intimidate. Jackie Mason once quipped that he had never seen tough Jews until he visited Israel, and when he saw a few, he assumed they were Mexicans.
Israel has learned to honor Machiavelli’s adage that it is better to be feared than loved. This lesson should be applied to campus life. The lessons of Gaza are relevant: when you attack Jews, they will hit back ten times as hard.
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