Two recent news stories added a disturbing new layer to our fears about rising anti-Semitism.
The first was a comprehensive report, the National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students, issued by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. The report indicated that more than half – 54 percent – of 1,157 college students surveyed at 55 U.S. campuses have either experienced or witnessed anti-Semitic incidents. The online survey, conducted during March and April 2014, encompassed the six months prior to the summer conflict in Gaza that led to a worldwide increase in anti-Semitism. (Imagine if the same survey had been takenafter that conflict.)
The second news story concerned the release of the first-ever top 10 list of U.S. colleges that exhibited "the worst anti-Semitic activity" in 2014. The list was compiled by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a California think tank. If you assume the schools on the list are in the Deep South, the Bible Belt, or for that matter any place where bagel stores aren't ubiquitous, you're wrong.
Occupying the top spot is none other than Columbia University, home to a "highly active" SJP chapter, which brought BDS founder Omar Barghouti and disgraced anti-Semitic professor Steven Salaita to campus and boasts a roster of anti-Israel professors such as Rashid Khalidi and Joseph Massad, "who has been accused of harassing Jewish students on multiple occasions," according to the Horowitz Freedom Center. Columbia also held a number of events last year that piqued the center's interest, including Israeli Apartheid Week and a protest that featured signs that read "Call to Action: Stand With Gaza."
It should be noted that Columbia was not the only offender from New York State on the dishonor roll – Cornell came in second and Vassar 10th. There wasn't a single Bible Belt or Deep South school represented.
In the decades after the Holocaust we were hard-wired to think of anti-Semitism as the bastion of the ignorant, a societal ill that could be remedied with education. To some extent this is correct. We mandate a Holocaust Studies curriculum in all middle schools and high schools in New York State. Each year since 2004 I've sponsored a contest in my Assembly district that invites children in grades three through 12 to express what they've learned about the Holocaust through art, essays, and other creative media. A few years ago I spearheaded a widely recognized program with the Kings Bay Y, the Young Peace Builders, which brings together Jewish and Muslim teens to learn about each other's culture. What they learn, chiefly, is that their similarities far outweigh their cultural differences.
The rise of anti-Semitism on American college campuses is worrisome because it brings attention to something we'd rather not think about.
In 2013 I traveled to Latvia at the invitation of the organization World Without Nazism and witnessed a group of young men break through a police cordon and rip photos of Holocaust victims from an exhibit. As the son of Holocaust survivors, this was frightening to see. Last year a good friend and renowned Jewish leader in New York, Leonard Petlakh, was assaulted outside Barclay's Center in Brooklyn following an exhibition basketball game between an Israeli team and the Nets. This was also frightening, and a reminder that anti-Semitic violence is right in our own backyard.
College campuses, in theory, are not hospitable environs for fringe members of society. The people on campus are our classmates, our dorm-mates, our professors, educated people who are trained to think logically – but who in an uncomfortable number of cases manage to defy our expectations of logic by spewing hateful, dangerous ideas. This is a contradiction that should alarm us, especially when it's clearly on the rise despite decades of "never again."
I took Brooklyn College to task when its academic departments sponsored BDS events and was criticized for trying to stifle those who oppose Israel's policies. I stand by my actions. Brooklyn College is in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, with a large Jewish student body. Freedom of expression must be balanced by the freedom to feel safe on a college campus, unthreatened by who we are and what religion we happen to follow. The college-sanctioned presence of BDS compromised this latter freedom.
Globally, the failure by BDS leaders to offer proper condolences following the terrorist attacks in Paris proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that its dogma is not anti-Israel but anti-Jew. This is a masquerade we see widely among so-called educated, civilized people but let there be no mistake: we know anti-Semitism when we see it.
We can't sit quietly and allow anti-Semitism on American campuses to continue to fester and grow. The Trinity/Brandeis Center report states that the 54 percent statistic, while alarming enough, may actually be on the low side and could suggest an under-reporting of anti-Semitism through the normal campus channels.
"One reason might be a belief that the authorities are not sympathetic to such complaints; another perhaps might be fear of worrying parents and family; or that some students simply are unaware of the process for reporting such incidents," the report says.
Colleges need to be more than sympathetic to complaints about anti-Semitism, although for the schools on the top 10 list that would be a good start. They must keep the channels of communication open and send a clear message that expressions of hatred, whether subtle or obvious, will simply not be tolerated. They need to recognize how easily and frequently anti-Israel discourse deteriorates into something far more insidious.